The Pakistan government has decided to impose fresh curbs on the country's independent broadcast media. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), which provides licenses to the channels and is also empowered to revoke them, has issued harsh warnings to the media houses, enjoining them to refrain from giving air time to opposition leaders of the troubled Balochistan province.
The Baloch leaders have vocally criticized Pakistan's powerful military for grave violations in the country's largest province of Balochistan. They have blamed the intelligence agencies linked with the army for subjecting hundreds of political activists to disappearance, torture and death. The opposition leaders' stance is backed by international human rights groups like the Human Rights Watch and the Amnesty International. They have also been demanding the release of hundreds of political opponent s who have gone "missing" since the dictatorial regime of General Pervez Musharraf. The disappearances continue even after Musharraf's exit and the restoration of democracy.
According to The News, the PEMRA says programs that feature Baloch opposition leaders, "not only amount to sedition but are also against explicit provisions of Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority... failure to refrain from airing such programmes or talk shows detrimental to Pakistan's existence would be met by the Authority by invoking its law."
Recent restrictions have been imposed in the wake of a hearing of U.S. Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee on Oversight and Investigations on the conflict-ridden province of Balochistan. The hearing condemned the Pakistani government's atrocities against its own people in and supported the native Baloch people's right to self-determination to get rid of the abusive regime. The hearing opened floodgates of criticism on Islamabad's policies in Balochistan while some other opposition leaders say they want to create an independent homeland for the Baloch.
Islamabad has now decided to suppress the voice of the Baloch leaders who seek independence by dictating the channels not to air their point of view.
The PEMRA is often manipulated by the army as a tool to reprimand news channels that encourage such objective and fair reporting which hurts the interests of the powerful elite. Founded a decade ago by General Musharraf, the PEMRA was once seen as a remarkable facilitator of liberalization of the private news industry. Before the openness of broadcast media, Pakistanis had access to only one state-controlled Pakistan Television (PTV). The liberalization in 2002 opened doors for a fearless and often aggressive world of broadcast journalism. The fledgling industry gradually transformed into such a powerful agent of democratic change that, in 2002, it eventually culminated into the ouster of its architect General Musharraf.
As time passed, PEMRA turned into an authoritarian body and began blackmailing the free press under the pretext of the "national interest". In Pakistan, the so-called "national interest' is not defined by democratic leaders throughout parliamentary consensus. Instead, the military generals, who have staged three coups since the creation of the country in 1947, interpret the 'national interest' aiming to suppress political dissent and criticism.
PEMRA's pro-military slant has encouraged some rightist media outlets to promote Islamic fundamentalism, intolerance, intrusion into people's privacy and endorsement of a culture of moral policing. On the other hand, channels with a more professional approach face cancellation of their licenses or heavy penalty if they air reports or talk-shows that directly criticize certain invulnerable centers of power such as the military.
Today, PEMRA has shrunk into a body that jeopardizes the freedom of expression in Pakistan.
The Express Tribune quote the PEMRA general manager, Fakhruddin Mughal, defending the fresh instructions despite disagreeing with the analogy of the fresh advice with the censorship Pakistan witnessed during the dictatorships of General Ziaul Haq and General Pervez Musharraf.
"These programmes look like they were recorded in Washington or Delhi and the anchor persons are some foreign agents... The views... were not opinions rather they were abuses for our state and this behaviour of TV channels could not be tolerated."
Ironically, the PEMRA does not issue similar warnings to channels that promote radical Islam, jihad, religious sectarianism and hatred toward religious minorities.
Journalists in Pakistan look at the government's fresh moves as a method to restrict the freedom of the expression and force them to adhere to an editorial policy that favors the government interests.
The executive of a private TV channel, who was quoted by the Express Tribune, termed the official curbs as "arm-twisting tactics" which were intended to "bully the media."
"They [the government] must realise that people must know all shades of opinion... "This is not the time of press advices and regulatory bodies having their will imposed on the private media. Pemra is not the sole custodian of national interest. Let the people watch and decide what is in favour of the country and what is not."
Besides censoring private news channels, Pakistan also imposes significant censorship on online publications such as blogs and web-based newspapers in Balochistan.
Unlike television censorship, the task to curtail internet freedom is performed by another body called the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA).
According to the BBC Urdu Service, the PTA has blocked around 4000 websites, mostly those run by the Baloch political opposition. The PTA, just like the PEMRA, defends blocking the websites by applying the vague term of "anti-Pakistan" which is often used to settle scores against political rivals.
In 2010, the authorities blocked the Baloch Hal, an online English language newspaper that exclusively focuses on Balochistan. The Freedom House, in its Freedom on the Net 2011 report, said, "the authorities have cited Section 99 of the penal code, which allows the government to restrict information that might be prejudicial to the national interest. On the contrary, Marcus Michaelse, in his study New Media vs. Old Politics, described The Baloch Hal as "an excellent example of local and/or regional reporting through the internet."
"Run by a very small editorial team the website provides information and analysis on Pakistan's probably most underreported province. However, access to the website has been blocked due to the authorities' apparent sensitivity concerning information on the conflict situation in Baluchistan," he observed.
In another recent controversial move, Dawn.com, the online edition of the country's most reputed English language publication, deleted the interview of one of the witnesses who had testified at the Congressional hearing on February 8. Although the interview remained online for a few hours, it was eventually removed from the site because of its allegedly harsh contents critical of the Pakistani army. Likewise, activists belonging to the opposition parties also complain that even professional editors trash their online comments which bitterly criticize the policies of the army.
Ironically, the editor of Dawn newspaper is a brother of the army's spokesman while another influential member of the family that runs the paper is Pakistan's ambassador to the United Nations. Such overlap of interests is believed to be another reason for frequent compromise of editorial policy at certain media houses.
Increasing censorship in Pakistan is becoming a source of constant concern in a country that is transitioning from dictatorship to democracy and conservatism to modernity. The future of a stable and democratic Pakistan largely hinges upon a free and fair press. Ranked as the world's deadliest place for reporters for the past two consecutive years, the government's new restrictions will further convert Pakistan into a country that remains hostile to the freedom of expression.