PPP set to muzzle media ahead of general election -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

PPP set to muzzle media ahead of general election

By Asmat Zubair & Muhammad Saleh Zaafir

KARACHI: The beleaguered PPP government in its final days, just like former dictator Pervez Musharraf, is all set to launch a war against the media in order to manipulate the forthcoming general elections by issuing new regulations through the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) to ‘regulate’ the electronic media, talk shows and news presentation in accordance with its own standards.

In a clear move to save itself from the expected airing and narration of stories of its four years’ rampant corruption and the worst-ever bad governance, the PPP government has come up with a Musharraf-like strategy and that too in the final phase of its rule and has decided to crush the media freedom ignoring all constitutional clauses ensuring the freedom of the press and independence of the media.

Credible sources confirmed to The News that under instructions from some important people in the government, Pemra has completed the draft of new regulations to be imposed on the whole electronic media ahead of the next general elections and a mega event in Pemra headquarters is arranged on February 27, 2012 to get approval of this draft which will be followed by proper issuance of the notification of these anti-media regulations.

This mega event of February 27 will be presided over by none else than Information Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan and will be attended by all the members of counsel of complaints from the provinces and members of Pemra. The event will be followed by a lavish lunch at federal capital’s recreational area Daman-e-Koh.

In the drafted regulations the PPP government has directed the media to stop live coverage of the programs unless installing an effective delaying mechanism and intimate Pemra in advance regarding airing of the programmes. The PPP government has directed the anchorpersons of talk shows to clearly define the topic of their programme and keep the discussion in ambit of the topic, do not comment, do not malign any persons and make the programme ‘balanced’. Similarly, news presenters have been directed not to make comments or present any kind of analysis and present the news in a ‘balanced’ manner. The sources in Information Ministry also told The News that another clause barring the anchorpersons from making ‘sub judice’ matters a topic of their programmes. The electronic media has been repeatedly directed not to air any news which could cause alarm to the public. It is also directed that news items should not be sensationalised, however, the definition of sensationalism has not been made clear and it has been ensured by inserting a clause that interpretation of the authority on any definition will be final.

Newsmen from electronic media are also directed to present any information if they have the evidence. Whereas while reporting different news items the media men got information form their reliable sources and at times evidences are not given. It is a global mechanism in the media world. In case the information is proved wrong at a later stage, there is an automatic accountability mechanism because of which such channel or anchorpersons lose credibility.

For the election coverage, the PPP government has bounded the media not only to follow the guidelines and code issued by the Election Commission (EC) (Which is always followed), but also to follow the guidelines and code that will be issued by Pemra.

Important clauses of this new PPP government draft against media independence include:

Prior permission: Where prior permission for airing of any advertisement or programme is required to be obtained under any law, such advertisement or program shall not be aired unless requisite prior permission has been obtained.

Programming mix and live coverage: (1) A licensee shall show content as per its category and percentage wise content set out in the terms and conditions of the licence. (2) A licensee shall not broadcast any live programme unless an effective delaying mechanism has been put in place in order to ensure effective monitoring and editorial control. (3) The in-house monitoring committee appointed by the licensee as required under section 20 (f) of the ordinance shall be intimated to the Authority.

National interest: Television programmes should not: – presents information or events in a manner likely to mislead or cause alarm to the public; – sensationalises the treatment of any issue whether local, nationalistic or foreign in nature.

Evidence: Licensees shall ensure that due impartiality is observed in programmes dealing with matters of public policy or controversial issues of public importance in Pakistan and ensure that the factual content of programmes is accurate and duly supported by evidence.

Banned Groups: Licensees shall ensure that all militant groups or individuals who are notified by the government as terrorists shall clearly be so identified and statements of such militant groups or individuals shall not be aired. (It seems as if government wants to deprive the Baloch leaders from raising their voice).

Ethical and social values: Any content that maligns or slanders any individual in person or certain groups, segments of social, public and moral life of the country is not broadcast or distributed. (It seems an attempt of the government to stop media from airing stories of mega corruption by its different office-bearers).

