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Pakistan This Week

PEMRA’s new directive: Curbing media freedom is a self goal and will return to haunt

D. Suba Chandran
International Strategic and Security Studies Programme (ISSSP)
National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore

The new directive from PEMRA to curb the role of anchors and experts will not only undermine the media freedom in Pakistan but also its own independence.


PEMRA’s new directive aims at limiting the role of anchors and guests

What happened?
The latest directive from the PEMRA restricts the role of anchors and instructs on the experts/guests who could be invited for the talks shows. It has also asked the anchors not to appear as experts on other talk shows.

According to the directive, the participants should have credibility and expertise on the issue. The directive reads: “Participants/invitees should be selected with due care having credibility as fair and unbiased analysts with requisite knowledge/expertise on the subject matter.” (Dawn, 28 October 2019)

The directive also defines the role of anchors only as moderators and restricts them to air their personal opinion. The directive says, “As per Pemra code of conduct, the role of anchors is to moderate the programmes in an objective, unbiased and impartial manner, excluding themselves from their personal opinions, biases and judgements on any issue. Therefore, anchors hosting exclusive regular shows should not appear in talk shows whether own or other channels as subject matter expert.” (Dawn, 28 October 2019)

The PEMRA directive has also underlined a delay mechanism on telecasting live shows. According to the directive, “Channels without effective delay mechanism to refrain from telecasting live shows. The composition of committee/editorial board should be in line with directives of the Supreme Court under suo moto case’s judgement which is reproduced as under. With regards to the monitoring committee, we direct that licensees include [for each of its meetings] at least one practising lawyer of at least five years or above practice, with adequate understanding of the law to advise the licensee regarding any potential violations of the code of conduct by programmes to be aired in the future.” (Dawn, 28 October 2019)

The PEMRA directive came under heavy criticism, including those from the ruling party. 

What are the issues?
The larger issue is media freedom. There have been a series of initiatives by the PEMRA during recent years to curb the role of electronic media. Not only under this government led by Imran Khan, even under the previous government led by Nawaz Sharif, PEMRA issued a series of directives – directly and indirectly curbing the freedom of expression in electronic media.

Second, not many within the ruling party agree with the directive. Two federal ministers (Asad Umar and Shireen Mazari) were critical of the PEMRA’s new directive. former finance minister Asad Umar has opposed the move. Former finance minister Asad Umar said: “Amazing decision by pemra to stop anchors to go on any other talk show and express their opinion! Pemra should be doing a better job taking action against completely fake news and not suppressing the right of individuals, including anchors, to express their opinion.” Shireen Mazari, questioning PEMRA’s note that the experts should be knowledgeable tweeted: “Do I need a degree in IR/Strategic Studies to discuss foreign/or defence policy? What degree do I need to talk about Information? Is expertise defined by a degree? Finally, we have a debate at an abstract level media should focus on! But what experts would be needed for such a debate on TV?”

Third, there is a serious issue that the PEMRA should look into, or perhaps skipping it – the role of intelligence agencies. There have been instances in which cable operators have been asked by unknown persons (read Intelligence officials) to remove a channel from their list. There have been unofficial notes to the electronic media again by unknown people instructing not to cover a particular event. For example, the entire Pashtun movement during the recent years did get adequate coverage, due to this instruction. PEMRA remains a silent spectator in addressing the role of pressure from unknown men to the electronic media. 

Finally, what PEMRA needs is an independent media. Perhaps its own independence is at stake, to protect the independence of other institutions. That is the final point in this case – the independence of institutions, and the failure of successive governments to protect it. Democracy can never be protected if elected leadership fails to provide autonomy to democratic institutions. 

Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari should be realizing this now. It is not that the electronic media is without problems. The cut-throat competition within the electronic media and the quality of anchors and news programmes are not an issue only in Pakistan. Even in India, where there is a mushrooming of channels, many TV news programmes have become more of a “show” divorcing substance. 

Slandering and mud-throwing in public have become more of a norm – as it gets more audience for the TV channels. The judiciary in Pakistan has been repeatedly warning and issuing contempt notices to the TV owners and anchors. The recent PEMRA directive, in fact, justifies its note, linking the same with a judicial order.

Besides the government, the corporates and intelligence agencies have also been exerting influence on the media – especially the electronic one. 

There are issues with the electronic media; there should have been a debate between the PEMRA and TV channels to strengthen each other. PEMRA needs to be independent first, and the elected leadership has to realise it. Perhaps, Imran Khan will realise it latter. As Zardari and Sharif are doing now.


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