By I.A. Rehman
The amendments to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) Ordinance, adopted by the National Assembly recently, are clearly designed to tighten government control over the fast burgeoning electronic media. There is little hope that the PFUJ call for a national debate on these changes, before the relevant bill is discussed in the Senate, will be heeded by Authority. One should therefore be prepared to witness the latest attempt at thought control in Pakistan.
Measures to regulate the working of the media are almost always designed to control and censor information. Since radio and TV had traditionally been state monopolies the need for an authority to control the electronic media arose only when licences to private broadcasters could no longer be denied. The first law, the Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (EMRA) Ordinance, came in February 1997.It was replaced by the PEMRA Ordinance of 2002, and that is now going to be comprehensively mauled vide the amendment bill.
As usual in such cases, restrictions on freedom of expression are clothed in proclamations of noble ideas. The objects of the EMRA Ordinance of 1997 were thus described in the following words:
Whereas it is necessary to provide for the development of electronic media in order to improve the standards of information, education and entertainment and to enlarge the choice available to the people of Pakistan in the media for news, current affairs, religions knowledge, art, culture, science, technology, economic development, social sector concerns, music, sports, drama and other subjects of public and national interest.
In the PEMRA Ordinance of 2002, two new objects were added to the text given above:
• (to) facilitate the devolution of responsibility and power to the grass roots by improving the access of the people to mass media at the local and community levels: and
• (to) ensure accountability, transparency and good governance by optimizing the free flow of information.
(Incidentally, the omission of expressions such as democracy, justice, and human rights from the narration of media objectives could not have been fortuitous.)
Now, the principles and norms of censorship, which includes information control, are neither universal nor immutable. The most widely accepted justification for censorship/ media regulation is that it is a necessary evil to be applied to individuals and societies whose minds and habits have not acquired the maturity to absorb free flow of ideas and cultural concepts without injury to national codes. Further, it is understood that censorship rigours must ease as society’s intellectual and social capital grows, and that a time may come when censorship/ media control will not be required.
A useful index of a society’s progress is its declining reliance on thought/ information regulation. And vice versa. Whoever is interested in the Pakistan society’s mental health and social advancement must view PEMRA, a bad law made worse by the fresh amendments, in this context.
The existing law and the amendments can be assailed on the following grounds:
1. The Electronic Media Regulatory Authority was set up to control the working of broadcasters in the private sector only. Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation, the Pakistan Television Corporation, and the Shalimar Recording Company (STN) are not subject to PEMRA Ordinance. This means that the high sounding PEMRA objectives, especially development of media for socially desirable tasks, are not recommended to the electronic media already under state control. In other words, regulation of electronic media means imposition of control/censorship over channels outside the public sector.
2. The Ordinance of 2002 has a provision (not found in the ordinance of 1997) to the effect that the Federal Government has the power to issue directives to PEMRA on matters of policy and PEMRA is bound to follow these directives. That is, PEMRA is not an autonomous body.
3. The Chairman and the members of PEMRA are to be appointed by the President. Under the Ordinance of 1997, the Chairman had to be a retired judge of the Supreme Court. But in the Ordinance of 2002 the Chairman of the Authority “shall be an eminent professional of known integrity and competence having substantial experience in media, business, management, finance, economic affairs, or law.” It will be interesting to find out why the retired judges of the apex court were deprived of their entitlement to head PEMRA. Were they considered less amenable to government advice than “eminent professionals?”
4. Under the 1997 law the Authority was to have six members besides the Chairman—Information Secretary, Communication Secretary, and four public figures (one expert on radio, another on television, a third on print media and the fourth on public service). Under the 2002 law the members number nine, one is to be appointed by the Federal Government on full time basis and five are eminent citizens with expertise in media, law, human rights, and social service (two of them women), and three ex-officio members—Information Secretary, Interior Secretary and the Chairman of Pakistan Telecommunication Authority. This section has been amended now to provide for three more official members. Thus eight out of the 13 members of the Authority will be government representatives and there is no guarantee that the five eminent citizens would be independent of government.
5. The 2002 law clearly states that the licensee will be obliged to broadcast or distribute programmes referred to it by the Federal Government or the Authority. This provision is common to laws on all media-control bodies.
6. Section 21 of the 2002 law provided for consultation with the provincial governments on location of new enterprises but this condition has been dropped by the amendment. That is, even a small concession to provincial authority is unwelcome.
7. The Authority can revoke a license on a number of grounds and one of them is “reason of necessity in the public interest” and when action is taken on this ground there is no need to issue a show cause notice, which is required before action on any other ground.
8. Both the laws of 1997 and 2002 provided for inspection of premises and access to authority’s representatives but in the recent amendment the police have been authorized to take action against broadcasters and their staff.
9. Much has been made of the amendment which strikes down the provision against private monopolies and the bar to cross media ownership which was a feature of both the legislations of 1997 and 2002. One is not sure that the proposed change will make for greater freedom of expression because the bigger an enterprise the more vulnerable it is to official pressure.
It is easy to see that over a period of less than 10 years the government has been trying to increase its hold over private electronic media and make it subject to the same regulations as it has devised for the state controlled broadcasters. The conclusions are obvious: either Pakistani citizens and the society as a whole have become progressively more immature over the years or the custodians of power have become progressively more insecure over the same period. This is the essence of the various shapes attempts at censorship and regulation of thought take.
Unfortunately the view that the latter may be the case is strengthened by two factors. First the government did not realize the need for an open public debate on its amendment proposals and there are complaints that even the standing committee was not allowed to fully debate the amendment bill. Secondly the changes in PEMRA come at a time when there is evidence of other attacks on freedom of expression, such as revival of press advice and stoppage of government advertisements to independent or unfriendly publications.