News and current affairs programmes: News, current affairs or documentary programmes shall present information in an objective, accurate and balanced manner without being sensationalised.

Presentation of news must observe the following guidelines: – News reports/bulletins shall be presented with due impartiality and without the interjection of personal views by presenters. They shall also be clearly distinguished from commentary and analysis.

– Gloomy, sensational, or alarming details not essential to factual reporting shall not be aired as a part of news bulletin.

Parliament reporting: While reporting the proceedings of the parliament or the provincial assemblies, such portion of the proceedings as the chairman or the speaker may have ordered to be expunged, shall not be broadcast or distributed and every effort shall be made to release a fair account of the proceedings of the parliament or the provincial assemblies.

An anchorperson while conducting a talk show shall follow the guidelines:

– clearly highlight the topic of programme and ensure that discussion remains within the ambit of the topic;

– conduct the programme in an objective and unbiased manner;

– not present material in a manner that creates public panic;

– avoid exploitation that is appearing to purposefully debase or abuse a person, or group of persons;

– avoid the expression of comment and conjecture as fact;

– ensure impartial and balanced hosting of the programmes.

Besides above directions for the anchorpersons, following points might also be added:

– Shall avoid making sub judice matters as a topic

– Shall use neutral rather than critical or instigative tones during conversation

Coverage of elections: Licensees shall comply with the guidelines or code issued by the Election Commission and Pemra for the coverage of elections and airing of related programmes.

Interpretation: In case of a dispute or controversy over interpretation, purported meanings or effect of any particular content, the decision of the authority shall be final and binding on all the concerned parties.

Meanwhile, Information and Broadcasting Minister Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan brushed aside the impression that important people in the government had asked her ministry to impose or work out any new restrictions on the media.

Responding to queries regarding proposed curbs on electronic media, she said the exercise being carried out on Monday (February 27) had got nothing to do with imposing new curbs on the media.

The chairman of Pemra will harmonise the parameters of licensing conditions and state policy in due process. She said her ministry had already put up summary to the Prime Minister’s Secretariat for the appointment of suitable persons to three vacant posts including Pemra chairman. “The electronic media has attained tremendous growth, and competition among the various media houses is increasing. The government wants to appoint a person as Pemra chief who has due bureaucratic experience and knowledge of the electronic media so that he could prove to be a good manager of the department,” she said.

The minister said the workshop on Monday would prepare recommendations for this purpose that would be announced at the conclusion of the one-day exercise. “All the stakeholders of the media and relevant people will be invited for this purpose.”

Firdous said she wanted to break the status quo and for the reason she had moved the summaries for the appointment of new heads of allied organisations. “The managing director of Shalimar Recording Company has already been appointed, while the others will be designated upon the availability of the premier who will approve the appointments.” She said chairman of the Implementation Tribunal for Newspapers Employees (ITNE) had also been appointed, while a panel of three names had been sent to Prime Minister Gilani for appointing one of them as Pemra chairman. The minister said the government wanted to get the rules already in place be implemented, but it was not interested to thrust upon any new restriction.

Acting Pemra chairman Abdul Jabbar, while talking to The News, said the workshop on Monday would be an in-house exercise where the members of the standing committees of the National Assembly and Senate, and other stakeholders would be invited. The draft for regulation of electronic media formulated in the light of complaints received by the public will be placed before them. It will be filtered accordingly. Later so prepared draft will be placed before the media. He too discarded the impression that some important people in the government were involved in the formulation of the draft. He said the people at large had sent Pemra numerous complaints pertaining to the electronic media at its toll free cell number.

According to a legal expert, access to information and freedom of speech has been repeatedly affirmed by the apex court as fundamental rights that are the bedrock of our democratic set up. Independent media has also been declared vital for constitutionalism. As such, the proposed regulations are unconstitutional. Even otherwise, any hasty exercise of power on an area of such public interest, is also unconstitutional, as was affirmed by the Supreme Court in the Steel Mills Case in which whole privatisation was reversed.

The News