Freedom of the Press
The government is considering introducing a law aimed at curbing freedom of press in an indirect but effective manner. The draft of the proposed law, dubbed the Press and Publications Regulatory Authority (PAPRA), has been sent to provincial governments for their comments and suggestions. PAPRA would be entrusted with the job of determining the circulation figures of newspapers and periodicals. Although a department called Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) in the Ministry of Information is doing this job for the last 30 years, the government is not satisfied with its performance. Why? As the statement of Objectives and Reasons of the Bill implies, the ABC does have any teeth. The proposed law will give PAPRA teeth to bite the victim deeply and sharply on behalf of the government.
Under the current procedure, the ABC audits the circulation of a newspaper and issues it a certificate. No doubt, the government needs to know the authentic circulation figures of a newspaper or periodical if it wants to be placed on the Central Media List which entitles it to receive public sector ads. Moreover, the ad rates are fixed on the basis of the audit certificate. The higher circulation means higher ads rates. If a newspaper fails to produce the audit certificate within a specified period, it loses the right to government ads. This right is automatically restored after the newspaper has complied with the audit rules. This system is working to the satisfaction of all concerned. The newspapers have not complained about the working of the ABC and neither the government has expressed any reservations about its functioning. Nevertheless, if there are some deficiencies in the audit procedure it could have been corrected by simply strengthening the rules and their enforcement.
The composition of PAPRA is quite revealing. It has an abundance of government officials. It will consist of a chairman and six members to be appointed by the Federal Government. Secretary, Ministry of Information, will be the ex-officio chairman of the Authority. Out of the six members, two will be ex-officio members of the Authority. They are Director General Internal Publicity and Press Information Officer (PIO). One member shall be appointed on full-time basis from amongst the BS-21 Information Group Officers to run the affairs of the Authority. One mass media educationist will be nominated by the Higher Education Commission. Two members shall be nominees of the All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) and the Pakistan Advertising Association respectively. The PAPRA thus will have five government officials as its members – four of them from the Ministry of Information and only one each from the newspaper and advertising industry.
The decisions of the Authority will be taken on the majority vote. Is it even remotely possible that the official members, more than one-half from the Ministry of Information, would ever vote against the wishes of the chairman who happens to be their boss? The nominee of the Pakistan Advertising Association would also not dare to go against the wishes of the Ministry because it is still the biggest advertising client in the country. No advertising agency would jeopardise its relations with the Information Ministry by voting against it. In fact, the meetings would be no more than just a formality to formalise decisions taken somewhere else to punish a non-conformist newspaper.
The Authority shall be empowered to check records and books of accounts of the publications on the spot. For this purpose, another intimidating clause empowers the Authority to visit and inspect the premises of the printing presses and offices of the publications. Newspaper hawkers and newsagents are also in the line of fire of the Authority. It will have powers to inspect Akhbar Market and check records of newsagents and hawkers for the purpose of determining the circulation figures of a publication. It is interesting to note that the Authority has not been given powers to punish a publication for an offence. Basically, it is a recommendatory body.
If a newspaper is an audit defaulter, the Authority may recommend to the Ministry of Information its removal from the Central Media List. This is highly unjust because the chairman and more than half of the Authority’s members are officers of the Ministry of Information. PAPRA bill proposes heavy fines and even jail terms for newspaper publishers for committing an offence. The list of offences is long and includes concealment of record or document and creating hindrance and denying access to premises. Any publisher or person who violates the provisions of the Bill shall be guilty of an offence punishable with fine of up to one million rupees. If he repeats the violation, he shall be guilty of an offence punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years.
Where the person guilty of an offence under this Bill is a company, corporation or firm, every director, partner and employee of the company, corporation or firm shall, unless he proves that the offence was committed without his knowledge or consent, shall be guilty of the offence and shall be liable to be proceeded against and punished accordingly. It is not understandable why the government is contemplating introduction of a law which is repressive in nature and which prescribes draconian punishments for offenders. In order to find out the correct circulation figures of newspapers, the government need not resort to such extreme measures. If it suspects that an audit has been manipulated, it can appoint an auditor of its choice, preferably a renowned firm of chartered accounts, to make another audit to discover the truth.
The government does not really need an Authority for resolving such a minor issue unless if the object was something other than finding the true circulation of a newspaper. In my view, the approaching elections are making some members of the government jittery. And press freedom seems to be the biggest casualty of this development. They are no more in favour of freedom of the Press. It would be unfortunate if President Musharraf became susceptible to this tendency. Since his arrival on the scene, Press in Pakistan has been enjoying unprecedented freedom. PAPRA would be the first step towards curbing the freedom granted to the Press.
Source: The News