A MERE four months after Geo News was fined and its broadcast licence temporarily suspended by Pemra, on Monday it was ARY News that was similarly cautioned with a 15-day licence suspension and a Rs10m fine. The institutions these channels are deemed to have harmed are different — it is the ISI in the former instance and the judiciary in the second. But the root of the problem is the same: the airing of content that has displayed a problematic journalistic ethos and the failure to weed out undesirable or reckless commentary. Whether the punishment meets the scale of the transgression is debatable in such cases. But what is not debatable is that on several occasions, in different ways, Pakistan’s vibrant and outspoken electronic media have erred on the side of being too lax in their application of filters, and have consequently underscored the need for regulation.
There is, of course, a lot of difference between censorship and regulation. Across the world, the functioning of the electronic media is subjected to the scrutiny of regulatory bodies that act as the media’s conscience and in the public interest. This was precisely the reasoning behind the establishment of Pemra. That said, however, there are in practical terms certain problems with the watchdog. These require rectification — and on an urgent basis. First, where regulatory bodies are effective, they also have considerable power to implement their decisions and, more importantly, are viewed as having an entirely independent and transparent functioning. What is Pemra’s implementing power? Now that ARY’s licence has been suspended, the country will no doubt see the same situation as it did with Geo: depending on individual cable operators’ inclination, the broadcast will cease in some areas and not in others. Second, as a result of the Geo/ARY debacle, Pemra as it stands today has been tainted with political hues, and there are reasons to fear that its decisions may not be as independent as could be hoped for. This needs to be reversed. Further, there is no argument that Pakistan’s electronic media landscape can do with better, clearer rules that should be applied fairly, with transparency, and across the board. All this can be achieved if the Pemra regulatory framework is subjected to close parliamentary re-examination. As long as the main stakeholders are kept part of the consulting process, there is no reason a new regulator with new rules cannot be created.