DAWN - Editorial; June 16, 2007

Published June 16, 2007

The Punjab budget

PUNJAB’S budget document for the year 2007-08 is rich on claims of achievements over the last five years. It puts before the people an impressive picture of an administration that has the funds and must spend them. Having said that, the government may find it difficult to justify some of the biases that show in the allocations. A so-called ‘balanced’ budget is never easy to achieve. It is all the more difficult when the intent is to please the majority in an election year. The Rs356.170 billion budget envisages a revenue expenditure of Rs243.480 billion and a surplus of Rs112.680 billion. The allocation for the Annual Development Programme has been raised by 50 per cent to Rs150 billion. The budget includes a Rs25 billion relief package. The allocations for general public services are up by 21.5 per cent to Rs149.765 billion, for public order and safety affairs by 38.87 per cent to Rs34.713 billion, for economic affairs by 49 per cent to Rs23.182 billion, for health by 22 per cent to Rs7.194 billion, for education and services by 68 per cent to Rs23.745 billion, for social protection by 22 per cent to Rs1.723 billion, for culture and religion by 29 per cent to Rs650.363 million and for environment by four per cent to Rs27.208 million. The expenditure for housing and community amenities has been revised downwards by 57 per cent and is projected at Rs2.484 billion.

The emphasis obviously is on taking initiatives that are there to be appreciated. Education and health are two very visible sectors where the government boasts of having made big strides forward. In his budget speech, the provincial finance minister said that since the year 2002, the literacy rate in Punjab had risen from 47 per cent to 62 per cent, which is incredible. He also sought credit for the government’s success in staffing the basic health units with doctors and paramedics and providing free-of-cost treatment to patients in emergencies at all major hospitals. He promised two-kanal land units to the landless in rural areas and announced three pilot projects under the scheme in southern Punjab – an area the government expects to capture in the next election. However, a fresh evidence of how keen it is on playing the old tunes to the gallery came in the form of a shocking four per cent increase for environment. The people by and large maybe unaware of the dangers posed to the environment, but a government which is in the habit of praising itself for having a vision should have done better. Further, it does not improve its image by providing for the government employees from a Rs25 billion relief package. Notwithstanding the value of these schemes, it may invite criticism from villages and small towns by allocating big amounts for urban projects such as Lahore mass transit system and Lahore-Sialkot motorway.

Perhaps an even bigger proof of budget-makers’ desire to stick to the old track is found in the meagre increase in the funds for the local bodies. The Annual Development Programme has been given Rs150 billion as compared to Rs100 billion in the outgoing year, yet the funds for district management that are spent through union councils etc have been increased by only two billion rupees and now stand at Rs14 billion. This is surely a sign that while the Punjab government swears its allegiance to President Pervez Musharraf, it is not willing to delegate power to the grassroots as promised by him. Certainly not in an election year.

Mosques on encroached land

THE chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology has reiterated the CII’s opinion that mosques built on encroached land were considered illegal in Islam and prayers offered there were not acceptable under the shariah. This was also stated earlier, though not exactly in the same words, by the Imam-i-Kaaba, who visited Islamabad a fortnight ago. Hence how can the management of a mosque justify the illegal occupation of land that does not belong to it? What is intriguing is that with such clear-cut injunctions on the matter, the government has been hesitant to act firmly vis-à-vis the clerics of Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa in Islamabad who have resorted to blackmail to defend their encroachment —Lal Masjid was allotted 250 square yards but now spreads over an area of 7,850 square yards. Although they have no religious or moral sanction for encroachment, 82 mosques in the federal capital have managed to resist moves to get them to vacate their occupation.

This has been possible because of the high-profile drama enacted by the Lal Masjid administration which got its women to occupy the children’s library, seize three women on alleged grounds of immorality, capture policemen and threaten to unleash suicide attacks all over the country. What is worrying is the government’s approach. It has prevaricated on the issue. The spokesmen who were sent to negotiate with the clerics have attempted to appease them — offering to rebuild the demolished Hamza mosque and six others (albeit on alternative plots) and stop further demolition. This has only emboldened the Lal Masjid clerics and encouraged Maulana Ghazi to make further demands. It is now five months and the siege of the library has still not been vacated. The government has been reassuring the public that it is working for a negotiated settlement based on consensus. But this has amounted to showing weakness and has sent the message to the maulanas that they will not be touched. Is the government playing politics on the Lal Masjid issue? It is advisable that it does not. While all religious leaders are to be respected, they cannot be allowed to violate the law. The government surely has ways and means of getting encroachments vacated without using excessive force or causing bloodshed.

