SC wants TV channels to reveal names of owners
ISLAMABAD: Against the backdrop of the Axact degree awarding fiasco, the Supreme Court came up on Wednesday with a suggestion calling upon private television channels to follow the practice of revealing the names of their owners as was done by the print media which published the names of editors and publishers.
“There should be a mention, may be through tickers, as to who owns a particular television channel like it was done by the print media,” observed Justice Jawwad S. Khawaja who heads a two-judge bench hearing petitions of anchorpersons Hamid Mir and Absar Alam and others seeking abolition of secret funds being maintained by the information ministry.
The chairman of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) assured the bench that the authority would place the names of owners of all TV channels on its website.
This was necessary because owners controlled the contents of programmes aired by channels, Justice Sheikh Azmat Saeed said, adding that there should not be any mystery about the ownership of a channel.
When the court asked about the news making the rounds these days about the Bol TV channel, Pemra said the authority issued licences to television channels after getting clearance from the interior ministry. In the case of Bol, Pemra said the licence had been issued in the name of Jinnah, Labbaik and then to Bol after they changed their directors.
The court asked the attorney general office to get instructions from the government and inform it on Thursday about the steps taken by a committee formed by the prime minister under his adviser Irfan Siddiqui early last year to devise a code of conduct for the electronic media and implement the ‘quite comprehensive’ guidelines outlined by a media commission comprising retired Justice Nasir Aslam Zahid and Javed Jabbar on May 31, 2013.
Pemra’s legal counsel Hasnain Kazmi admitted that the authority had taken not a single step to perform its statutory functions assigned under the Pemra Ordinance 2002 to devise a code of conduct.
“This is an alarming state of affairs considering the significance of the media in the light of Articles 19 and 19A of the Constitution which deal with the freedom of speech and right to information,” the court regretted.
Pemra officials informed the court that the authority had 612 employees and its annual grant stood at about Rs400 million.
Salaries and perks drawn by Pemra officials were quite substantial but with no apparent work, the court observed. It ordered the authority to submit details of the employees and members as well as the chairman.
The court said it might be pointed out that every single penny spent on the organisation came from the state exchequer funded by taxes and other fees charged by Pemra as a licensing authority of the electronic media.
In its report, the commission led by Justice Nasir Aslam Zahid had stressed the need for a comprehensive review of all media laws, rules and codes in the context of new objective conditions.
“While fundamental ethical values are eternal and universal, the definitions of terms, words and phrases in the context of usage by media and in the context of immediacy of news coverage require re-visitation and possible reinterpretation,” it said.
The commission recommended that parliament’s standing committees and stakeholders initiate consultations at the earliest to develop a consensus with due reference to both the changed media landscape within Pakistan and with reference to the regional and international contexts.
To ensure that such a process is result-bound and time-bound, the commission recommended that a period of six months should be specified at the end of which there should be a consensual agreement on the new codes.
It called for making Pakistan Television (PTV), Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation (PBC) and the Associated Press of Pakistan (APP) authentically autonomous entities. The commission stressed the need for reducing shareholding of the state in PTV to 25pc or less. That 75pc shares should be offered to the public through stock exchanges and through a special offering with a condition that no organisations/investors/citizens can hold more than two per cent of the total shares.
The owners of private TV channels should not be eligible to obtain any share in PTV to prevent conflict of interests. “The aim of dispersing and diffusing ownership of shares so broadly is to prevent any single group from exercising undue control over the editorial policy and programme content,” the report said.
The commission regretted that individuals in the news media were given the opportunity to become reporters, anchors, news readers or content controllers without comprehensive training in print and broadcast journalism.
Likewise, it added, advertisers virtually dictated prime time content preferences by using a narrow relatively non-representative, heavily urban and consumption-oriented rating system to pressurise channels into cutthroat competition and to a lowering of standards of content in addition to excessive commercialism e.g. advertising messages superimposed on screens during unrelated content, prolonged mid-breaks, etc.
And along with ‘breaking news’, the commission said, there were race hysteria, hype and trivialisation which promoted acrimony, conflict and grievance.