By: Azam Khan
ISLAMABAD: The National Assembly’s standing committee on information has proposed a set of restrictions on mainstream media as well as social media in the wake of the Peshawar school tragedy.
The recommendations were submitted in a report titled “Proposals to strengthen media’s role in combating terrorism”. It is perhaps the first time that any NA panel has proposed measures aimed at regulating social media.
Citing several sections and provisions of existing laws including the Anti-Terrorism Act, the committee recommended that individual journalists be slapped with a penalty in case of any violation. It also called for an “amicable settlement of issues” between the government and media stakeholders —with the panel acting as a bridge.
Recently, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, ruled out the possibility of journalists, politicians and common citizens being tried in military courts. The minister also said that military courts cannot pursue a case without prior approval of the federal government.
But a legal expert pointed out that the recommendations of the parliamentary panel could be problematic for journalists. He said currently there is no constitutional or legal guarantee if a journalist is booked under anti-terrorism laws and then his case would not be referred to military courts. “All assurances by state functionaries are verbal,” he said. According to him, the law discourages discriminatory conduct but this report proposed a “discriminatory recommendation” for penalising a working journalist in case of violation.
The standing committee on information, broadcasting and national heritage held two meetings on 24 December and 30 December 2014, respectively, on an emergency review of media laws, ethical and professional issues with reference to terrorism.
The panel proposed that the government ensure the passage of pending legislation on cyber crime to counter the terrorists’ narrative on social media to avoid Arab spring like situation. The report also referred to websites from where terrorists are disseminating their messages and ensure new membership for their terror network, saying that verification of users is necessary to find the real culprits behind fake Facebook accounts and Google IDs.
The report suggested refresher courses for media persons. It also recommended that services of doctors and psychologists should also be acquired to haul the nation out of depression, stress and trauma.
The committee recommended that a consultative body between government and all representative media meet more often during the so called war time period to discuss issues which required clarity on the counterterrorism narrative.
The committee proposed strict adherence to existing media laws, as well as a refresher course of the same for all media organization staff and politicians. The committee proposed the need for an overall mindset change and capacity building at media houses for implementing laws crucial for ending terrorism.
Citing international best practices, the report also incorporated BBC Editorial Guidelines as potential guidelines and suggested a similar process for Pakistani media. “If the oldest democracy of the world can impose certain restrictions then why not we?” asked MNA Marvi Memon. The report suggested that media should also be assigned to counter Indian narratives regarding border violation.
Mechanism for Social media
The report says social media is fast becoming mainstream because it carries mainstream media content, generates its own content, and has a decisive edge over mainstream media in terms of outreach and speed. Social media has little transparency, identity clarity and controls.
This new media causes durable information flows that define long-term public perceptions of right and wrong, good and bad. There are no rules for opinion, expression. There is no check on fake sites. Anyone can say anything (true or false) and get away with the impact on the populace or individuals.