ISLAMABAD: The government's plans to launch specialist media courts sparked a furious backlash on Wednesday from media and rights advocates who said the move was an attack on freedom of speech.
Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Information and Broadcasting Firdous Ashiq Awan said cases against the media would be heard by the special tribunals, which would be overseen by higher courts.
The All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) said the move was a "black day" for the Pakistani media and that they would fight the measures in the legislature and judiciary.
Firdous suggests setting up ‘media courts’
"Special courts aimed at intimidating and strangulating the media and freedom of expression are not only unconstitutional but also contrary to the spirit of democracy," Hameed Haroon, APNS president, and Sarmad Ali, APNS secretary general, said.
Journalists and human rights advocates have feared the introduction of the courts.
In July, opposition parties accused Prime Minister Imran Khan of intimidating broadcasters into a blackout on TV coverage of his critics.
The prime minister, however, denied censoring media and has called the accusations a "joke".
Awan said in a tweet that the existing media oversight body to be replaced by the special courts had been criticised for being under state control, and that the new courts would meet judicial standards and process cases faster.
"The whole process will be a true reflection of laws and high democratic values," she said, adding that journalists could also take complaints about the government to the media courts.
But that did not quell the fears of many freedom of speech advocates, with the non-governmental watchdog Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) saying it was alarmed.
"How are tribunals expected to maintain the media's independence?" it said in a tweet. "Given the government's woeful record on press freedoms, HRCP urges it to refrain from pressurising the media further."