When the state monopoly over electronic media ended in 2002, PEMRA was established as an independent regulator for the sector. It is also the licence-issuing authority for TV channels, FM radio stations and cable TV distributors. PEMRA has faced accusations of acting as a de facto subordinate body of the government and failing to act as an independent regulator.
Over the years, PEMRA has fined and temporarily suspended broadcast of a number of TV news channels as well as banned TV anchors for varying lengths of time over various reasons. Many of its decisions have been challenged in and overturned by courts. PEMRA has faced criticism for attempting to regulate media content instead of regulating the sector.
In November 2017, the broadcast of all private television channels across the country was suspended for 28 hours by TV cable distributors on PEMRA’s instructions. The suspension order came during a security operations against participants of a protest in Rawalpindi.
Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) is a government body responsible for controlling and maintaining all communication technologies in the country including the Internet.
In terms of Internet freedom, Pakistan’s status is currently designated as ‘not free’ by Freedom House, the watchdog organisation focused on freedom and democracy around the world.
PTA has ordered blocking of numerous social media networking websites, such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, as well as other websites for containing pornographic content and content prejudicial to national security, among other reasons. In 2012, PTA directed all Internet service providers in Pakistan to block YouTube over showing blasphemous content. YouTube remained blocked in Pakistan until January 2016.
PTA has ordered a shutdown of cellphone networks, ranging from a few hours to a whole day, on account of security reasons in various cities. Such shutdowns also disrupt the use of cell phones to access the Internet.
It has been argued that PEMRA and PTA cannot both regulate the converged communication sector with their existing separate regulatory frameworks.
In 2017, an attempt to introduce a PEMRA-like authority for the print media under the proposed Pakistan Print Media Regulatory Authority Ordinance was abandoned after strong opposition from civil society.
Not all the directions to media organisations have come from the formal regulators. Courts have also weighed in on a number of occasions. In February 2017, the Islamabad High Court ordered a ban on Valentine’s Day celebrations in public places across Pakistan. The electronic and print media was also told not to give coverage to any promotion of the day.
Another key player in the media landscape, the TV channel cable distributors, have increasingly become a party to media conflicts. They have influenced access to channels by arbitrarily changing the numerical position in the cable distribution network of those channels which are out of favour with government authorities.