IN an increasingly restrictive environment for the media, the last thing Pemra needs is more powers to tighten the screws on the press. And yet, that is what the PTI government is attempting to do in the guise of concern for the welfare of mediapersons. On Monday, the opposition-dominated upper house rejected a bill moved by PTI Senator Faisal Javed proposing that Pemra be given the power to inquire into complaints against private channels of violating contractual obligations.

PPP Senator Sherry Rehman correctly described it as an attempt to gain further control over electronic media by using the “backdoor”. She suggested discussions be held with representative bodies including the Pakistan Broadcasters Association and the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists before enacting such legislation.

It is an undeniable fact that some media houses are violating their contractual obligations towards their employees, especially those lower down the pay scale. For example, payment of salaries can be delayed, sometimes by several months. However, it is scarcely a regulator’s job to delve into human resource management; its role should be limited to the content on electronic media. It is also ironic that the bill assumes the posture of looking out for media employees. The right to freedom of expression has been curtailed on the PTI government’s watch to such an extent that it invites comparisons with martial law times.

Intrepid journalism that speaks truth to power is an invitation to trouble in the form of threats, suspension of ads, etc. Some journalists have even been subjected to short-term abductions. To date, the government has released only a small portion of the advertising dues it owes to media outlets. This, coupled with the overall economic downturn, has resulted in hundreds of journalists losing their jobs as media houses try to cope with shrinking revenues.

Pemra has functioned as the state’s facilitator in this climate of repression. It has often gone beyond its regulatory role and crossed the line into censorship that stifles voices critical of the government or which question the state narrative. For instance, in October last year, following Nawaz Sharif’s speech from London in which he excoriated the government and the security establishment, Pemra issued an order banning TV channels from broadcasting any speeches, interviews and public addresses by proclaimed offenders or absconders. However, in March 2019, it had explicitly cited the right to freedom of speech while dismissing a complaint against speeches of retired Gen Pervez Musharraf and Allama Tahirul Qadri being aired, although both were proclaimed offenders.

A few years ago, it had no qualms about an interview of TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan, as well as a ‘confessional statement’ by death-row prisoner Saulat Mirza, being broadcast. What would serve the media far better is for all media-related laws to be revisited so that they serve the cause of democracy, not the government in power.

Published in Dawn, January 27th, 2021

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