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ISLAMABAD: The Supreme Court on Thursday ordered the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) to ensure that editorial monitoring is maintained by television channels before airing programmes.

“Any programme, the subject or content of which is found or deemed to be in violation of Pemra’s code of conduct for electronic media, should not be aired by the licensee [television channels],” said a 33-page judgement authored by Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar.

In its judgement, the court ordered Pemra to remind the electronic media through notices about basic ethics and objectives, standards and obligations under clause 4(10) of the code of conduct.

The directives came in a suo motu case regarding a talk show called “Power Play” of ARY News, in which anchorperson Arshad Sharif made certain comments and raised questions about a matter pending adjudication before the Supreme Court.

Although the panellists on the show repeatedly told the anchorperson that his comments might amount to encroaching upon the proceedings before the apex court, he insisted that the chief justice should call him to highlight contradictions in the affidavit filed by former president Asif Ali Zardari.

Accepts TV anchor’s apology over coverage of sub judice matter

Later, a contempt of court notice was issued to the anchorperson and he was summoned by the Supreme Court.

“If voluntary violations or even negligence by the licensees to ensure adherence thereto is not penalised by Pemra,” said the judgement, “the code of conduct will be rendered absolutely redundant.”

Consequently, the court issued a writ of mandamus to Pemra to ensure that the parameters laid down in the law and the code of conduct were adhered to in letter and spirit and that no violations thereof would be tolerated.

The court recalled that the code of conduct ensured that the freedom of speech and the right to information (Articles 19 and 19A of the Constitution) were protected and that the discussion on sub judice matters must be conducted in a manner which did not negatively affect another person’s fundamental right to be dealt with in accordance with the law (Article 4) and the right to fair trial and due process (Article 10A).

Any discussion on a sub judice matter could be aired but only to the extent of providing information to the public which was objective in nature and not subjective. And no content, including commentary, opinion or suggestion about the potential fate of sub judice matter, which tended to prejudice the determination by a court or tribunal, be aired, the order said.

Likewise, the content based on extracts of court proceedings, police records and other sources were allowed to the extent that they were fair and correct and news or discussions in the programmes would not be aired that would likely jeopardise ongoing inquiries, investigations or trials, the verdict said.

In compliance with clause 5 of the code of conduct, all licensees should ensure that an effective delaying mechanism was in place for broadcasting live programmes to ensure stern compliance with the code and Articles 4, 10A and 204 of the Constitution, it said.

Similarly, in compliance with clause 17 of the code of conduct, an impartial and competent in-house “monitoring committee” should be formed by all television channels with intimation to Pemra. The authority would be duty bound to ensure compliance with the code.

If any licensee is found to have violated or failed to observe the code in its true letter and spirit, particularly clause 4 or Articles 4, 10A and 204 of the Constitution, strict and immediate action should be taken against such licensee in accordance with Section 33 of the Pemra Ordinance.

The Supreme Court or any high court, the verdict said, retained the power to take cognisance of the matter and would exercise its powers under Article 204 of the Constitution, if the court considered it appropriate.

The court, however, accepted the unconditional and unqualified apology tendered by Arshad Sharif in view of the fact that it was tendered sincerely and he expressed remorse, promising not to repeat such reckless and irresponsible behaviour, and disposed of the matter accordingly.

Published in Dawn, November 9th, 2018

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