Pemra overreach

Published May 25, 2024

IT seems, at best, a misguided measure and, at worst, an attempt to abuse regulatory power to silence the media. A Pemra notification restraining the media from reporting on court proceedings, issued earlier this week, has been challenged in the Lahore and Islamabad high courts by two separate representative bodies of journalists, who have described the gag order as an attempt to interfere in the independence of the judiciary. “Pemra has no legal authority to prohibit the reporting of court proceedings,” reads a joint statement issued by the Press Association of the Supreme Court and the Islamabad High Court Journalists Association, which further notes that “Article 19 and 19A of the Constitution give the right of access to information to the public.” The bodies have condemned the Pemra notification as a “flagrant violation” of the Constitution. It remains to be seen whether a court of law will also interpret it to be so. From journalists’ perspective, while a case can be made for the need to prevent any intentional or unintentional attempt to influence the outcome of ongoing cases, the answer lies not in enforcing a blanket ban on reporting of courtroom proceedings but in the regulator ensuring that media regulations and ethics regarding sub judice matters are fairly enforced.

What seems clear from the wording of the Pemra notification is that the regulator has imperilled the work of courtroom journalists, who dutifully report the statements made by various actors in cases of public interest and national importance. The context cannot be ignored. The Pemra notification has followed on the heels of the apparent ‘grief’ caused to the law minister over remarks recently made by a judge on the role played by intelligence agencies while hearing a missing persons case. Separately, the courts have taken strong exception to ad hominem attacks against judges and a high-profile complaint on interference in judicial affairs and begun proceedings. Additionally, the ‘leaking’ of a picture of jailed former prime minister Imran Khan from his appearance via video link in a court case seems to have greatly irritated the authorities. Have all of these become reasons why it has been decided to keep the public in the dark about what’s happening inside the courtrooms, where the tensions within the state have lately been on full display? The authorities must explain themselves.

Published in Dawn, May 25th, 2024

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