The worrying announcement by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government of setting up media tribunals in a bid to take up complaints against the media (including social media platforms) is a worrying indicator of dwindling freedom of speech and the press in the country. Considering there has been no instance of any channels or media-persons adversely affecting any of Pakistan’s regional and national interests as a direct result of content published, one can only wonder what prompted the government to take this step, if not for the barrage of criticism it has been receiving from all sections of national media. What is the real threat here? The government must provide a basis for this law; so far none exists. Where does the government believe PEMRA is failing, allowing for the need to set up a means to try media persons?

The main principle behind having an independent media is to provide a means of checks and balances on the state; the criticism the government is facing is simply due to the media fulfilling its intrinsic responsibility to the public. If the state chooses to turn this equation on its head and instead look to monitor perceived transgressions by these platforms, then who is left to ensure that the government is doing its job? The government wants the media and members of the opposition to be held accountable, but does it believe itself to be above such concerns? Dissent is quickly becoming unacceptable in Imran Khan’s naya Pakistan and for a democratic government to attempt gagging the press is a direct attack on the democratic norms the ruling party claims to stand for.

There is a reason for across-the-board condemnation for this move; the government – through its accountability drive – has already locked up a significant portion of the opposition behind bars. Any move to clamp down on media will make others in society – academics and civil society works primarily – also fearful that they might be next in line. If the government continues to charge those that disagree with it, one can only expect that there will be no one left to call out any ill-advised decisions.

The only silver lining here is that, in the past year, the government has had a difficult time in getting any major legislation passed through parliament. Due to the widespread opposition to this witch-hunt to silence journalists, political parties on the other side of the house must ensure that this bill never sees the light of day. The government must remember that the people who voted for it believe in a democratic system, not a police state, and an independent press, free from fetters by the government, is a key component in the whole exercise. Every attempt by the government to remove freedom of the press must be resisted at all costs.