License to Censor: The use of media regulation to restrict press freedom - Pakistan

Population: 180,808,000
Press Freedom Status: Not Free
Licensing for print outlets: No
Licensing of journalists: No
Independent Regulatory Body(s): No


In the past decade, the broadcast landscape in Pakistan has changed considerably, with a dramatic expansion in private ownership of television stations and satellite broadcasting. While the government continues to control the only free terrestrial broadcast outlets with a national reach, several dozen private satellite television channels offer live domestic news coverage, commentary, and call-in talk shows, providing a range of information and opinion in English and several vernacular languages. These stations – which mostly broadcast from inside the country with a few operating from bases overseas – have played a key role, particularly over the past several years, in covering political turmoil and other events of national importance, starting with the unfolding judicial crisis in March 2007 that pitted an activist judiciary against then president Pervez Musharraf.147 More than 200 FM radio licenses have been approved, of which around 115 are operational; of these, over half provide news and information.148 Nevertheless, despite these openings, the overall media environment in Pakistan remains fraught with dangers. While violence against journalists is a major and well-publicized issue, outlets face additional pressures from both official and societal forces to self-censor or curb critical reporting, including intimidation from intelligence forces and the denial of advertising to certain outlets.

Media freedom is also constrained by the legal and regulatory framework, which despite promises has not yet been reformed by the new civilian government. A number of laws – including the constitution itself, harsh blasphemy laws, criminal defamation laws, and the colonial-era Official Secrets Act – allow for curbs on freedom of expression on subjects including the armed forces, the judiciary, the government, religion, and national security issues. However, most are rarely invoked to prosecute individual journalists or curb media freedom. In 2010, restrictions on online content increased following a May court decision to block the social networking site Facebook (it was lifted later in the month) and a June order for the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority to monitor websites; both actions were taken with the ostensible aim of blocking "blasphemous" content.149 Further development of internet regulations is currently under consideration.150

Laws Relating to the Regulatory Framework

Print media are regulated by four ordinances adopted in 2002, including the Press, Newspapers, News Agencies and Books Registration Ordinance and the Press Council of Pakistan Ordinance. According to the registration ordinance, all newspapers, periodicals, and other small-circulation publications such as pamphlets or newsletters, as well as news agencies and printing presses, must register with either the local or provincial authorities (including providing ownership and bank details in the case of newspapers) and provide copies of the publication to the relevant authorities; failure to do so can be punishable by a fine or a prison term of up to six months. Foreign ownership of print media is limited to not more than 25 percent of the total, and ownership, printing, or publication is also limited to those above the age of 18. Registration can be denied if the individual has been convicted of a criminal offense or of an offense involving "moral turpitude," if the title of the newspaper is similar to that of another paper, or if the outlet otherwise contravenes the ordinance. However, those who have been denied have an opportunity to appeal, and can also bring their case to the high court. There is no licensing mechanism or legal requirement for individuals to practice journalism.

The Press Council of Pakistan Ordinance established a statutory press council with the broad mandate to maintain professional standards and media independence in the print sector. The council's role is also to uphold an appended Ethical Code of Practice through hearing complaints. In terms of the adjudication of complaints, the council is empowered to hold hearings and call witnesses, and to recommend various forms of punitive actions against an offending individual or news outlet, including reprimands, apologies, or requesting that the publication be suspended or withdrawn. Complaints brought to the council cannot be simultaneously pursued through the court system. It was envisaged that the council be an independent entity, funded both by a government grant as well as by registration fees collected from media outlets. Its 19 members (appointed to serve three-year terms) would be a mix of those nominated from different sectors of the print media as well as sectors of civil society (educators, lawyers, human rights advocates, and representatives of women's groups) and the government; however, its chair would be nominated by Pakistan's president. The language of the code has been critiqued by freedom of expression watchdog Article 19 as being too imprecise and ambiguous. The group also raised concerns regarding the provisions for the council's independence in terms of membership, appointments, and financing, as well as noting that penalties such as suspension were overly harsh.151 Despite numerous changes in government since 2002, these ordinances remain in force.

