PEMRA Orders And ‘Whatsapp Bans’: Can Freedom Of Expression Actually Prevail?
The suspension of a PEMRA letter by the Sindh High Court (SHC) on Monday, is being welcomed by supporters of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), as somewhat of a ray of hope, even though the decision is interim and the case is ongoing.
The letter released by Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority on the direction of the federal government, post the May 9 riots, had instructed news channels to stop ‘promoting hate mongers’, and although no names were taken it was apparent that it was meant for the PTI chairman, Imran Khan.
Advocate Ali Tahir, who appeared on behalf of the plaintiff Muhammad Tehamus Ali Khan, told Voicepk that while the order must be quashed to be completely finished, its suspension means it ‘no longer has any legal effect’.
“This is a big morale win for PTI, because now we may be seeing more of him on screen,” said Ali Tahir, referring to the Chairman. “If you honestly see, there is a lot of organic outreach the party leader has, which just cannot be denied by banning his appearance like this.”
The Pemra Letter
Although the former prime minister was not named in the PEMRA letter, there was mention of “anti-state activities” which it said were “orchestrated by the politically charged … zealots of [a] political party.” This coming immediately after the May 9 riots in which PTI was involved clearly indicated which party was being referred to.
The notification said, “It is indeed a fact such hate mongers, representing political outfits are abusing power against the Federation of Pakistan and state institutions by polluting innocent minds of public. This is unequivocally a very horrific trend which needs to be condemned and those involved in promoting such activities must be boycotted on media for damaging peace and tranquility in the country.”
“In the wake of aforementioned scenario, all satellite TV channels licensees are directed to remain vigilant and not to promote any hate mongers, perpetrators and their facilitators inadvertently,” it added.
Freedom of Speech: An Ironic reference by PEMRA
Ironically the PEMRA letter also mentions Article 19 of Pakistan’s constitution – an article which guarantees Freedom of Speech to all citizens. It argues in its letter that it was crucial to strike a balance between protecting freedom of expression and maintaining public order.
In fact PEMRA is the one that has exceeded its jurisdiction and violated Article 19, says veteran journalist Nasir Zaidi, also the former Secretary General of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ).
“There was no legal reason for PEMRA to have done this,” says Zaidi. “It’s a regulatory authority, and cannot make bans – so the issue should have been examined by the council of complaints because that is the basic authority. If PEMRA bypassed the council of complaints then it bypassed its jurisdiction.”
Zaidi said that journalists have always been advocating for PEMRA to have managerial powers, not powers to ban.
“We have always opposed this,” he said. “Fundamental rights are guaranteed to us in the constitution, including freedom of speech followed by freedom of press. These are our basic rights.”
In the past also PEMRA it has blacked out channels, political figures, or even issues and statements from being broadcast. While Zaidi lauds the SHC decision to suspend the order, he says the reality is far from what has been decided.
“We all know we are living under a hybrid regime which is deeply rooted in the system. They will continue to curtail our rights but we also must continue opposing anything that crosses Article 19.”
‘We are told on Whatsapp who not to interview’
In fact, only recently a known figure from a political party was banned from making any appearances on TV channels. A journalist told Voicepk, how they often receive ‘orders from above’ which simply tell them who they cannot allow on TV. There is not much room for discussion after that, because even channel owners are helpless.
“They just sent us a WhatsApp message saying, this, and this person is now banned from appearing because they said something controversial,” said the journalist. “Channels have to be paid and cannot afford to argue with the powers that be. It is we journalists who are left with ‘Whatsapp Bans’.
But Advocate Ali Tahir says, the suspension will allow it to get ‘a little easier to evade the pressure’.
“Obviously it won’t be as much freedom as a broadcaster would want, but he may get away with a little bit now. But the legal instrument not being there definitely makes a big difference.”