Media blackout

October 18, 2019

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FOR a change, media censorship has been called out in real time on television. On Wednesday, a press briefing by Maulana Fazlur Rehman was being shown live on Geo when the news anchor interjected to say that the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority had ordered there be no live telecast of the event. The channel would therefore, she said, be unable to continue with the broadcast. At least this time viewers were privy to who had ordered this brazen violation of the people’s right to information. More often, broadcasts in today’s Pakistan are arbitrarily suspended in a manner better suited to repressive regimes where ‘autonomous’ regulatory authorities are in reality a handmaiden of the state. Pemra has no authority to order the instant blackout of any transmission. The legislation under which it functions stipulates, in a nutshell, that it must issue a show-cause notice to the offending television channel and then, if the regulatory authority’s Council of Complaints so recommends, proceed to sanction it appropriately.

Instead, there have been several recent instances where opposition politicians’ interviews and press conferences — perfectly legitimate in any democracy — have been unilaterally suspended mid-broadcast; these include former president Asif Zardari, Maryam Nawaz, and now the JUI-F chief who is gearing up for the ‘Azadi March’. In July, Pemra issued notices to 21 channels for airing a press conference by Ms Nawaz; a day later, three channels were forced off air. In fact, even Pemra was caught off-guard when Mr Zardari’s interview was stopped just a few minutes in — which, of course, begs the question who ordered the channel to take it off air. The government itself after a few days came out with half-baked reasons for why the regulatory authority should not have allowed the event to go ahead. Certainly, hate speech and defamatory statements should not be given space, and TV channels must ensure time delay mechanisms are in place to prevent such an occurrence. On its part, however, a more mature approach is to be expected from the government, particularly a PTI government. The party milked the benefits of the much more tolerant media climate that prevailed in the country during its four-month-long dharna in 2014. The sit-in — complete with the no-holds-barred diatribes that were issued from atop a container — got wall-to-wall coverage. The party must not be so squeamish when it is on the receiving end of what is part and parcel of a democracy.

Published in Dawn, October 18th, 2019