The primary body responsible for regulating broadcast media is the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), which was established by an ordinance issued by the military government headed by President Pervez Musharraf in 2002. PEMRA is responsible for issuing broadcast licenses for both radio and television outlets; video content relayed over mobile phones and the internet is also covered under its mandate. Although PEMRA was originally intended to be a separate body under supervision of the cabinet, it was transferred to fall under the purview of the Information Ministry, thus weakening its independence from government.152 In June 2007, amendments to the 2002 ordinance gave authorities broad powers to revoke licenses, suspend broadcasts, confiscate equipment, and seal the premises of media outlets. Although the outcry over the amendments prompted Musharraf to promise to withdraw them on the condition that the media develop a code of conduct, they remained in force. In late 2007, ordinances passed as part of the November 3 imposition of martial law barred the media from publishing or broadcasting "anything which defames or brings into ridicule the head of state, or members of the armed forces, or executive, legislative or judicial organs of the state," as well as any broadcasts deemed to be "false or baseless." Government officials were empowered to suspend publication of a newspaper or to confiscate broadcast equipment for up to 30 days. Owners of outlets considered to be in breach of the ordinances could face jail terms of up to three years, fines of up to 10 million rupees ($165,000), and cancellation of their broadcaster's license. Cable operators also faced potential fines and jail terms for noncompliance. Television networks were taken off the air and required to sign a 14-page code of conduct put forth by PEMRA – in which they agreed to discontinue specific types of programming, such as election-related content, talk shows, and live phone-in segments – in order to resume broadcasting.153

The new civilian government initially promised to reform the ordinances as part of a more open media policy, and in April 2008 then information minister Sherry Rehman (a former journalist) introduced legislation to reform restrictive aspects of the PEMRA regulations, including the ban on live broadcasts and critical news, and punishments for defamation. However, this promise was not adhered to, and Rehman herself resigned in March 2009 in protest over government attempts to control unfavorable coverage by two popular television stations.154 By October 2009, the National Assembly's Standing Committee on Information had unanimously approved the proposed PEMRA (Amendment) Bill, which was remarkably similar to the 2007 ordinances.155 The bill would allow significant restrictions on media, including a ban on live coverage of events that the government did not want to be broadcast, such as footage related to terrorist attacks or statements of extremist groups; anything prejudicial to the ideology of Pakistan or to the security of the state; or anything considered defamatory to the president, armed forces, or executive, legislative, or judicial branches of government. Violators would face steep fines or jail terms of up to three years.156 In August 2010, in the upper house of parliament, the Senate Standing Committee on Information and Broadcasting supported the adoption of a media code of conduct, including a ban on graphic footage related to terrorism or the airing of any statements put out by extremist groups; however, an additional clause warned against broadcasting "anything defamatory against the organs of the state."157 Local rights groups and some journalists have called the proposed legislation overly broad and restrictive.158 However, the proposals – which in order to become law would have to be approved by both houses of parliament and then signed by the president – have not yet been put to a vote in either the National Assembly or the Senate. Meanwhile, the repressive June 2007 amendments to PEMRA were formally nullified with parliament's passage of the 18th amendment to the constitution in April 2010. Other PEMRA regulations remain in place, including a code of conduct and the 2009 PEMRA rules.

Although in several instances the focus of proposed legislation has been to regulate coverage of terrorism (including the attacks themselves as well as the ideology behind them), "national security" issues have tended to be defined broadly, and in the instances noted above the bills proposed have included clauses that regulate any coverage that is perceived as critical of the government or other organs of the state. A similar impetus appears to be behind the July 2010 announcement of the resuscitation of an additional body, the Media Coordination Committee on Defence Planning. The purpose of the body was ostensibly "to define guidelines for electronic and print media covering terrorist incidents and national security issues."159 Also in July, the Punjab Provincial Assembly passed a nonbinding resolution that criticized journalists and media groups for promoting "propaganda" and challenging democracy and the rule of law, and called on the government to appoint a committee to address its concerns. However, the resolution was withdrawn within a few days after protests by journalists and other media organizations. Finally, a proposed Anti-Terrorism (Amendment) Bill 2010 tabled in the Senate in July could provide for the seizure or sanction of FM radio stations that promote terrorism.160

