In an extraordinary press conference on Monday, Pemra Chairman Absar Alam detailed the campaign of intimidation and threats being carried out against him and his employees for daring to do their duty of regulating the media. Alam played a recording of a threatening phone call made to a Pemra employee. This is not the first time Pemra and its workers have been threatened. In fact, in the past there have also been physical attacks on them. These recent threats seemed to be in reference to a TV channel which had its licences cancelled because its directors did not receive security clearances from the interior ministry. It is telling that in his press conference, Alam referred to the hate speech being spread on the media; everyone knows that it has been a hallmark of the said TV channel. Indeed, the channel’s parent company is still being investigated for the infamous fake degree scandal and other possible wrongdoings and a Pakistani man connected to the company recently pled guilty of a conspiracy to commit wire fraud in the US. That this man was caught in the US after managing to elude justice in Pakistan shows how little appetite there is for holding them accountable for their crimes here. This is especially true in the case of this media group and its backers; and conjecture on the media and elsewhere about who might be making the threats only makes the situation more worrisome. Questions around the expensive machinery, equipment and facilities that the channel appears to own have been raised when its own declared accounts failed to justify them. The seemingly unlimited funding available to the channel would suggest that it has undue influence which is now being directed at the media regulator.
Pemra should be applauded for finally taking note of the hate speech being broadcast on the electronic media. Alam has stressed that the regulator is committed to blocking content that violates the spirit of NAP. Pemra has long been considered a toothless body but it must be praised for becoming more proactive in recent months. Its chairman has pointed out that it has taken action in 357 cases, but these cases end up in court where the channels manage to get stay orders issued. Even show-cause notices issued by the regulator end up being challenged in court. The Pemra chairman has appealed to the judiciary to consider this issue constructively. Now add to these problems the threats to Alam and his staff and it becomes impossible for Pemra to function effectively in a climate of hate and fear. Alam’s appeal to the authorities to ensure the safety of Pemra’s staff should be heeded immediately. It is also the duty of the government to investigate who is issuing such brazen threats and ensure they are punished. But some are doubtful that this will happen since the prevalent view in the media and elsewhere is that powerful elements within the government are at play. Media freedom brings with it the duty to not empower extremist voices and jeopardise innocent people. It is bad enough that taking action against such channels is difficult; that it is now also accompanied by threats of violence is chilling.