THERE are hard truths in both the polarised positions of the federal government and the non-state, multi-media sector on the proposed Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA).
Convergence in communication technology merges print, electronic, cinematic and digital media content into a single stream available on all smartphones. Authentic information floats side by side with fake news and disinformation. They often overlap to become indistinguishable. Where one part of the flow is produced through reliable professional journalism, the other can be let loose by hostile forces to inject confusion. Or even by a single individual who forwards false claims that millions exchange within minutes. In between there are the lethal half-truths masquerading under the façade of ‘recognised’ but defective journalism.
Regulating media in 2021 is a global dilemma. In another country that broadly shares with Pakistan a noisy, diverse civil and political society, even one as ‘advanced’ as the US, the private platform Twitter bans former president Trump because he tweets falsehoods. A strongly contrasting country like China does not even permit the abandon of Google, Facebook or Twitter. It sponsors local platforms like WeChat, TenCent, SinaWeibo. Virtually all content is controlled.
In the media today, organised chaos as well as rigid limits are realities side by side with oceans of information, education and entertainment.
Rigid limits coexist with information in the mediascape.
Despite some valid reservations, freedom of expression in Pakistan’s media is far higher than reflected by global indices. Even sacred cows like the armed forces and judiciary are often assailed, openly or obliquely.
But the government’s intention to legislate the PMDA law is conceptually flawed and operationally impractical. It seeks a monolithic response to multiplistic conditions. Post 18th Amendment, there are multiple legal, regulatory jurisdictions at the federal and provincial levels. Whereas the regulation of electronic media and telecommunication is federal, the regulation of print media is in the provinces. In addition to such vertical jurisdictional splits, PMDA attempts to ensure payment of wages to media workers. There are bound to be horizontal jurisdictional tangles too because civil courts, labour courts and trade dispute resolution forums operate at local, provincial levels.
The MCC process conveys inappropriate authoritarianism through words like ‘summon’ and ‘call for explanation’. Some media workers often face delays in receiving due wages and suffer unfair conditions. This again raises the issue of multiple jurisdictions, eg how can a federally based MCC intrude into the purely provincial aspect of ensuring that a local newspaper in a province fulfils obligations? Several legal and procedural issues will obstruct such attempts.
And the suggested media tribunals will supplant the high courts! Any such act of parliament would violate the principle of due process guaranteed by the Constitution and be struck down by the Supreme Court.
The all-encompassing scope proposed for the Media Complaints Commission by PMDA is neither feasible nor advisable. A mandate for a new entity to cope with millions of bits of information generated every day becomes a recipe for a huge new bureaucracy — with potential in the worst aspects of such a structure.
Perhaps the most unwelcome aspect of the PMDA controversy is that polarised opinions have shifted attention from where it is most needed ie honest, self-critical appraisal by media owners, content originators, editors, publishers and senior journalists on the need to enhance journalistic standards and for major internal reforms, especially in the electronic media.
Regrettably, there are occasional reprehensible attacks on individual journalists, sometimes with grievous consequences. By one estimate, over 70 journalists have died tragically and unnaturally in Pakistan in the past 20 years. A few others are deprived of professional occupation and income. Covert pressure is also applied on media owners. Such episodes should not occur. The buck stops with the state.
But there’s also the fact that independent private media are, for the most part, neither transparent in their financial interests (particularly in non-media sectors) nor accountable for numerous lapses in taste, balance, tone, accuracy and propriety in media content, and for sheer substandard journalism.
The government should conduct a patient, sustained dialogue with all stakeholders and help shape a consensus on reform comprising new state regulation, new self-regulation and new social regulation.
Pakistan is privileged to possess a large number of individuals in all categories of media, and civil and political society who have knowledge, experience, values and vision that can energise and validate a new progressive approach to the challenge of convergence, fair regulation and responsible freedom of expression.
The writer is a former senator and federal minister of information & broadcasting.
Published in Dawn, September 16th, 2021