Impact of Regulation on Media Freedom

Statutory regulatory bodies are either nonfunctioning or are not independent. Although a statutory Press Council is provided for in law, it has not been implemented and the council remains nonfunctional. Some of the relevant groups have nominated members, but the process has not been completed and two chairmen appointed by the government served short terms before leaving their posts.161 In October 2009, the information minister noted that the ministry was under increased pressure to enforce broadcasting laws, and that it was considering establishing provincial councils to address complaints directed at the media by civil society. Councils would have five members who would be private citizens appointed by the federal government. Another committee composed of eminent journalists and legal experts would work on drafting a media code of conduct.162 However, this idea of provincial statutory councils has not yet been implemented. Although PEMRA was supposed to be an independent body with a majority of board members representing civil society, this has not been the case, and currently a majority of the 13 board members are government officials, while even the 5 representatives from civil society are nominated by the federal government.163 Thus in practice the membership and appointments process severely compromises its independence. The PEMRA "council of complaints" mechanism has been in operation for a number of years and currently has seven branches in each provincial capital. Each council is composed of experts in media or legal issues, and no PEMRA officials or other individual affiliated with the government sits on the council, thus ensuring that they have some measure of independence.164

Denial of registration for print media is not used to restrict print outlets from publishing, although those that do not secure the required declaration are in violation of the regulations. In terms of the broadcast licensing process, standard procedure is that before issuing a license, PEMRA will evaluate a number of factors, including financial (past record and credibility, financial sustainability of the applicant, share of Pakistanis in ownership rights, and the ability of the applicant to compete in the market) as well as technical (current availability of technology as well as chances of technical advancement and introduction of new technologies). This process is somewhat opaque and allows PEMRA to make arbitrary decisions regarding licensing. In addition, the high cost of licenses favors those applicants with greater means, as they are able to use their assets as well as other inducements to secure their license. There are some restrictions on content. Under the PEMRA Act, a local broadcaster must seek prior permission before airing foreign content, can broadcast foreign content for only 10 percent of its total airtime, and should also inform PEMRA about the nature of content before receiving clearance.165 Initially, private radio stations were not allowed to broadcast news, but these rules have been relaxed and currently a number of the stations in operation do broadcast both news and current affairs programs; some also broadcast news content from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).166 Provisions that 10 percent of airtime on private channels be dedicated toward public interest broadcasting, as well as provisions regarding local language content and fair coverage during elections, are routinely ignored in practice.

PEMRA has issued licenses to approximately 200 FM radio stations and 100 television channels – of which roughly 115 and 80, respectively, are operational – thus dramatically opening up the broadcast space.167 There is no stated provision in the licensing process for community radio, and thus far the government has given licenses only to commercial companies and mass communication departments of universities to set up FM stations.168 Television is similarly dominated by commercial privately owned companies. In the wake of amendments allowing cross-ownership in 2007, a number of television stations that initially operated from abroad moved their operations to within Pakistan.169 In general, there have been few cases of denial of licenses on politicized grounds. The Dawn media group faced difficulties and delays in securing a television license in 2006 and 2007 – a decision that the chief executive officer termed as being part of an overall pattern of harassment and intimidation in retaliation for the newspaper's coverage of several sensitive topics; the license was finally awarded in June 2007. According to Article 19, in 2007 Aaj TV was served notice that its license was to be revoked, although this was later withdrawn. There have also been allegations that broadcast licenses have in the past not been awarded to those with known antigovernment leanings, although no cases have been reported in the past several years. However, authorities do remain more sensitive to separatist issues. Efforts to establish both Baluchi-oriented TV and newspapers have been curbed with arrests and shutdowns, according to the Asia Media Barometer report on Pakistan.170 PEMRA also maintains responsibility for shutting down stations that operate illegally as well as for withdrawing licenses from transmitters that relay illegal content or channels; hundreds of such stations operating, mostly in the northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, had been closed as of September 2010.171

