Media regulation

August 31, 2018

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PERHAPS Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry and the PTI federal government he represents are well-intentioned and mean no harm in proposing a ‘Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority’ to replace existing regulatory bodies for all forms of media. But before any steps to disband the existing media regulators and replace them with PMRA are taken, the information minister will need to share a great deal more information on what the government’s vision and purpose are, and the PTI government must hold wide-ranging consultations with all stakeholders in the media industry. On a day when the HRCP released a damning report on manipulation and intimidation of the media in Pakistan, a hastily mooted idea by the federal government to centralise all media regulation in the county must be viewed with significant scepticism by both the media and its consumers across the country. History suggests that a push for media regulation by the state is often only a pretext for greater state control of the media.

Certainly, the PTI has made a number of positive promises when it comes to the management and editorial control of state-run media, particularly PTV and Radio Pakistan, and the proposal to establish PMRA may be part of an effort to move quickly to effect positive change in the media industry. But as a first-time ruling party at the centre, the PTI may not have enough familiarity with and experience of media structures and regulation in the country and could be approaching the issue naively. Media regulation, to the extent that it is ever necessary and constitutionally justified, is a highly sensitive matter and cannot be done in a one-size-fits-all manner. Print, broadcast/electronic and social media are fundamentally different news, information and analysis platforms and it is unrealistic, unwise and even anti-democratic to club them together for the purposes of regulation. Moreover, unlike the very new social media and the relatively new private broadcast media, print media is a settled industry with several well-established regulatory and oversight bodies. What possible legitimate reasons could there be for imposing a new regulatory regime on print media?

In the case of regulation of television news channels, there is a strong argument to be made that Pemra is not fundamentally and irreversibly flawed in design, but it is the political and state capture of the authority that is the problem. If there are excesses and mistakes in news coverage and opinion programming in the electronic media, a professional and independent Pemra could almost without doubt adequately regulate TV news channels with the cooperation and consent of media houses. Finally, in the realm of social media, the world at large is increasingly aware of problems with the medium, but in Pakistan social-media monitoring has already raised the spectre of unlawful and anti-democratic interference by elements within the state. Media regulation must always be minimal, transparent and fully justified.

Published in Dawn, August 31st, 2018