Publishers in Pakistan’s most populous province could soon face prison if they fail to win approval from government bureaucrats before printing or importing books, pamphlets and many other written works.
Lawmakers in Punjab, home to about half of the country’s 215 million people, unanimously approved the measure last month as part of a sweeping bill targeting ‘objectionable’ printed material.
If implemented, the bill could gut the publishing industry in regional capital Lahore and divide Pakistan’s literary world, leaving books available in one part of the country but banned in another.
Proponents claim the legislation will root out blasphemous content and enhance national security.
But critics say it is just the latest example of authorities pandering to populist religious pressure, and attempting to stifle debate in a culture of ever-increasing censorship.
The bill has such ‘loose and vague terms that they can be easily used against progressive publishers like us’, Bilal Zahoor, editorial director of a Lahore-based independent publishing house, said.
‘Publishers like us will be pushed out of business,’ he warned.
Punjab’s governor has yet to sign the bill into law and has indicated he may seek some amendments before doing so.
In its current form, the legislation would give authorities almost unlimited scope to control, censor and confiscate any texts they deem problematic.
‘Any material that is likely to jeopardise or is prejudicial to the ideology of Pakistan or the sovereignty, integrity or security of Pakistan’ would be subject to tough new controls, the bill states.
So would any work promoting ‘vulgarity’ and ‘obscenity’.
Publishers would have to submit detailed descriptions of all books to an ‘authorised officer’ with Punjab’s office of the Director General of Public Relations — which would gain broad new powers to inspect any printing press, publication house or bookstore and confiscate books.
Supporters say the bill will boost national security because it will bar writing seen as glorifying ‘terrorists’ and ‘extremist elements’.
It would also require every single printed mention of the Prophet Muhammad to be preceded and followed by wordy honorifics — something few books currently include.
Publishers would have to inform bureaucrats of works they are producing or translating, and booksellers would need to reveal books they are importing.
Those falling foul of the DGPR could face up to five years in prison.
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