Since coming to power in early 2008, the new civilian government has continued the trend of sporadically interfering with broadcasting by temporarily disrupting or pulling off the air certain television stations or programs. Most of the incidents have occurred during periods of political infighting or tension, either between different political parties or during clashes between the executive and the judiciary. For example, during the March 2009 demonstrations demanding the reinstatement of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, authorities temporarily shut down the cable service of Geo TV and Aaj Television in several cities around the country – a development that prompted the resignation of then information minister Rehman in protest.172 A number of television stations were also blocked for several hours in the wake of a terrorist attack on the Army headquarters in October 2009. Coverage seen as portraying the government, and particularly President Asif Ali Zardari, in a bad light has also been blocked. In August 2010, news outlets covering the story of a protestor who had hurled a shoe at the president during a political rally in the United Kingdom had their broadcasts blocked on the orders of the government, and when cable operators refused to stop the broadcasts, their facilities were attacked by progovernment and party activists.173 Positively, after the stations made an emergency appeal to the judiciary, the Lahore High Court and later the Supreme Court issued orders that the stations be immediately reopened.174 In April 2011, the Jang media group, which owns Geo TV, claimed that PEMRA ordered it to stop transmitting its sports channel, and then later in the month shut down the group's music television channel after it began to televise cricket matches on that channel instead. While the government claimed that the channel was violating the terms of its license, the Jang group claimed that the actions were part of a larger pattern of harassment aimed at denting the group's financial viability.175

The international dimension to Pakistan's media market has come to the forefront several times, with Pakistani authorities attempting to pressure foreign governments to exert pressure on privately owned satellite channels aimed at the Pakistani market. Currently, two of the major television channels, Geo and ARY, broadcast via satellite from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where Dubai's Media City hosts a number of internationally focused channels. In June 2008, pressure from the UAE host government was brought to bear on Geo, when it told Geo to halt broadcasts of two popular talk shows or face removal from their Media City premises. In November 2009, Geo alleged that following a phone call from the Pakistani government, UAE authorities prevented a popular program from being broadcast from the station's Dubai studios.176 An official ban on cable operators relaying India-based news channels remains in force, and authorities do attempt to enforce these laws. In May 2011, in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden, PEMRA asked nine foreign channels to stop their unauthorized illegal uplinking of live news coverage, by which local news is relayed to foreign stations via satellite, and then suspended the uplinking rights of these channels, arguing that they were required to apply for permission to cover specific events on a temporary basis.177

PEMRA has also targeted BBC Pakistan, a local service that is a key source of relatively unbiased news in Pakistan. An earlier ban on BBC Pakistan imposed under the November 2007 state of emergency was overturned in May 2008 by an order of the Sindh High Court.178 In October 2009, PEMRA ordered the halt of BBC broadcasts on half of the FM radio stations that had agreements with the BBC to carry their content, citing the failure of the stations concerned to submit the proper documents of agreement.179 Again in March 2010, PEMRA ordered 24 local radio stations – mostly those located in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province – to stop broadcasting BBC news bulletins on the basis that they did not have permission from PEMRA to do so. However, the BBC maintained that it believed that its local affiliates had submitted the required paperwork to PEMRA when the issue first arose in late 2009, and that it intended to challenge the ban in court.180 PEMRA and other ministries issued contradictory advice and said they were acting on government orders; however, some sources have alleged that the army was behind the ban, as military officials were unhappy about the BBC's coverage of army operations against the militants, and human rights violations and displacement that took place in the context of these operations.181 In May, stations were requested to cut their coverage to 3 BBC broadcasts daily, from 11.

In addition to overt interference with broadcasts, PEMRA has also attempted to impose guidelines or restrictions on certain types of coverage, but with limited effectiveness. For example, prior to and during the crucial February 2008 elections, which returned a civilian government to power, PEMRA issued directives intended to limit election coverage, but these were routinely ignored by television broadcasters, who provided real-time unconfirmed election results that pointed to an overwhelming win for an opposition coalition. Although television networks regularly flouted the November 2007 PEMRA guidelines, on dozens of occasions in 2008 and 2009 the Information Ministry served legal notices to broadcasters accusing them of violating the code of conduct. Specific channels and operators also receive directives, phone calls, or guidance from state governments and other authorities regarding coverage. For example, in December 2009, the chief justice of the Supreme Court issued a directive to media outlets (particularly talk shows broadcast on private television channels) to refrain from discussing a controversial case before the court on amnesties for top politicians.182 The banning orders also come from a variety of sources. The PEMRA code of conduct contains several restrictions for broadcasters, including provisions that programs may not be aired if they have derogatory remarks about any religion, are likely to incite violence, are disrespectful to elders, and are directed against the sanctity of home and family. The code of conduct also has many restrictions regarding advertising. It states that advertising must not be "offensive to morality, decency and religious sects of the people of Pakistan," as well as avoiding the promotion of violence and distortion of historical facts.183

