Clear media regulations needed
WHEN freedom is abused and the designated regulator too decrepit and compromised to be a respected or independent enforcer, chaos is the likely result. And so it has come to pass, with the ever-worsening media wars claiming their latest victim, this time Pemra itself. The farcical events of Tuesday evening when a seemingly divided electronic media regulator tried to summarily shut down the Geo network before the other side of the Pemra divide tried to restore calm and assert its authority are enormously worrying. It once again demonstrated that while secretive powers behind the scenes are energetically manipulating events, the civilian institutions cannot seem to get their act together for the common good. Why, for example, did it take until after the allegedly illegal Pemra meeting was held and the sanctions against Geo announced for other Pemra members to question whether due process had been followed? The meeting was hardly a secret, but neither the government nor the so-called independent regulator appeared capable of heading off another avoidable fiasco.
From here, there are really only two options: events can be allowed to continue to play out according to a hidden script, running the risk of destroying any semblance of a free and responsible Pakistani media, or the country’s elected leadership must show courage and determination to recover an increasingly dangerous and destabilising situation in the media landscape. If the government and parliament decide to step up and lead, the immediate path is relatively clear: a wholesale revamp of media regulations in Pakistan. This must include the appointment of the regulatory body chief by a bi-partisan parliamentary committee looking into the reforms. Necessarily, this must take place with serious and meaningful input from the media — both proprietors and journalists — as well as civil society. But what a revamped Pemra — or a new regulator altogether — must ensure is that clear rules are laid down of how and when Pemra can intervene; they must put heavy emphasis on freedom of the media while ensuring that whatever penalties the regulator can impose are done so fairly and transparently. Perhaps most importantly, a strong regulator must be able to ensure that the same set of rules applies to all news channels and that no government or other state institution can bend the regulator to its will.
Continue down the present path — internecine warfare among various media groups — and the future is bleak for all. The so-called patriots of today can be the alleged traitors of tomorrow. Here though is the challenge: while a revamped media code with a strong and uncompromised regulator to enforce may be a necessity, it will only work if all the news channels sign on. But will myopic self-interest really give way to enlightened self-interest across the board?