Extreme measures

Published August 15, 2022

A GOVERNMENT comprising political parties that used to rightly accuse its predecessor of throttling freedom of speech has in one fell swoop outdone the PTI government’s excesses against the media.

Late Friday night, in an unprecedented move, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority revoked the operating licence of ARY News after the interior ministry withdrew the channel’s security clearance.

Although the Sindh High Court has suspended the government’s notice, the measure puts ARY News — well known for its overtly pro-PTI stance — within a hair’s breadth of being permanently shut down.

The channel’s travails began when PTI leader Shahbaz Gill in an interview with one of its anchors uttered remarks that certain quarters evidently perceived as falling within the exceptions to the right to freedom of speech.

The hammer came down almost immediately. ARY News went off air in many areas, even before Pemra had served it with a show cause notice for airing what it termed “false, hateful and seditious” content. The channel’s CEO, its head of news and current affairs, a producer and two of its anchors were booked for sedition. Now ARY News is in danger of being consigned to history.

Read: An inconvenient freedom

The government has overreacted to a degree that has given ammunition to the PTI to accuse it of ‘fascism’ and disregard of constitutional rights.

Given that ARY News after some initial hesitation had on air denounced Dr Gill’s remarks, the government’s cancellation of the NOC leading to a revocation of the channel’s licence constitutes a direct attack on press freedom. At best, ARY News should have been reprimanded or, as per law, suspended for a brief period.

Certainly, the channel’s propagandist approach and habit of making unfounded allegations that sometimes even put people’s lives at risk violates the very principles of ethical journalism. Nevertheless, the fact that several journalist bodies have condemned the draconian action against ARY News clearly shows they understand what is at stake here.

The banning of the channel will set a dangerous precedent. If one TV channel is banned today, the same treatment can be meted out to other ‘offending’ media outlets tomorrow using the same broadly framed “reasonable restrictions” to the right to freedom of speech in Article 19 of the Constitution.

The government must step back from taking actions to enable Pemra to bring down the curtain on any channel, and render thousands of media workers jobless.

Published in Dawn, August 15th, 2022

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