Role of Pemra
PEMRA’s intervention on behalf of the government to warn news channels from airing content or debating the recent Saudi-Iran tensions in a manner that could allegedly harm diplomatic relations with those countries is perhaps unsurprising — but is still thoroughly unwarranted. There are two issues here, only one of which was raised in the National Assembly by opposition speakers on Friday. First, as PTI and PPP MNAs suggested, it does appear that the PML-N government is trying to gag the media in the name of the national interest. Especially scurrilous is the government’s reliance on an unlawful interpretation of Article 19 of the Constitution. The constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press subject to “reasonable restrictions imposed by law” can in no way be interpreted as preventing public debate on what the government itself accepts is a critical foreign policy issue. The PML-N may consider it a grave offence to be critical of Saudi Arabia’s policies and the Saudi leadership may be prickly when it comes to criticism of it anywhere, but freedom of the press is a cornerstone of a constitutional democracy, which is what Pakistan is and what the political government has been elected to uphold.
Fuelling suspicions of the government’s real intentions, however, is the PML-N’s chequered history of trampling on press freedoms. While news channels are often violators of good sense and even good taste, it does appear that the PML-N tries to use whatever opening it finds to try and bring the media further to heel. But what of the role of Pemra itself? The recent appointment of a well-known journalist as Pemra’s full-time chief had fuelled hope that the apex regulator would work with the media to address genuine issues in the industry rather than hone in so quickly on content regulation matters. Unhappily, however, the regulatory capture of Pemra by the political government of the day appears to be continuing. Regulation of broadcast media is a sensible and necessary measure — as long as freedom of the press is the guiding principle. But for that the regulator itself must be independent — and, until it has full legal independence, those working there must try and distance themselves as much as possible from political agendas. If that does not happen, Pemra will be drawn into an increasingly adversarial role with the media, resulting in even sensible and needed regulation becoming controversial. The new Pemra chief must do better — and soon.