Time ripe for freeing electronic media: Dr Shah -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

Time ripe for freeing electronic media: Dr Shah

ISLAMABAD- The chairman of Citizens Media Commission and a former chief justice of Pakistan Dr Nasim Hasan Shah, has said that freedom of the air waves will ultimately be a great boon to Pakistan, and added that “I would strongly urge on this third anniversary of the Electronic Media Freedom Day that the time is now ripe and indeed, opportune for concrete steps for freeing the electronic media and casting off its shackles.”

He was delivering presidential address at the Electronic Media Freedom Day ceremony at a roundtable discussion with the theme “The Challenges of Freedom” at a hotel.

The adviser to the chief executive of Pakistan on national affairs, information and media development, Javed Jabbar, was the chief guest at the function which had been sponsored by the German NGO, Friedrich Ebert Striftung, and was attended by representatives both print and electronic media, intellectuals and experts on the media.

Shah said on February 14, 1997, Javed Jabbar helped in the promulgation of the ordinance called the Electronic Media Regulatory Authority Ordinance, 1997, (EMRA). This law went on to define for the first time as well as fair, open and transparent process for the award of licences to citizens, private corporations etc to operate their own Radio and TV channels.

On that date (February 14, 1997), it was also decided that February 14, each year should be declared as Electronic Media Freedom Day to emphasise the need for autonomy of state owned electronic media and the need of a new framework for independent and private electronic media in Pakistan.

The commission chairman said: “It is our good fortune on the third anniversary of the day that the chief guest is Javed Jabbar again heading the ministry” of information, and we can legitimately look forward for positive steps for the liberation of the electronic media from the shackless in which it is bound and for making it entirely free.” Pleading for the freedom of the airwaves, he also pointed out the challenges of this freedom, which he said deserved careful consideration.

He, however, stressed that it cannot be overlooked that to give to the electronic media, especially the new TV channels, an unfettered freedom would be far more dangerous than the freedom enjoyed by the print media; more so for the reason that its message would be nationwide or community-wide, and retraction in this media of libellous speech is entirely difficult. The scope to blackmail is so immense that civilised society may become a hostage to this freedom of the airwaves, what such freedom may lead to, with TV stations independent from the Pakistan Television, mushrooming in the major metropolis of Pakistan can make one shudder, he said.

Dr Shah said that to start with, “We do not have at present sufficient technical capability and financial resources to run and operate such stations, and Pakistan could well and up with a mushroom of shoddy programmes and screening of films, mostly from America and India. But the far more serious danger is the injunction and influence of foreign money in our airwaves. These channels may be projecting in a very subtle way the political aims of those interests.”

The former chief justice cautioned that Pakistan must be wary of this. “To put it candidly, what is there to prevent an Indian inspired channel or channels, with its origins and roots totally camouflaged, to brainwash the people of Pakistan. This will not be crude propaganda effort to show Indian films and project the statements of bellicose Indian propagandists. It will be far more subtle.”

He pointed out that the CNN, which is as American as blue berry pie, has succeeded in brainwashing Pakistan thinking to a great extent. “Imagine the danger, if this is being done a 24-hour basis from the soil of Pakistan itself. Freedom can sometimes become a very cruel mistress.”

He, however, said: “We should not be frightened and we must not overlook the positive side of the concept of the freedom of the air waves. If the freedom of air waves is accompanied with responsible ownership and programme direction then it would truly fit into the pattern of freedom of thought which Quaid-e-Azam so eloquently spoke off.”

Nasim said the ultimate issue would be how to balance this freedom with the sovereign interests of Pakistan. “this issue has been discussed and debated in the past. The consensus reached on this issue is that in achieving this balance an important role would devolve on a monitoring committee of eminent citizens.” He suggested that this committee should include retired judges, bureaucrats, leaders from political parties and people from the various chambers like commerce and industry, agriculture, banking sectors and others.

This committee of citizens should carefully monitor the day-to-day functioning of such channels. If the channels overstepped the boundaries of civilised and responsible behaviour then heavy punitive fines should be imposed – even terms of imprisonment for the errant owners of the TV channels. This would keep the owners within the bounds of legal framework and civilised behaviour. Shah concluded with the remark “Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom” (Mao tse Tung).

Javed Jabbar said that there was a possibility of camouflaging as Pakistanis by non-Pakistanis. It happened in the past when it was found that certain persons at the helm of affairs of a TV channel were of Indian origin. “This government”, he held out the assurance, “would see to it that the licences for the new television and radio stations are granted to Pakistanis including oversees Pakistanis. The owners would have the ownership as well as the management control and abide by the policies of Pakistan.”

He said that it would be ensured that the new TV channels and radio stations are not misused. Those found misusing this facility would be penalised and their stations would be cut off immediately with legal action to be followed.

Javed said that there would be no distinction so far as the granting of the licences is concerned. He wished to clarify the term “cross-ownership”. He said that the owner of a newspaper would be entitled to own a television or radio station.

He said “It is ironic that the Armed Forces, which are considered a regimented organisation, took this fateful decision of allowing the establishment of independent television and radio stations.” He further added that “it goes to the credit” of the Chief Executive that in the first address to the nation he had announced the decision to allow the opening of cable television and radio stations.

Source: Business Recorder
Date:2/15/2000