THE manner in which ARY News has been ‘off-aired’ and its journalists and PTI leader Shahbaz Gill either arrested or booked for serious crimes has created an unnecessary mess.
While the TV channel may have failed to properly exercise editorial controls during the live broadcast in which Mr Gill made his controversial statements, the way in which ARY’s transmission was abruptly pulled off the air by Pemra is violative of the regulator’s rules and procedures.
Facing the heat and a wide-ranging crackdown against its employees, the channel has distanced itself from Mr Gill’s statements, arguing that it could not possibly have anticipated what Mr Gill would say after he was taken on air. Be that as it may, the only proper way for Pemra to take any action would have been to issue a notice, conduct an inquiry and then decide on an appropriate penalty. Abruptly pulling ARY or any other channel from the airwaves without due process is tantamount to an attack on the freedom of the press and cannot be condoned.
Pemra has often been criticised for acting as a tool of censorship and control in the hands of successive regimes. Because the ruling PML-N has recently been expressing open disdain for the channel’s editorial lines, it is up to Pemra to dispel the notion that it jumped on an opportunity to put the channel in its place on behalf of the government.
Read: An inconvenient freedom
Relatedly, the brash manner in which Mr Gill and ARY journalists have been picked up and the flurry of serious charges now being brought against them warrant serious reflection. It must be asked why it is the government and not the supposedly aggrieved party that seems more eager to lodge cases because the government appears to be in an indecent haste to punish opponents, and it is creating the impression that the matter is being handled politically rather than legally.
It was indeed controversial for Mr Gill to suggest, even if offhandedly, that the armed forces’ rank and file are divided along political lines. However, the rest of his statement is arguably quite open to interpretation, and only a court can decide whether it amounts to sedition.
The government has already done considerable damage to itself with its indelicate handling of the situation. It would be well-advised to step back and desist from setting a precedent that it may be made to rue one day.
Published in Dawn, August 11th, 2022