Besides condemning the restrictions as impossibly vague, some foes of censorship see the powerful hand of Pakistan’s military behind them. Any ban on purported anti-state news would extend to coverage of the secessionist movement in Baluchistan, a province where the army and internal intelligence agencies are accused of extrajudicial killings of nationalists.
Last week the interior minister, Rehman Malik, asked cable news channels to stop booking Baluch separatist leaders on talk shows, saying the rebels were spreading propaganda about forced disappearances.
Government officials say the proposed restrictions are not meant to intimidate or impose censorship on the media but are instead intended to prod the raucous TV news industry to regulate itself.
“You have to define certain rules for their own betterment,” Firdous Ashiq Awan, the minister of information and broadcasting, said in an interview. “It’s not that government wants it; the whole nation wants it. There must be some rules and regulations.”
The prospect of such government intrusion unnerves free-speech advocates, who have watched an emboldened media take on civilian as well as military leaders in recent years. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, which operates under the information minister, contends that its proposals are benign, but the agency has the power to punish alleged violations by imposing fines and pulling broadcast licenses.
“The government’s goal is not to educate the media or the public,” said Hamza Farooq, a Karachi journalist who has worked at CNBC Pakistan and Geo TV, a leading broadcaster. “They are just trying to pressure the media.”
He and others pointed out that the release of the proposed rules coincides with stepped-up coverage of the long-running Baluch insurgency. Media, politicians and judges also have become more critical of the military and its Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency, calling on them to account for “missing persons” in the restive province and elsewhere.
“There is a deep appetite for control, both in civilian government and the military establishment, and obviously they are looking for a way to exercise some control,” said influential Geo TV anchor Kamran Khan. “This becomes a tool in their hands. It is not only in Pakistan but in China and Syria — whenever they want to escape accountability and criticism.”