Efforts to strengthen self-regulation as a viable alternative for the Pakistani media sector have been ongoing for many years, but it has proved difficult for the numerous stakeholder groups in the industry to reach agreement with various governments, particularly over such issues as the formulation of an effective complaints commission. Many media houses have internal ethics codes and/or advisory boards, and efforts to draft voluntary industry-wide codes date back to the 1970s. In August 2008, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) drafted a code of ethics that included a system of self-regulation that "promotes editorial independence and high standards of accuracy, reliability, and quality in media"; the draft was then circulated to journalists, editors, and media owners for comment. The code envisioned enforcement via a complaints commission mechanism that would cover both print and broadcast media, but movement on putting such a body into practice has stalled.184 One primary concern is that groups representing media owners and working journalists find it difficult to agree on the specific aspects of self-regulation.

Following the proposed parliamentary legislation, in November 2009, eight prominent broadcast media houses banded together to draft a voluntary code of conduct for depictions of violence. The code compels journalists to refrain from showing graphic violence (including badly injured people) and talking to emotionally distraught victims. It also allows news managers to use a time-delay mechanism in live transmissions so questionable content can be edited out.185 Another draft code of ethics, published by the Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA) in April 2009, specifically defines how to cover terrorist incidents and matters related to national security. In general, these efforts suggest that the media is reactive rather than proactive with regard to self-regulation. In addition, insufficient efforts have been made toward establishing an industry-wide ombudsman or educating the public that they have a right to complain about media coverage or content.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The regulatory framework for print media, while not adhering to international standards in some respects, has not been used as a primary tool to control print media content, apart from the period just after the imposition of emergency powers in late 2007. Likewise, the fact that the proposed statutory press council remains nonfunctional suggests that print media in Pakistan do not face significant restrictions in terms of regulation. However, the situation for broadcast media is markedly different. The main regulatory body, PEMRA, is effectively under government control and has a legal mandate to restrict certain types of content, which are broadly defined. While the licensing process itself is not used extensively as a tool of control, it remains somewhat closed, and a more liberal policy on establishment of community radio would broaden the media landscape considerably. Shutdowns of television channels, particularly during times of political tension, are used selectively to block the media from showing live coverage of key events and sensitive issues. The attempts to regulate content on radio – particularly the recent attempts to block BBC Pakistan broadcasts – also hint at official unease with the spread of independent news and information. The fact that the shutdowns, as well as PEMRA rulings, are subject to reactive decisions and pressure from various quarters – including political parties, the executive branch, and the military and intelligence services – leads to an unstable situation for broadcast media as they try to constantly negotiate the boundaries of their coverage. Reinforcing the independence and autonomy of the regulator, as well as strengthening complaints councils and self-regulatory mechanisms, would serve to enhance the regulatory framework in Pakistan. Finally, the regulatory framework thus far does not make adequate provision for online media, and currently a number of issues concerning the internet and news websites are being handled on an ad hoc basis through the courts. Establishing a clear procedure for dealing with complaints regarding online content, in line with best international practice, should be a priority.

