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Newly-elected government to revoke draconian amendments to electronic media ordinance, expand access to information

(PPF/IFEX) - The following is a PPF press release:

Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) Welcomes Announcement of Newly Elected Government to Revoke PEMRA Amendments and to Expand Scope of Access to Information Laws

Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) welcomes the announcements made by the newly elected Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr. Yousuf Raza Gilani, and the Minster of Information, Ms. Sherry Rehman, of the government's intention to revoke the draconian amendments made to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Ordinance 2007 after the imposition of a state of emergency on 3 November 2007. PPF also welcomes the intention of the new government to expand the scope of access to information and its commitment to take effective steps to improve the safety of journalists.

The state of media freedoms in Pakistan deteriorated sharply following the suspension of the country's Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry on 9 March 2007.

The government of Pakistan had placed sweeping legal restrictions on media freedoms by amending laws relating to the electronic as well as the print media. These restrictions include giving government officials the authority to take unilateral action against media organisations. Under the amendments, government officials can suspend publication of a newspaper for up to thirty days and have the authority to confiscate the equipment of radio and television channels and to seal their premises for up to thirty days. Owners and operators of radio and television channels who violate the amended electronic media laws can be punished by up to three years in jail and a fine of 10 million rupees (approx. US$164,000) or both. Cable operators found to be in violation of the ordinance can be punished by a jail term of one year and a fine of five million rupees (approx. US$82,000) or both.

Immediately after the imposition of the state of emergency, the government machinery acted aggressively to curb freedom of expression in the country. Some of these actions include: suspension of broadcasts of all international and national private television news channels, as well as most national private sports and entertainment channels. Cable operators were directed to only distribute entertainment channels approved by the authorities. A large number of journalists covering or protesting against the imposition of the state of emergency were attacked, arrested and detained by law enforcement agencies.

It is thus a matter of great relief that the new government has committed itself to revoking the amendments to the PEMRA ordinance. However, even after the revocation of the amendments, the PEMRA law will continue to place unacceptable restrictions to freedom of expression. We urge the government to kindly initiate a process of review of the PEMRA laws with a view to making the Authority an independent regulatory mechanism that focuses its energies on promoting and developing the electronic media rather than implementing the whims of those in authority.

PPF would like to point out the absence of community radio stations in Pakistan. It is a matter of great regret that Pakistan is the only country in South Asia without a clearly defined policy to promote the development of community radio in the country. Although the existing legislation gives PEMRA the authority to issue licences for community radio stations, so far the government has not granted permission to any community radio stations.

All the major publications as well as television stations are based in the large metropolitan cities of Pakistan and the rural population, which comprise almost two thirds of the population, are mere consumers of information tailored towards urban audiences. Community radio stations can provide rural communities with the capacity to produce programmes that represent their interests and concerns. Community radio has the capacity to promote community and national dialogue and discussion, which can lead to increased tolerance within the society.

The denial of broadcasting rights to communities has led to the development of militant and destructive pirate radio stations in some parts of the country.

The prospects, potentials and challenges of community radio need to be seriously discussed so that a policy can be formulated that addresses genuine concerns, while at the same time promotes the rapid development of community radio in the country. We therefore urge the government to move swiftly in initiating dialogue with all stakeholders with a view to formulating policies that encourage the development of the community radio sector in Pakistan.

As far as the law on access to information is concerned, the record of previous governments in providing access to information has been very poor. The law itself has many flaws that exempt government from providing information on a wide range of subjects. Even information that authorities are obligated to provide under this inadequate law is rarely provided to the public.

The access to information law needs to be fundamentally reformed after a process of consultation with different stakeholders, including journalists, media and civil society organisations. Laws, such as the Official Secrets Act that promote the culture of secrecy need to be repealed or drastically reformed.

As an interim measure, those at the highest levels of government should declare and ensure that information requested under the ordinance is provided promptly and fully. For this to happen, the government would need to create awareness among its officials and devote necessary resources to handle access to information requests promptly.

We also urge the government to expand the scope of the access to information laws relating to provincial governments, which do not have any such laws.

The recent judicial and governance crisis in Pakistan highlighted yet again that the country is ill served, especially in times of crisis, by the long-standing state policy of restricting the media. We hope the government will take effective and timely steps to change the mindset of state functionaries towards freedom of expression and access to information, which is essential for an informed and empowered citizenry.

Updates the PEMRA ordinance amendments case:

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