Shrinking democratic space

  • Suppressing freedom of speech, punishing dissent


Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) has once again issued directives to television channels that fundamentally restrict them to choose freely the format and content of its programming. The order states that news anchors are barred from giving their “opinions” during their own or other talk shows and to limit their role to “moderator”. These instructions are quite arbitrary in nature and just another way to tighten the censorship noose on the media. How is an anchor supposed to effectively conduct a programme if he is not allowed to analyse and interpret a particular event that is being discussed in order to frame questions to ask guests of the show? It goes on to ‘direct’ that every channel’s ‘monitoring board’ must include a lawyer with ‘at least five years’ of experience who will look out for any potential violations, meaning that not only will the editorial line be dictated by the regulatory authority now but also the variety of human resource in a particular media organisation. Essentially, legal room is being created to identify and restrict anchors that do not follow the ever-changing set of instructions/advice in line with the approved ‘narrative’ in the current state-media equation.

On Sunday an installation at the Karachi Biennale at the iconic Frere Hall titled ‘Killing fields of Karachi’ depicting 444 ‘encounters’ by the notorious Rao Anwar, displayed through multiple graves, was forcibly shut down by men in plain clothes followed by a press conference that was disrupted by DG parks Karachi for ‘depicting a negative image of Pakistan’. The exhibit which is a work of art telling an accurate story about the bloody history of Karachi remains closed although the park where it is placed is a public place. Article 19 of the constitution ensures ‘the right to freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of the Press subject to reasonable restrictions’. The restrictions being placed on the country’s media, artists and intellectuals are anything but reasonable rather just a deliberate reduction of democratic space.