Media mess — III
While the media mess is now squarely in the courts, the government support to Geo and the reservations of the ministry of defence are backed by the public. The shortcomings of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) are being exposed. It is important that we put our heads together and try to find a common sense system of checks and balances. The major actor in the whole affair should have been PEMRA, which is at this time divided. The division is clearly between government-nominated board members and the private members. The private members recommended the closure of Geo, Geo Tez and Geo Entertainment while the government members were absent from the meeting that took this decision. The government members who are all civil servants and government nominees will act according to the wishes of the top boss. Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif has said that he will not let Geo close. The PM probably knows that this is not a very popular move with supporters of the army, yet he is still taking this stand. Can PEMRA play a role? Probably not, because the government has failed to appoint a chairman so it is headless.
In these circumstances the media regulatory work was obviously not being done. So some channels, in fact most of them, violated the PEMRA code blatantly and got away with it. No notice was taken if public sensibilities and sensitivities were violated. Advertisements as a source of revenue were chased. Viewers’ patience was tested by long and repeated ‘breaks’. Sometimes it seemed as we are just seeing commercial adverts with short ‘breaks’ for the actual programmes! Viewers were forced to move to BBC and other foreign channels to avoid the hammering by commercials. Obviously Geo got the most mileage. Finally enough was enough and the armed forces/ministry of defence filed a complaint. In the future corrective measures must be taken. The laws pertaining to PEMRA must be revised in the light of recent experiences. But more important is regular and effective vigilance over the TV channels. PEMRA should not be reduced to collecting fees and favours. All TV channels must strictly follow an agreed editorial policy. The editorial policy must be in conformity with PEMRA laws and PEMRA should monitor them on a daily basis. PEMRA needs to be equipped to do so. Each channel should provide the recording facilities for their day’s programmes and pay a monthly monitoring fee. A PEMRA supervisory panel should check on a daily basis that the editorial policy is followed. If violations occur, a warning and appropriate fine should be imposed immediately. PEMRA also needs to grow out of just government and political composition. It must engage an effective number of intellectuals, scholars, researchers and specialists to provide intellectual and technical input. Revenues and revenue sources definitely need declaration. The owners, employees and associates must be under the radar to check signs of sudden riches. This is extremely important to control illegitimate funding. The annual balance sheets must be scrutinised. Any channel that does not pay taxes promptly must be closed down without exception. If they show losses, government audits should take place and if the losses are for more than three years, the channel should wind up and the investors should look for some other business. TV channels should stand alone as companies and not be taken as loss-making propositions, absorbing profits from other ventures of the sponsors. This is the case in many situations as the owners transfer the advantage of the media setup to other businesses and escape paying taxes.
It is also important that a policy be devised as to who can qualify to be an anchorperson. Newcomers may or may not be good. The integrity of the anchor is extremely important. No anchor should use the media facility to directly or indirectly promote his personal agenda. This is not and should not be his role. The prime responsibility of the media owner and media functionary is to the public. Information mediums must play the role of responsible information, education, entertainment and general awareness for viewers. They need to help viewers to grow in understanding life and its responsible ways. They need to promote tolerance, hard work, responsible behaviour, decencies, courtesies, good humour, awareness of international communities, and religious understanding including Haqooq Allah (rights of God) and Haqooqul Ibad (rights of man). This is only an indicative list. A complete sense of social responsibility must be displayed in a pleasant way and not in boring sermons. Such is the demand of skills from media persons. They must work as leaders in building the character of individuals and of a respectable nation. Unfortunately there has been more hooliganism than sharing of knowledge. Anchors are mostly unprepared and rely on asking “How do you look at it?” This is a favourite escape cliché of most of the unprepared interviewers.
A review must also be made of the size of the market. Advertisements being the sole revenue source, it should be assessed as to how many TV channels can be sustained by this source. All channels that are not sustainable by these revenues will look for shady alternatives and that must be blocked. The rating system needs to be expanded and parameters redefined. Healthy content should be factored into decision-making and advertisers should be educated accordingly. Finally PTV and the Broadcasting Corporation must take a lead role and get out of their defeatist role. They have traditions, accumulated skills, systems and archives of extreme national significance. Governments should stop using these as only government organs. In reality these organisations live on taxpayer money and should work for popularity in the public in a responsible and decent way.