ISLAMABAD, June 4: President Pervez Musharraf on Monday imposed fresh curbs on the electronic media in the second such move within three days, sparking protests from journalists, politicians and lawyers.

The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Amendment) Ordinance (2007), issued just two days before the commencement of a National Assembly session, empowers the Pemra to take action on its own against television channels which violated rules.

The move virtually undoes some of the major provisions of a law passed by parliament three months ago after a two-year debate and consultations with the stakeholders.

The ordinance authorises the Pemra to confiscate the equipment of broadcasters and seal the premises without consulting a council of complaints.

The council was envisaged in the amendments passed in February. The amendment increased the fine for violators to Rs10 million from the existing Rs1 million.

Soon after the promulgation of the ordinance, journalists took to streets in Islamabad and demonstrated outside the prime minister’s secretariat after a meeting of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ). They were later joined by torch-bearing sympathisers from political parties and non-governmental organisations.

Organisations representing politicians and lawyers condemned the move while the parliamentary opposition announced plans to requisition a special session of the National Assembly’s standing committee on information.

It would also move a resolution of disapproval in the Senate.

The decree followed controversial directives issued by the Pemra on Saturday, barring television networks from airing talk shows and carrying out live coverage of events relating to the judicial crisis.

Some 10 amendments were made in the Pemra (Amendment) Act passed in February this year. An amended sub-section (5) of Section 29 reads: “Provided further that the Authority or the chairman may seize a broadcast or distribution service equipment or seal the premises which is operating illegally or (in) contravention of orders passed under Section 30.”

A new provision -- Section 39 (A) -- even authorised the Pemra to make rules and regulations on its own from time to time by simply issuing notifications. It says: “The Authority may, by notification in the official gazette, make regulations, not inconsistent with the ordinance and the rules made thereunder, to provide for all matters for which provision is necessary or expedient for carrying out the purposes of this ordinance.”

Sub-section (4) in Section 30 of the law says: “Licence of a broadcast media may be suspended on any or the grounds specified in sub-section (1), by a duly constituted committee comprising members of the Authority."

President Musharraf had issued the original Pemra Ordinance on March 1, 2002, to establish a body to regulate the electronic media. The National Assembly passed the law on May 17, 2005, with some amendments in the form of a bill (the Pemra Amendment Bill).

Journalists and opposition members deplored the rules as a `black law’.

JOURNALISTS’ CONCERN: The PFUJ and the International Federation of Journalists expressed concern over the law. They said the new law was a negation of the freedom of the media and fundamental rights of citizens.

The original law had provided for a three-member committee -- one nominee each from a licensee and the Pemra and a retired judge of a high court or the Supreme Court -- to recommend cancellation of a licence after receiving complaints.

Later, the Pemra proposed an amendment seeking abolition of this committee, but the move was opposed by media organisations, forcing parliament to replace the committee with a council of complaints (yet to be constituted) whose opinion was once again declared necessary before the revocation of a licence.

Similarly, through another amendment to the original ordinance, the Pemra attempted to make violation of the ordinance a cognizable offence and suggested special powers to police to arrest broadcast journalists and licensees without warrant on charges of `repeat violations’.

Interestingly, the National Assembly passed the amendment, ignoring the protests by media bodies, which later ran a campaign to stop the passage of the bill by the Senate.

Later, the Pemra Amendment Bill, 2005, outlived its mandatory 90-day life in the Senate and was referred to the parliamentary mediation committee. The media comprised eight members each from the Senate and the National Assembly.

The mediation committee invited representatives of all stake-holders to its meetings and after a lengthy process the Senate passed the Pemra (Amendment) Bill in August last year. The bill was later passed by the National Assembly in February, allowing newspaper owners to launch television channels.

GOVT EXPLANATION: (PEMRA) Ordinance were only intended to facilitate implementation of certain existing sections of the ordinance and no new section has been added (Agencies add)..

The spokesman said all concessions available in the ordinance remain intact and unaffected.

“As a matter of fact, the authority of the chairman to act against violations has been delegated to a committee of the authority,” he said..

The government, the spokesman said, had only very recently enacted amendments to enable cross-media ownership as a manifestation of its resolve to further the cause of media freedom. He also recalled that last week, the Pemra had approved grant of TV licence to owners of an English-language daily.

“There is no cause for any apprehension on this account.”

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