Pemra’s liberation from govt proposed
ISLAMABAD: Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) Unification Committee Chairman M Ziauddin called on Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) Chairman Absar Alam on Friday on the latter’s invitation, says a press release.
The Pemra chairman’s invitation had actually been extended to Afzal Butt faction of the PFUJ much before Wednesday when the two PFUJ factions stood dissolved after the signing of a settlement agreement between Rana Azeem (President of his faction of the PFUJ) and Afzal Butt (President of his faction of PFUJ) and handing over the PFUJ functions to the unification committee until the holding of the over-due next elections. The two factions had emerged following a dispute over the results of 2013 PFUJ elections.
The agenda of the meeting between PFUJ chairman unification committee and the Pemra chairman pertained to the complaints of the PFUJ with regard to recent notices issued by the Pemra to the media houses which in the opinion of the former were amounted to pre-censorship.
During the meeting, the Pemra chief clarified that it was not the intention of the authority to pre-censor news and neither were the notices issued for the purpose. The PFUJ unification chief without entering into a debate on the issue expressed his apprehensions that considering that the authority was an extension of the government of the day one could not rule out the possibility that in its politically weaker moment any government of the day could re-introduce in this country the evil of censorship using the powers of the authority. Some of the notices it has issued to the broadcast media lately implied as much.
While revisiting the Pemra Ordinance to gauge its powers to become a censoring authority the PFUJ unification chief made the following observations: While the authority is being touted as independent, it is in reality a government department and the government has the powers to issue directives as and when it would deem it necessary, issue directives to the authority on matters of policy, and such directives shall be binding on the authority, and if a question arises whether any matter is a matter of policy or not, the decision of the federal government shall be final.
The authority consists of a chairman and 12 members to be appointed by the President of Pakistan (of course, on the advice of the prime minister). Out of the 12 members of the authority one is to be appointed by the federal government on full time basis and five to be eminent citizens chosen (by the government, of course) to ensure representation of all provinces with expertise in media, law, human rights, and social service. Of these five two are to be women. Secretary Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Secretary, Interior Division, Chairman Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and Chairman Central Board of Revenue (FBR) are to be ex-officio members. The remaining two members are to be appointed by the federal government on need basis on the recommendation of the chairman.
Clearly, the membership of the authority is loaded heavily in favour of the government as there would be as many as seven government officials sitting in the authority against five from the general public. And since even these five are to be chosen by the government, they would definitely be beholden to the government.
And in granting the licence, Pemra is empowered to ensure preservation of the sovereignty, security and integrity of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan; ensure preservation of the national, cultural, social and religious values and the principles of public policy as enshrined on the Constitution; ensure that all programmes and advertisements do not contain or encourage violence, terrorism, racial, ethnic or religious discrimination, sectarianism, extremism, militancy, hatred, pornography, obscenity, vulgarity or other material offensive to commonly accepted standards of decency; comply with rules made under the Ordinance; broadcast programmes in public interest (specified by the federal government or the authority in the manner indicated by the government or as the case may be by the authority, provided that the duration of such mandatory programmes do not exceed ten percent of the total duration of broadcast or operation by a station in 24 hours except if a station chooses to broadcast such contents for a longer duration); comply with the codes of programmes and advertisements approved by the authority and appoint an in-house monitoring committee, under intimation of the authority, to ensure compliance of the code; not broadcast or distribute any programme or advertisement in violation of copyright or other property rights; obtain NOC from authority before import of any transmitting apparatus for broadcasting, distribution or teleporting operation; not sell, transfer or assign any of the rights conferred by the licence without prior written permission of the authority.
Clearly again, the authority seems to possess the powers to impose pre-censorship on the broadcast media and also take to task through fine or imprisonment any channel that in the authority’s opinion had crossed the red-line drawn by the above code.
Indeed, the code leaves no space for using editorial discretion/judgement while assessing the value and validity of a news item or an opinion.
And since the authority is a part of the information ministry which in turn is part of the government of the day any action taken by the Pemra against a media house or a media practitioner even if it falls within the ambit of the authority’s powers, it would be regarded as a partisan action taken by the government in its own narrow interests and the blame would stick.
One way out of this logjam, according to a proposal submitted by the PFUJ unification committee chairman, was to liberate the authority from the government turning it into a statutory body with a board of directors chosen by a bipartisan parliamentary committee and the board in turn empowered to appoint a chairman and the 12 members ensuring equal representation of the general public and government. Such a body would have a better chance of being accepted as a non-partisan regulator possessing the right kind of moral authority to enforce the regulations.
The proposal also suggested that the authority while issuing licence to a media house should ensure that it has a required number of media professionals of at least 10-15 years experience on its staff and also it is financially sound enough to guarantee that for at least three years it would pay salaries in accordance with the labour laws of the day to all its employees and in time.
The Pemra chief gave a very patient hearing to these proposals and expressed his willingness to see how these can be accommodated. He did not rule out the possibility, if need be, of amending the relevant laws to reform the authority to make it an effective regulatory body and not one with a potential to become a pre-censorship weapon of the government of the day.