THE regulation of TV and radio channels is a subject of direct relevance to all citizens. Electronic media have been allowed to become an informative but distortive, often incoherent determinant of public discourse and agenda-setting.
Aspects of regulation should not be seen as obscure, technocratic matters better left to public office-holders and specialists. In large part, the loud cacophony — instead of soberly pursued clarity — that marks our present news media scene is due to critical lapses in policies and practices in the regulatory sphere, partly because of the absence of activism by a well-informed citizenry.
The dismissal of Chaudhry Rashid Ahmed as chairman, Pemra — the media regulatory authority — on Thursday requires reflection on four issues.
First is the need to acknowledge that regulation of media should be rooted in the statutory, legally impregnable independence of the regulatory body. By keeping Pemra either with the information ministry or with the cabinet division, by arbitrarily framing rules and regulations that strengthen the executive’s powers which have sometimes violated the spirit and intent of the original law — eg increasing the number of members from government and permitting cross-media ownership without checks — the nexus between regulator and government has deepened, instead of being weakened over the past 12 years. Fine models of credible independence as in Australia and elsewhere have neither been emulated nor adapted as the next incremental steps.
The second flows from the first. This is the dire need to give solid substance to independence. One possible change underlines how this can be done: elimination of the prime minister’s discretionary power to appoint the chairman from three shortlisted names provided by the information ministry.
The potentially farcical aspect of such power was best expressed when the PPP government in January 2013 selected the name of the secretary of the information ministry to be the new chairman on the basis of a summary put up by the secretary himself.
To eliminate such misuse of discretionary power the Media Commission appointed by the Supreme Court in January 2013 — and whose report was submitted on May 31, 2013 — proposes two options: both require bipartisan consensus in parliament between treasury and opposition on the three shortlisted candidates for chairman, as also on consensus for members.
Further, the commission proposes that Pemra be made directly accountable to parliament. And that the majority of Pemra members be non-official persons.
With a laudable demonstration of promoting the public interest rather than partisan interests, the National Assembly Standing Committee on Information, Broadcasting & National Heritage, comprising members of both ruling and opposition parties, in its meeting on April 16, 2014 unanimously endorsed this recommendation of the Media Commission, amongst several others.
The third issue is the innate tendency of the previous and present governments to wilfully undermine the judgements by the superior courts where such verdicts prevent the perpetuation of untenable actions.
For instance, the PPP government of 2008-13 deliberately omitted to appoint a full-time, regular chairman of Pemra for as long as two years to thwart a Supreme Court ruling rendering the previous appointment irregular.
Keeping it company, the present PML-N government, faced with a nullification by the Islamabad High Court of its process-violating dismissal of Chaudhry Rashid, created a new three-member committee in Pemra and authorised it to exercise most of the chairman’s powers.
The capacity of the executive to flout the intent of the superior courts, and to compound the internal mess in the regulatory body, deserves consideration of new measures to eliminate such misuse of administrative sleight-of-hand.
But the judiciary, notwithstanding its commendable determination to curb excesses, and the legal sector do not always smell of fragrant roses. Which brings us to the fourth issue. This is the odour of decay floating up from about 82 cases stagnating in various high courts due to stay orders obtained by owners of TV and radio channels to suspend the enforcement of notices, fines, or cancellations of licences by the much-maligned Pemra.
The honourable judges appear unwilling to step on the media’s not so delicate toes. In fact, these are well-endowed feet. Senior, high-fee-charging lawyers are engaged. Adjournments can be granted ad infinitum. So instead of stay orders remaining operative for a few weeks at the most, cases with stay orders drag on for years without conclusion.
Meanwhile, alleged offenders continue to broadcast freely. They repeat the same offences for which the regulatory body seeks to penalise them.
About 281 cases concerning Pemra, including the 82 in which status quo is maintained, presently await adjudication. Several ‘religious’ TV channels broadcast daily, even though they have no licences, courtesy of the infamous stay orders.
Surely the superior judiciary should establish that the media are as much subject to accountability and discipline as are all those other institutions and individuals that were made subject to the principle of suo motu in recent years.
In initial responses by Information Minister Senator Pervez Rashid, and his ministry to recent questions in the National Assembly, in written submissions to the Supreme Court, and during participation in the meeting of the National Assembly Standing Committee referred to earlier — which this writer attended by special invitation from chairperson Marvi Memon — the government’s approach to proposed reforms encourages hope for progressive change. The nation awaits this change.
The writer served as a member of the Media Commission 2013 and is a former senator and information minister.