Islamabad: Media censorship is nothing new in Pakistan, where military dictators come and go. But newly proposed rules to ban TV programming deemed "against the national interest" spring from an unlikely source: a civilian government that has prided itself on inching the country toward democracy over the past four years.
The proposals were issued last month by a media regulatory body that says it is responding to public complaints about an explosion of increasingly shrill, fact-twisting and privacy-invading cable news shows.
However, the draft measures also take pointed aim at coverage that criticises "the organs of the state" or undermines Pakistan's "solidarity as an independent and sovereign country."
Besides condemning the restrictions as impossibly vague, some foes of censorship see the powerful hand of Pakistan's military behind them. Any ban on purported anti-state news would extend to coverage of the secessionist movement in Balochistan, a province where the army and internal intelligence agencies are accused of extrajudicial killings of nationalists.
Earlier, the Interior Minister, Rahman Malek, asked cable news channels to stop booking Balochi separatist leaders on talk shows, saying the rebels were spreading propaganda about forced disappearances.
Government officials say the proposed restrictions are not meant to intimidate or impose censorship on the media but are instead intended to prod the raucous TV news industry to regulate itself. "You have to define certain rules for their own betterment."
Firdous Ashiq Awan, the Minister of Information and Broadcasting, said: "It's not that government wants it; the whole nation wants it. There must be some rules and regulations."
The prospect of such government intrusion unnerves free-speech advocates, who have watched an emboldened media take on civilian as well as military leaders in recent years.
The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, which operates under the information minister, contends that its proposals are benign, but the agency has the power to punish alleged violations by imposing fines and pulling broadcast licences.
"The government's goal is not to educate the media or the public," said Hamza Farooq, a Karachi journalist.
"They are just trying to pressure the media." He and others pointed out that the release of the proposed rules coincides with stepped-up coverage of the long-running Baloch insurgency.
Media, politicians and judges also have become more critical of the military and its Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency, calling on them to account for "missing persons" in the restive province and elsewhere.