ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Media censorship is nothing new in Pakistan, where military dictators come and go. But newly proposed rules to ban TV programming deemed “against the national interest” spring from an unlikely source: a civilian government that has prided itself on inching the country toward democracy over the past four years.
The proposals were issued last month by a media regulatory body that says it is responding to public complaints about an explosion of increasingly shrill, fact-twisting and privacy-invading cable news shows. But the draft measures also take pointed aim at coverage that criticizes “the organs of the state” or undermines Pakistan’s “solidarity as an independent and sovereign country.”
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.”
Awan, the information minister, said Baluchis enjoy the same rights of free speech as everyone else in Pakistan. But she maintained that content restrictions are in the national interest: “We cannot compromise on the sovereignty of our country. That is our national duty and obligation.”
Five years ago, Pakistan’s then-president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, blacked out cable shows in a crackdown on those protesting his consolidation of power, which included suspending the constitution, arresting political foes and removing the chief justice of the Supreme Court. The bans were imposed by PEMRA, the same agency now promulgating the content restrictions.
Yet it is Musharraf whom journalists frequently credit with creating a thriving independent media through deregulation. A decade ago, Pakistan had just one TV channel — the official one. Now there are 89, pumping out talk shows, religious programs, entertainment and news — and opinion mongering passed off as news.
The intense competition has sparked hysterical coverage that PEMRA says should be tamped down. One proposal recommends: “Gloomy, sensational, or alarming details not essential to factual reporting shall not be aired as part of [a] news-bulletin.”
Officials say the impetus for the regulatory drive was a January stunt by a Karachi television host who dispatched a band of middle-aged women to a park to determine whether spooning young couples there were married or engaged or had their parents’ permission to date.
Local media dubbed the hectoring inquisitors the “vigil-aunties.”
The show infuriated a public already sick of undercover TV investigations and other invasions of privacy. The host, Maya Khan of Samaa TV, was fired, but later she said all the love-struck couples on the program were actors — a subterfuge straight out of the American reality-show playbook.
In Pakistan, committees of volunteer media monitors unaffiliated with the government take public complaints about programming via a toll-free hotline. When PEMRA requested that committee members critique the draft guidelines, some quit, not wanting anything to do with government censorship.
Last week, committee members submitted clause-by-clause objections, but the regulators ignored those that involved prohibitions against criticism of the state.
“National interest — nobody knows what it is,” said Marvi Sirmed, a columnist who said she will remain a volunteer to work against government overreach. “We don’t want any government entity to implement this mechanism.”
Since deregulation, some arms of the fourth estate here have become so rich through cross-ownership of newspapers, radio and TV outlets that they have become political forces in their own right. And despite their faults, the cable news shows are widely regarded as protectors of Pakistan’s fragile democracy.
“The power of media is enormous,” said anchor Faisal Rehman of Waqt TV. “They cannot stop it even if they tried.”