ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan is proposing a law to restrict graphic coverage of militant attacks, and possibly curb harsh criticism of the government, by increasingly independent television channels.
If approved by the National Assembly, the bill, known as the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority Bill, would ban live coverage of the militant attacks, as well as broadcast of “anything defamatory against the organs of the state.”
It would also prevent discussions which could “influence” the judiciary at a time when it has been dealing with several political cases involving President Asif Ali Zardari.
The new bill prohibits media from broadcasting video footage of suicide bombers, bodies of victims of terror attacks, statements from Islamist militants and any acts “which promote, aid or abet terrorist or terrorism.”
An offender could be sentenced to up to three years in jail or fined up to 10 million rupees ($117,100).
Critics, however, say the government could use the proposed law to tame media outlets. The government has not yet set a date for voting on the bill.
The bill seeks to amend a law introduced by former military President Pervez Musharraf in an attempt to muzzle the media after he imposed emergency rule in November 2007.
Under the original law, media were prohibited from broadcasting or publishing statements ridiculing Musharraf, top government officials and the military.
However, the present government led by Zardari, who replaced Musharraf in 2008, has proposed an amendment to strike down what it calls “draconian laws” by the former military ruler.
“The draconian laws that threatened coercive actions against the press will be removed via this bill to begin the process of providing for a free press in Pakistan,” said a draft of the bill obtained by Reuters.
U.S. ally Pakistan is confronting a growing threat from Islamist militants. The militants have unleashed a wave of attacks across the country, killing hundreds of people, in retaliation for military offensives in their northwest bastions.
Officials accuse some media outlets critical of the president of running a vilification campaign against the government, but promised they would not curb free speech.
“Nowhere in the civilized world are murderers, terrorists and extremists given air time on electronic media to expound their views,” Farah Ispahani, a ruling party parliamentarian on the standing committee on information and broadcasting, told Reuters.
“This report, which will take on the shape of a bill in the next session of parliament, is not an attempt to control the media. It is a necessary code of conduct that is usually practiced all over the world willingly by the electronic media.”
Rights activists, however, doubt the government’s intentions.
“This bill is a self-defeating exercise. They are harming their own image and it exposes their dictatorial temperament,” said Iqbal Haider, a former law minister and co-chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
“To call a spade a spade, or a crook a crook is no offence.”
The Supreme Court in December struck down a controversial law that provided amnesty to Zardari, several aides and thousands of political activities from corruption and other charges.
Many of Pakistan’s broadcast outlets are full of the latest twists and turns of the cases surrounding Zardari, with many anchors and talk show hosts criticizing the president.
Editing by Chris Allbritton and Miral Fahmy