147 Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF), "Pakistan Media Comes of Age Despite Rising Violence," May 2007, accessed at:

148 Asian Media Barometer (AMB) Pakistan 2009, p.6, accessed at:…

149 Reporters Without Borders, "Authorities step up surveillance of online content," 30 June 2010, accessed at:

150 Association for Progressive Communications, "Confidential Pakistani document reveals plans for stricter control of the internet and freedom of expression," 23 June 2010, accessed at:…

151 Article 19, "Memorandum on Press Council of Pakistan Ordinance, 2002, and Press, Newspapers, News Agencies and Books Registration Ordinance, 2002, and Defamation Ordinance 2002," September 2002, p.7-11, accessed at:

152 Article 19, "Pakistan: 20th Anniversary," 2010, accessed at:

153 PPF Annual Report 2009, p.1, accessed at:…

154 Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), "Attacks on the Press 2009: Pakistan," 16 February 2010, accessed at:

155 PPF, "National Assembly Standing Committee recommends curb on electronic media coverage," 3 November 2009, accessed at:

156 CPJ, "Media rules could bring back the bad old days in Pakistan," 30 October 2009, accessed at:…

157 Council on Foreign Relations, "Daily Star: Pakistani Media Regulation Borders on Censorship," 11 August 2010, accessed at:

158 Declan Walsh, "Pakistan proposes law to curb the media", The Guardian, 1 July 2010, accessed at:

159 Hasan Khan, "Pakistani journalists vow to resist media regulation," 7 July 2010, accessed at:… committee, which had been formed in 1971 in order to "counter enemy propaganda," had last met in 2008 shortly before the resignation of then President Musharraf. See also PPF, "Military-Civil media panel revisits its mandate," 2 July 2010, accessed at:…

160 "Govt looks to toughen up with new anti-terror law," The Express Tribune, 28 July 2010, accessed at:…

161 Pakistan Media Watch, "Is it time for Press Council?," 29 June 2010, accessed at:

162 PPF, "National Assembly Standing Committee recommends curb on electronic media coverage," 3 November 2009, accessed at:

163 AMB, p.45.

164 PEMRA Council of Complaints,

165 PPF, "Twenty-four FM radio stations prevented from broadcasting BBC news," 3 May 2010, accessed at:

166 PPF, "FM Radio Broadcasting in Pakistan," 2009, p.19, accessed at:…

167 PPF, "Pakistan Media Comes of Age." See also AMB 2009, p.28.

168 PPF, "FM Radio Broadcasting," accessed at:…

169 Muhammad Aftab Alam, "Broadcast Regulation in Pakistan: The Need for an Enabling Regulatory Regime," 2010, accessed at:

170 AMB, p.28.

171 PEMRA, "PEMRA Resolves to Uphold Rule of Law in Media," 30 September 2010, accessed at:

172 CPJ, "Government orders cable carriers to drop independent news broadcasters, some services restored," 16 March 2009, accessed at:…

173 PPF, "Media face retaliation over critical coverage of president's European visit," 9 August 2010, accessed at:

174 A. Khokar, "TV Channels Reopening: Supreme Court fails to apprehend the Culprit-PEMRA," 13 August 2010, accessed at:…

175 PPF, "Television network claims sports channel targeted by media regulatory authority," 12 April 2011, accessed at: PPF, "Private TV station's broadcasts suspended by media regulatory authority," 14 April 2011, accessed at:

176 PPF, "Pakistani government pressures UAE to block television program," 25 November 2009, accessed at:

177 PPF, "Media regulatory authority warns foreign channels over unauthorized satellite uplinking," 12 May 2011, accessed at:

178 BBC, "BBC Urdu bulletins return to Pakistan FM stations after six-month ban," 5 May 2008, accessed at:…

179 PPF, "Media regulatory authority orders FM radio stations to stop broadcasting BBC news bulletins," 4 November 2009, accessed at:

180 PPF, "Twenty-four FM radio stations prevented from broadcasting BBC news," 3 May 2010, accessed at: Afnan Khan, "BBC to move court against ban on bulletins," June 7, 2010, accessed at:…

181 Asian Human Rights Commission, "BBC Pakistan news is censored by the Pakistani authorities, on the instructions of the Army," 4 June 2010, accessed at:

182 PPF, "Chief justice directs media not to comment on controversial amnesty ordinance," 14 December 2009, accessed at:

183 "Code of Conduct for Media Broadcasters/Cable TV Operators," accessed at:

184 AMB, p.58.

185 Hasan Khan, "Pakistani journalists vow to resist media regulation," Central Asia Online, 7 July 2010, accessed at:…

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