A REGULATOR that is supposed to be independent continues to play its biased role of censoring political voices that fall out of favour with the establishment. Whereas the role of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority is to regulate media independently under the Pemra Ordinance 2002 as amended by the Pemra Amendment Act 2007, what we have seen it do is impose blanket bans on political personalities as well as social issues.
While the previous targets were Nawaz Sharif, Asif Zardari, Maryam Nawaz and Manzoor Pashteen among others, the latest target is Imran Khan and the coverage of his jalsas and speeches.
It is useless getting into what the stated reason is, because the principle of banning popular civilian political leaders is deeply problematic and reeks of authoritarian censorship, reminiscent of martial law regimes — much like during the PTI regime.
This points in one direction: the censorship regime remains intact and consistent; only the civilian front changes, while the target remains civilian actors that fall out of favour with the security establishment.
It is not only political actors whose coverage is being censored — social issues such as a rape incident in Islamabad and terrorism events are also out of bounds for television as per Pemra’s orders. Such censorship has profound consequences.
Enforcing censorship on electronic media keeps matters of public concern out of the reach of audiences who have the right to information as per Article 19-A of the Constitution. But citizens do not simply forget about an incident or subject when it is censored on television — they look for alternative sources to access information.
This reduces the legitimacy of electronic media as citizens look for information in alternative spaces in the digital realm where enforcing regulation is next to impossible. Hence it is easy for disinformation to proliferate, and for reporting without editorial process to become the go-to source.
Citizens do not simply forget about an incident or subject when it is censored on TV.
In short, censorship fuels disinformation.
The issue of Pemra’s failure in guiding regulation and resorting to blanket bans on matters of public information is also pressing. If some channels are failing to protect the identity of a violence survivor, that should not mean that discussion of the entire matter becomes out of bounds.
There is a critical need to especially report on rape prevention and punishment, and to focus on information regarding perpetrators of gender-based violence. We cannot brush issues under the carpet because the regulator is failing to enforce its guidelines.
Similarly, discussion around incidents of terrorism is another blanket ban Pemra ordained. Not only does this undermine the right to information but also information regarding safety.
When there is state failure in reducing incidents of violence and terrorism, especially in the face of hundreds of terrorists recently released by the state in secret deals, the public has a right to know how we reached this juncture of resurgence of terrorism. Further, there are public safety implications on lack of reporting regarding terrorism incidents.
The question that arises is how independent is Pemra as the regulator of electronic media? Where does it get its diktat from? Is the body fulfilling its obligations? Is it upholding the integrity of information in line with fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution, especially press freedom in Article 19? Should it have the power to get entire channels off air?
It is unacceptable for the government and the state apparatus to use Pemra as a tool for political censorship. Popular civilian leaders such as Imran Khan, Nawaz Sharif, Asif Zardari, Altaf Hussain, Mohsin Dawar, Akhtar Mengal and Mahmood Achakzai are all entitled to the same rights at all times of coverage because Pakistani citizens support them, vote for them during elections, and need to hear them in order to hold them accountable.
The recent confessions of ex chief of army staff Qamar Javed Bajwa regarding the firing and hiring of journalists further shows how media is managed by those who wield power, rather than independent regulation.
Such uncertainty further impacts the financial situation of media houses which has been precarious due to dwindling ad revenues, and the politicisation of government advertisements that form a huge chunk of media revenues. The military should not have any role in the media, but the reality is different.
The persecution of journalists has continued after the government changed last year, with more arrests, harassment, and disappearances of journalists across Pakistan. In such an environment, it is of little surprise that Pakistan ranks the lowest amongst countries when it comes to press freedom. There is true press freedom when journalists are able to report on the facts, quote the stakeholders involved without consequences, and do their jobs without fearing for their lives.
Pemra’s censorship follows the general trend of censorship that has been observed over the past decade. There have been simultaneous efforts to silence dissent by harassment and persecution of journalists, several attempts to introduce draconian laws that outlaw criticism of state policies, a narrative of outlawing criticism of ‘state institutions’, specifically the military and judiciary, and to crack down on social media activists, and force social media companies to enforce anti-rights, state-defined standards. The latest police-state idea of a task force to check ‘anti-army’ content follows the same trend.
Whereas court intervention against unconstitutional actions has been somewhat helpful, it has not gone to the entire extent required to protect constitutional rights, and for good reason. Political parties must ensure that their legislation as well as framing of rules do not exceed constitutional limits.
In trying to prosecute and silence the political opposition, they end up playing sandbags for anti-democratic forces whose project has been to pollute the democratic landscape beyond recognition.
We must focus on civilian-led strengthening and protection of institutions that work within the ambit of the Constitution rather than acting like a quasi-democracy façade for a fascist dictatorship without rule of law.
At the end of the day, fundamental rights of taxpaying and vote-casting citizens are supreme, and parliament has to play its role to protect these.
The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.
Published in Dawn, March 25th, 2023
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