IT is a bizarre directive, but entirely in keeping with the relentless assault on press freedom in this country.
The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority on Sunday declared that TV anchors could no longer offer their opinions on either their own talk shows or on other current affairs programmes as “subject matter experts”.
Their role, it said, must be limited to that of a “moderator” alone.
Moreover, according to the regulatory body, participants in such shows should “be selected with due care having credibility as fair and unbiased analysts with requisite knowledge/expertise on the subject matter”.
It referenced the Islamabad High Court having recently taken notice of talk shows in which the judiciary and institutions were ‘maligned’ and sub judice matters discussed, as the reasoning behind its latest salvo against freedom of expression.
Not surprisingly, the directive generated a furore among the media and the political class. Even federal ministers Shireen Mazari and Fawad Chaudhry as well as former finance minister Asad Umar minced no words in denouncing the move.
After trying to justify yet another ill-thought-out action taken by the ‘autonomous’ regulatory authority, the PTI government backtracked a little, claiming — falsely — that Pemra had merely issued an ‘advisory’.
The authority has no jurisdiction to define the job description of those in the profession of journalism. Nor is it its prerogative to expound on the qualifications of an ‘acceptable’ analyst.
Certainly, there are considerations as to language, sub judice matters, etc that talk show hosts must keep in mind, and there are procedures prescribed under the Pemra Act to deal with code of conduct violations.
However, procedures have fallen by the wayside in an environment where debate and dissent are being actively and unlawfully suppressed.
The arbitrary measures taken to straitjacket the media during the past year — some of them originating from ‘unknown quarters’ — include ordering channels to be taken off air, press conferences muted or not aired at all, interviews suspended, etc. The government also floated the preposterous idea of media tribunals which was fortunately shelved when it met with vociferous condemnation from the journalist community.
The ever-expanding strictures on press freedom are now beginning to throttle even the voice of those television anchors who earlier shrugged off allegations that the media in Pakistan is under sustained attack.
One may well ask whether Pemra’s latest move is a response to the fact that talk show hosts have of late become a tad more critical of the government’s performance, which some PTI legislators have found extremely irksome.
A free press is one that holds the state’s feet to the fire. The drive to reshape the media landscape into an anodyne entity shorn of any independent thought or public interest journalism can only be countered by collective resistance. Any threat to freedom of expression is a common enemy of journalists and should be treated as such.
Published in Dawn, October 30th, 2019