REGULATING THE MEDIA AND ITS RIGHT TO INFORMATION
The much celebrated vibrancy in our media needs a bit of a pause and urgently too for a self-obligatory introspection to see how we are doing on the credibility and integrity aspects—the most essential media characteristics—and self-correct lapses that may have appeared as side-effects that go hand-in-hand when the much needed sense of responsibility gets ignored not because of impunity but perhaps because of inadvertently taking the eye off on the ball while enjoying to the hilt our hard-earned freedom.
Meanwhile, the government in its own interest and in the national as well as in the interest of democracy needs to liberate the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) from its control and at the same time the state, again in its own as well as in the national interest must stop blocking the passage of the all important Right to Information Bill.
Let me elaborate. There are many aspects of the PEMRA law that need improvement. But even in its present form it can serve as a powerful media-regulatory instrument without becoming too intrusive or too draconian if it is enforced via Parliament rather than through the information ministry.
Media manipulation by the government, any government, even by governments in the advanced democracies is not considered an unhealthy or undemocratic practice. But no government, not even the one with the best of democratic intentions would find it almost impossible not to press into service a legal instrument like the PEMRA if its controls were in its hands for media manipulation.
On the other hand even if the law is used for legitimate reasons against an errant media house by a government holding the whip-hand through the PEMRA instrument, the ‘victim’ would find it too easy to mobilize public opinion against such an action by presenting it as an attempt by the government or the state to curtail legitimate media freedom allowed under Article 19A of the Constitution!
That is exactly is what is happening since the advent of private broadcast media in the country and the promulgation of PEMRA ordinance. Either the governments of the day have misused it to promote or/and safeguard their own political interests or the ‘victims’ have escaped from being made accountable under PEMRA law by mis-labelling the action as a government inspired attempt to silence democratic dissent.
The way out of this logjam is to transfer PEMRA from the government to Parliament. A bipartisan parliamentary committee could constitute a board of governors for PEMRA oversight consisting of representatives from all sections of society including women, legal fraternity, labour, health, minorities, youth, education etc. One of the two most important functions of this board of governors would be to continuously monitor PEMRA laws’ application to see if the relevant laws are being enforced in letter and spirit; and the other one is to choose a suitably qualified person to head PEMRA. To ensure a smooth and by the book application of the PEMRA law the head of the regulatory authority be made accountable to the board of governors and the latter to the bipartisan parliamentary committee which in turn would be accountable to the entire parliament.
Now let us discuss the right to access information. Most governments, no matter of what kind would always remain the store houses ofrelevant information, essentially that which overwhelmingly impinge on the lives of all of its citizens. A media which is not allowed access to this store house of information is often seen indulging in half truths, rumours and speculations, creating more problems for the government and the state than if access is allowed to this information store house without of course jeopardising the essential most interests of the state. Indeed, the emphasis should be on the essential minimum and not on the ‘essential’ maximum under which one has seen even the most innocent information being treated as national secrets.
There was a time in this country when even the rate of inflation used to be treated as national secret. In the 1980s one saw a circular issued by the Finance Ministry to all nationalized banks not to disclose the amounts that the overseas workers send home as remittances. The system of differed payment for oil supplies from Saudi Arabia was also treated as national secret for years together.
Many of the ‘harmless’ information, especially concerning the economy and finances kept as national secrets are sold by the bureaucracy to the interested private parties for a price. And this is one more reason for the resistance by the interested political and civil-bureaucratic sections to the demand for enacting a meaningful Right to Information Act.
Still, Pakistan became the first country in the region to introduce a Freedom of Information Ordinance in 2002. But this law has a long list of exemptions and its implementation machinery was found to be too weak.
In August 2013, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa promulgated an RTI Ordinance which became an Act in November 2013 and was followed by the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act 2013. These two provincial laws are considered amongst the best RTI laws in the world. Sindh and Balochistan still do not have their own respective RTIs.
But the biggest failure has been that of the Federation which has been holding on to a draft version of its RTI for a number of years mainly because the state, especially the deep state does not feel very comfortable with the degree of transparency that the draft bill would introduce once it becomes an Act. That is why perhaps the deep state has been sitting on the draft for so many years. And going by the current mood of this particular part of the state, one feels it highly unlikely that the draft would be approved in its present shape or even with amendments any time soon.
What is not being, however, realised by the deep state is that the delay in getting this Bill off the ground is causing a lot of damage to the very national interests that it is trying to protect by keeping a tight lid over the store of information revealing most of which would only promote our national interests rather than jeopardise it in any way.
The result: A free-for-all media which has not only lost most of its credibility and integrity but in a way has become something of a truth demolishing squad.