The law is not a football

By Javed Jabbar

SOME indicators eloquently reveal how the present government has treated the Pemra (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority) law like a football: to be kicked at will, to be held in the hands in a state of de facto “suspension” similar to the de jure (?) suspension of a serving Chief Justice. During such time, and not always due to a trick of the light, the football is seen to be held motionless, up in the air, to become the sword of Damocles dangling over the freedom of the electronic media.

Prior to the evening of June 4, 2007, there is no public record of any meeting of the federal cabinet held to discuss the draft amendments. Consideration and approval by the cabinet is an inescapable prerequisite for cabinet-based draft lawmaking in a parliamentary system of government. So, first, the government itself breaks the law about draft lawmaking. Then, having kicked the new spiked law into the field, the same government, within three days, decides to “suspend” the operation of that very law.

If the second action is to be taken as an expression of how sensitive and respectful the government is to the views of the people and the media as they were so intensely expressed in four days, it is revealing as to how much the same government is out of touch with reality because it chooses to make rash amendments in the first place.

After the inevitable outcry, talks held between the government and media are used to pose the threat of perpetuating the new amendments as a means to make the media more compliant. Some credence to this view is added by the outcome of the meeting held between the office-bearers of the Pakistan Broadcasters’ Association (PBA) and the prime minister on June 6, 2007. The media reported that this discussion concluded with an agreement to review the amendments along with the assurance by the PBA that the electronic media fully respects the integrity of the judiciary and the armed forces.

As if this were not enough, another meeting with the PBA took place: this was with the president of Pakistan on June 9, 2007, after which it was reported that the amendments may be withdrawn altogether. So the football gets kicked right out of the field even before the actual play begins.

There is also the complete disconnect between the proprietors of the electronic media holding productive talks with the government and in contrast, the voluble public protests by journalists on the streets and, breaking all rules and norms of parliament in the press gallery of the National Assembly.

The now “suspended” Pemra amendments, deserve consideration in a global and regional context. By coincidence, on May 28, 2007, in Kuala Lumpur just about a week before the amendments were introduced in Pakistan, a special workshop was convened on the subject of “Reforming and Enhancing Regulatory Mechanisms for Electronic Media”. This workshop was held on the eve of the fourth Asia Media Summit.

Now a steadily growing annual event, the summit this year drew over 500 delegates from over 70 countries to examine issues pertinent to media, societies, states and governments.

The summit hosts invited this writer to present the conclusions of the workshop during which there was robust debate. Thirty-three determinant principles were identified for a progressive regulatory approach. Ten are stated below because of their special relevance to the situation in Pakistan in 2007.

(i) Perhaps the most relevant principle to gain unanimous endorsement was that a regulatory body (e.g. Pemra) should be consistent rather than unpredictable and inconsistent, a condition best assured by conducting extensive consultations with all stakeholders before policy formulation as well as before amendments are made to existing laws and policies. This was the irreducible condition completely violated in Pakistan in the case of the recent amendments.

(ii) There was also complete consensus on the point that the rule of law, respect for human rights and a truly democratic environment are vital pre-conditions for the authentic independence of any regulatory body. In Pakistan, we have apparent and ostensible features for these requisites without their actual and substantive existence.

If the law is being treated like a football, Pemra is also being shunted like a powerless empty train bogey instead of being an autonomous engine of regulation. Pemra began in 2002 by being placed under the information ministry. Then it was moved to the cabinet division in 2005 and has now been moved back to the information ministry. The government seems to be quite confused not only about how to make laws and what laws to make as well as about where to place the relevant enforcement body.

Wherever it is placed, Pemra plays its own legal football. The approach to law is incoherent and inconsistent. Daily blatant examples of piracy of Hollywood films and Indian films by Pemra-licensed cable TV operators and violations of intellectual property rights by even a stock exchange-listed cable TV distributor are completely ignored. Such disregard for the law by Pemra encourages others to break the law and to treat the law as a private plaything.

Telecasts by global channels like CNN are also “stolen” off the air in broad daylight under the nose of Pemra and allowed to be distributed by cable operators without payment of royalties. Other instances of Pemra’s inconsistency include the fact that more than one leading Pakistani private TV news channel originally broadcasting from Dubai was allowed to be freely distributed through cable TV for about two years even though the channel’s name did not appear on the “approved” list for local cable TV distribution on Pemra’s website.

