Fetters on the media! -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

Fetters on the media!

EDITORIAL: A number of reports appearing in the national and foreign media indicate harsh measures are about to be introduced to muzzle the independent media. A law is reportedly on the anvil, which may be legislated at the next parliamentary session this month, indicating impatience bordering on indecent haste. There is variance in the reports as to the proponents of the proposed measures/law to put fetters on the media.

According to one report, a bill framed by the government is under consideration of the Parliamentary Committee on Information and Broadcasting. Another story highlights that there is a civil-military nexus on the issue. The Federal Secretary, Ministry of Information has hinted at a 14-member (all bureaucrats) “media co-ordination committee on defence planning” being behind the move. While the chairperson of the Parliamentary Committee on Information, Begum Hasnain and President’s Advisor and committee member Farah Naz Isphahani have indicated that the bill would regulate only the private TV channels, another report indicates that the print media too would be brought under the purview of the proposed law.

Again, a report indicates that the proposed bill would cover only the reporting of terrorism, ensuring that TV programmes do not promote hatred or militancy or show ghastly and repulsive scenes. Other reports suggest that the movers are keen to regulate media reporting connected with a fairly large sphere of national life, bracketed together under nebulous terms like ‘ideology, sanctity, independence and security of the state’, that can be stretched to mean anything.

Deterring punishments have been suggested for the violation of the proposed law, which include: cancellation of licence of the media house, imprisonment up to three years for repeated violations and fines of up to Rs 10 million. As the proposed law has the potential to be widely misused, it is bound to be condemned by the independent media, civil society, human rights organisations and the opposition.

The media is aware of its responsibilities while reporting terror attacks. In November, last year, news managers from eight television channels evolved guidelines governing the coverage of terrorism after a thorough debate, spread over two weeks. The areas where agreement was reached pertained to live reporting, viewer exposure to extreme and disturbing visuals, dead bodies, badly injured people, accounts of the emotionally-distraught as well as eyewitnesses, and real-time decisions on releasing information during war (or war-like situations) or in the case of hostage-taking.

It was decided that they would refrain from showing graphic and disturbing images on screen and utilise a time-delay mechanism in their live transmissions to enable the channels to block undesirable footage. It was also decided to put in greater effort to confirm information before flashing breaking news about bomb blasts, etc. It was decided to take all steps necessary to ensure that information being relayed through the channels did not, in any way, help the hostage-takers or endanger the lives of the hostages.

Meanwhile, they also called upon the government to desist from imposing any guidelines formulated by official functionaries, as this would be seen as restrictions that would run counter to the spirit of freedom of expression. They also called upon the government and the military to stop putting channels off-air, as such moves are also counter-productive.

If the idea is to stop videos that might provide “psychological strength to the extremists and cause emotional grief to the people of Pakistan,” as has been stated, the above measures are enough to ensure that this does not happen. There is, however, a perception that those behind the proposed bill want something else.

Under the pretext of repealing the “draconian” laws imposed on the media, by former President Pervez Musharraf, what the proposers of the bill intend to do is to simply silence the media. Claiming that the curbs they want to impose are “practiced all over the world,” they ignore that no democratic government issues policy guidelines to the media or prescribes what is not to be reported.

The 14-member meeting, attended by officials from ministries of defence, information, interior, finance, ISPR and Joint Staff Headquarters (JSHQ), is reported to have discussed the proposal by the JSHQ that “clearance must be obtained from the JSHQ/Ministry of Defence/ISPR before airing or publishing defence/security news/issues by the electronic and print media”. This indicates a mindset opposed to free reporting and seeks to impose censorship.

If these reports are correct, what is being considered is the muzzling of the media in the name of “national interest”, another nebulous term favoured by military rulers of the past, who claimed they alone were authorised to define what constitutes national interest. Those who want to put curbs on the media have to realise that this is just not possible in an age of information revolution and what they are to trying to do amounts to turning the wheel of history back.

The freedom enjoyed by Pakistani media was not offered to it on a platter. It was acquired through struggle and sacrifice, stretched over several decades on the part of working journalists and media houses. An independent, vibrant and responsible media, governed under the law of the land, instead of any special law crafted to curb media freedom is in the country’s supreme interest. It is hoped that our civil society, which includes the superior judiciary too, is committed to uphold and maintain the freedoms enshrined in the constitution.
Source: Business Recorder
Date:7/4/2010