Islamabad: The proposed anti-press laws ordinance, which notched one casualty of a civil servant, has several angles that shroud in mystery. As the government tries to brush aside the matter for the time being, the actual hands behind its formation remain to be unearthed.

On September 10 the news surfaced that the government was proposing the Pakistan Print Media Regulatory Authority (PPMRA) Ordinance 2017. However, the government distanced itself from it after it started receiving the criticism.

During Truth Tracker’s background discussion with some senior officials of the Ministry of information and other stakeholders including Press Council of Pakistan (PCP) pointed finger at other players who were actually running the show until the cover was blown up.

The proposed PPMRA was supposed to regulate the print media and introduce rigorous measures with yearly renewals of for publishers for fresh licenses to bring out newspapers and periodicals besides giving authorities the right to cancel a newspaper’s declaration, if required.

The draft also aimed at allowing raids on printing presses, imposing harsher penalties including imprisonment for violating the rules and regulations.

According to the draft, the PPMRA would have “powers to investigate and seek any specific information from any person, which the authority may deem useful in order to enable it to determine and dispose the matter”. Finally, the draft has also suggested the formation of an “ethical code of practice for newspapers, news agencies, editors, journalists and publishers”.

The publication of news a day ahead of its discussion in the Press Council of Pakistan (PCP), the print media watchdog, created serious reservations in different segments of society especially journalistic terming it implementation of “draconian laws”.

Immediately, the government distanced itself from the ordinance and the Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Marriyum Aurangzeb, on September 19 announced in a presser that after an inquiry the director general of Internal Publicity in the ministry, Nasir Jamal was found guilty. She told media Jamal was acting on his own on her behalf without taking top management in the loop.

One of the officials of the ministry, not supposed to talk to media, said, “It was the idea of both the ministry and PCP, specifically chairperson Salahuddin Mengal but the correspondence was kept low profile to avert any media outrage.”

The PCP, although established in 2002 under an ordinance, became actually functional in 2012 after it inducted representatives from journalists associations and still struggles to implement its code of conduct in letter and spirit. PCP’s progress to uphold the ethics of journalism has been patchy.

In March when the proposed draft was presented to the minister, she stopped the PCP officials in the middle, directing them to work it out further, said the source. “If there was something wrong (including the measures to muzzle the press) then she must have removed those clauses from the ordinance,” he further added.

Another official stated that [Jamal] a PID official was indicted in the case because the letter had his name, asking, “but why an officer of a middle tier would float such a document to muzzle press on his own defies logic.”

On July 26, a letter from assistant director of the ministry (who was later suspended) addressed the PCP chief to “enrich and improve” the Pakistan Print Media Regulatory Authority (PPMRA).

Similarly, in reply on August 17, the PCP chief stated that the said draft had been prepared also distributed among PCP members for comments thus confirming the correspondence between both offices about the presence of such draft.

Ministry’s secretary Ahmad Nawaz Sukhera refused to comment on the issue while Aurangzeb told the Truth Tracker, “the government has nothing to do with any law that curbs freedom of speech.” Besides she added that usually inquiries and fact-finding reports took time but the current one was fast-tracked. She also added that the ministry believed in facilitating media industry and for the access to information law was being passed by parliament.

In August, PCP chief Mengal, in one of the interactions with Truth Tracker, also expressed the desire of evolving the PCP into a Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority-like “proactive body where rules are implemented and violators are punished.” He also lamented that declaration of not a single newspaper had been cancelled for violation of PCP code of conduct.

Commenting about the situation he also refused to have any role in formation of such ordinance and instead stated journalistic bodies had not yet shared their comments about the law so there was no point of implementing such ‘anti-press’ law.

The PCP in its 15th general meeting on September 11 categorically and unanimously disapproved the proposed PPMRA 2017 ordinance.

Khursheed Tanveer, a member of PCP said the proposal of anti-press law did not happen all of a sudden. “Definitely the ministry knew about the law while the establishment also wanted to rope in print media with those draconian laws.”

About the government’s stance he said he was not satisfied with the response. “How it possible is that such important document was not in knowledge of top officials of the ministry,” he said, adding it meant either they were all hand in gloves or all were incompetent enough to be oblivious of such development.

Another member of PCP who did not wish to be named also ruled out the formation of the draft the act of a single mid-level officer. “This needs to be probed properly and all those behind this action should be brought to justice,” the member stated.

A senior officer of the ministry also hinted that soon a complete inquiry into the issue would be commissioned to get to the bottom of the whole issue.

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