(iii) The workshop participants agreed that the regulatory body should also be neutral and impartial to the extent that it be “agnostic” rather than of fixed and declared “ideology” (i.e. not as in religious ideology!). The “agnostic” option is meant to convey that in a rapidly changing technological and social environment it is better for a regulatory body to concede: “I do not know” rather than say: “I know it all”.

This particular view came from the chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, which co-exists with as many as 16 different official and professional regulatory bodies, representative associations and forums which have an interface of one kind or another with the regulation and operation of electronic media in Australia where exists one of the “freest” media environments.

(iv) It was noted that communications technology is evolving at a blistering speed, and that there will always be a gap between new technology and lawmaking.

(v) But at the same time, participants agreed this should not allow corporate interests or partisan, or government interests, to prevail over the public interest.

(vi) The need for regulatory bodies to ensure prompt access for the public through multiple forums and not just one, to handle complaints against media was stressed.

(vii) For the chief executives and directors of regulatory bodies it was recommended to continuously enhance their individual knowledge and professional capacities without letting seniority become an obstacle to new learning.

(viii) Because regulation is unavoidable, such regulation should take four forms: self-regulation (singular, as well as collective), social (by viewers and listeners and by civil society), by the state (through governments accountable to parliament), and on the global level, through codes for transnational broadcasters.

(ix) It was noted that regulation is about enablement, not about coercion and restriction.

(x) Both the media and regulatory authorities should acknowledge that the values of responsibility, fairness, balance and accuracy are larger values than freedom of expression alone.

One of the distinct achievements of the dispensation between October 1999 and June 2007 is the transformation of the electronic media landscape in Pakistan. Contrary to the claim that such radical change was inevitable due to new technologies and global trends, reference should be made to the situation in countries as varied as Iran, Malaysia and Singapore, amongst several others.

These three countries have achieved per capita incomes, literacy and education levels far higher than Pakistan. Yet Pakistan is far ahead of the three countries in offering optimal choice of electronic media channels. And the contrast is not due to differences in population size. The critical difference is due to government policy which is pivotal to facilitate the people’s access to optimal mass media choices.

To deal with the coverage of the post-March 9 situation starring Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in the lead role, and to deal with the ambivalent nature of live coverage of the seminar in the Supreme Court auditorium and the May 12 violence in Karachi, the government and Pemra could have used dialogue to persuade the media, without curbing its freedom, to ensure balance and fairness, instead of hype and hysteria.

In certain aspects, some media outlets themselves need to conduct self-analysis and self-criticism to improve the use they make of the unprecedented freedom they enjoy.

Coming as it did less than 90 days after the forced removal of the Chief Justice, the Pemra episode has grossly damaged the government’s credibility. The misadventure has also demeaned the sanctity of lawmaking by reducing what should be a solemn, careful process to something like a weird pantomime enacted with a football.

The writer is a former federal information minister.

It’s not just Wazir Mansion

THE utter neglect of all things of the country’s heritage, including those related to the Quaid-i-Azam, is a sorry reflection on our commitment to the past. A report says that a balcony of the Wazir Mansion in Karachi, the home where Mr Jinnah was born, collapsed. It’s ironic that the collapse occurred while renovation was being carried out as part of the 2003-8 Wazir Mansion Project which aims at restoring the house. The mishap speaks volumes about the administration’s careless attitude towards the preservation and care of national heritage. Unfortunately, this kind of attitude has long been the norm and explains the decaying state of cultural heritage sites, of which the country has many to boast of. International agencies have repeatedly asked the government to preserve and protect historical sites which they mark as endangered in their annual reports — but nothing has come of those warnings. In March the World Monuments Fund listed the Makli and Mian Nasir Mohammad graveyards in Sindh as two of 100 endangered sites, saying that they were under serious threat from neglect. It is safe to assume that the government has done nothing about it.

The authorities are guilty of indifference, which explains their inability to come down hard on the departments responsible for the upkeep of heritage sites and monuments. If the neglect continues, there will be no past left to preserve and that will be the ultimate tragedy. It is not just Mr Jinnah’s house whose renovation work is being done in a shoddy manner, his tomb too needs to be properly maintained as its structure is visibly unclean. Not only should repair and renovation work be carried out on all heritage sites in the country, those responsible for neglecting and delaying the work should be taken to task.

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007



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