SC Media Commission recommends freeze on new TV licenses
By: Hamid Mir
ISLAMABAD: The Media Commission constituted by the Supreme Court has recommended to parliament to establish a Media Laws Review Task Force, restructure and rename the Ministry of Information and free Pemra, PTV, APP and PBC of government control.
The two-member commission, comprising Justice (retd) Nasir Aslam Zahid and Javed Jabbar, has submitted its 1,500-page final report to the Supreme Court after consulting 166 individuals from 81 organisations and parties across the country.
The commission also recommended that Pemra should freeze the issuance of licenses for new TV channels.
According to the report, there are 89 licensed Pakistani TV channels out of which 29 are news channels, while India has more than 650 channels.
The commission is of the view that the National Assembly and the Senate standing committees on information must establish a Media Laws Review Task Force as soon as possible and conduct a comprehensive review of all media laws, rules, regulations and codes within six months in the context of new objective conditions.
The detailed report of the commission pointed out at least 64 federal media laws and eight provincial media laws needing a comprehensive review.
The commission clearly said certain departments and functions of the Ministry of Information should either be abolished or significantly reformed in order to ensure citizens’ rights under Article 19 of the Constitution.
It suggested that there should be horizontal de-centralisation and de-control in the selection of advertising agencies and selection of media for advertising by the government entities to replace the existing centralised system with a new accountable, monitored autonomy based framework.
The report said: “The existing centralised advertising control policy operated through the Press Information Department be abolished”.
The commission noted that the caretaker government of 1996 changed the name of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to Ministry of Information and Media Development. For inexplicable reasons, the Musharraf regime reverted to the old name.
The commission further suggested that the new name of this ministry could be Ministry of Public Information and Media, Ministry of Media or Ministry of Information only.
Two journalists, Hamid Mir and Absar Alam, filed a petition with the Supreme Court last year demanding the abolition of government secret funds, unmasking of black sheep in the media and constitution of a Media Commission to consult all stakeholders for making a consensus code of ethics.
A Supreme Court bench, comprising Justice Jawad S. Khawaja and Justice Khilji Arif Hussain, ordered the formation of the Media Commission on Jan. 15, 2013.
The commission heard working journalists, media owners, advertisers, cable operators, civil society organizations, Pemra, PTV, PBC, DG ISPR and leaders of some main political parties for four months.
After hearing their points of view, the commission concluded that the main regulatory authority of the electronic media with the name of Pemra should be separated from executive control.
The commission recommended that the power to appoint chairman and members of Pemra could be given to a six-member committee of parliament comprising the speaker of the National Assembly, chairman of the Senate and leaders and opposition leaders of both the houses.
The commission also suggested another option through which the prime minister can select one name for the Pemra chairman out of three names proposed by a committee comprising the leader of opposition in the National Assembly, leader of house in the Senate, leader of opposition in the Senate and three members of civil society, the media and non-Muslims.
According to the Media Commission report, Pakistani TV channels have access to 15 million households or about 75 million viewers. Around 181 FM radio stations have access to 78 million listeners.
The commission said until completion of transition to digital broadcast technology, Pemra should freeze the issuance of new TV channel licences because there was already a glut of numbers in analogue-based technology.
The commission said the PTV was a joint-stock company wholly owned by the state and registered under the Companies’ Ordinance 1984.
It recommended that consideration be given to reducing the shareholding of the state in PTV by about 75 percent to reduce it to 25 percent or less. That 75 percent shares be offered to the public at large through the stock exchange with a condition that no individual or company can hold more than 2 percent of the total shares.
The owners of TV channels should not be eligible to own any shares in PTV.
The commission urged that the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation (PBC) and the Associated Press of Pakistan (APP) should also come out of government control.
It said the first ever attempt to permit a fully privately-owned FM radio station and TV channel was made during the second government of Benazir Bhutto (1993-1996). However, the Benazir government never followed rules and regulations properly.
The Media Commission discussed the code of ethics and self-regulations in different countries and said it was not feasible to let the content of the media be regulated exclusively through self-regulation because the experiments of self-regulation in the UK and India never produced good results.
The commission said the parliamentary bodies must play their role in making the media code of ethics by consulting all stakeholders.
The report also mentioned the allegations made by some Pemra officials against certain TV channels that they were getting foreign funds but no evidence was given to the commission.
The Media Commission report says that Pakistan’s biggest media group Jang and Geo suffered a loss of more than Rs 140 billion during the Zardari government and Musharraf regime when Geo was put off air for many months.
The report quoted the Jang and Geo group head, who met the commission members on March 12, 2013 with senior lawyers Akram Sheikh and Tariq Hassan.
The Jang and Geo group head informed the Media Commission that the figure of his losses could be verified from the documents about the quantum of advertisements Geo was getting just before it was put off air and the quantum of advertisements it received after being allowed to go on air in Pakistan. He told the commission that people don’t realise how he managed to pay salaries to the employees under such adverse circumstances.
He narrated many incidents of how he and his group had been victimised by the successive governments from Ziaul Haq to Zardari. He pointed out that the then Chairman Pemra was a serving federal secretary of the information ministry and Pemra should be free from government influence.
When the Media Commission met top responsible officials of Pemra, they levelled allegations against Jang and Geo. They did this after they came to know what was said about them and realised that the then incumbent government had banned ads to Geo and inflicted damage on it.
They claimed that the Zara Sochiye campaign had received 20 million pounds from unknown sources but they never produced any evidence to the commission.
They also alleged that Aman ki Asha was funded by a Norwegian NGO but again their claim was without any credible evidence.
Jang and Geo spokesman denied all these charges and said that a defamation case will be filed against all those who made these baseless allegations against them in front of the Media Commission members.
The Supreme Court has asked the petitioners and respondents, including the information ministry, to file their opinion on the final report of the Media Commission by July 28.