PMRA an ill conceived move

  • There is always room for improvement
Ever since the announcement by the PTI government to establish a new regulatory authority for media with the nomenclature of Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority by replacing all the existing ones, media representative bodies such as APNS, CPNE and PFUJ have been vehemently opposing the idea. They believe that the government has taken this decision in an inexplicable haste without due process of consultation with all the stakeholders. Terming the move a regressive step they have rejected the establishment of the proposed regulatory authority contending that it would be impractical to bring print and electronic media under one umbrella as the print media was different from electronic media in nature and format besides the issues arising thereof.
The arguments presented by APNS have considerable merit. The government due to its obsession with change seems to have decided to change everything that was in vogue or existed before the mantle of running the state affairs fell on its shoulders, without due process of thought regarding the rationale, justification and the need for their existence. The fact is that the existing regulatory law for the print media named  ‘ Press, Newspapers, News Agencies and Books registration Ordinance’(PNNBRO), regulatory body The Press Council of Pakistan were established after a long struggle by the representative bodies of the print media and their long and arduous process of continued  consultations with successive governments.
The Press and Publication Ordinance 1964 (PPO) was an oppressive law which vitiated the spirit of Article 19 of the constitution that guaranteed freedom of press. Under the PPO the Deputy Commissioner of a district had the exclusive discretion to grant or deny declaration of a newspaper and his decision could not be challenged in any court of law. The PPO also prescribed very severe penalties for the non-conforming media entities and journalists. Many a journalists got imprisoned and the media houses suffered immensely due to the government attempts to have a pliable media. Pakistan being a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was under obligation to ensure freedom of expression in the country but the military regime paid scant respect to international obligations of the country. The things started to improve with the promulgation of 1973 constitution and the civilian governments that interspersed between the military regimes showed more receptiveness to the woes of the media.
The PNNBRO promulgated in October 2002 which is the outcome of 38 years onerous struggle by the media addressed almost all the concerns of the print media and has a more humane approach concerning issues related to the print media. Similarly the establishment of the Press Council as a regulatory body for the print media was also an outcome of the collective wisdom of the government and the media bodies. The establishment of PEMRA in the wake of introduction of the private electronic channels was also warranted by the emerging media landscape after thorough deliberations. It was also in consonance with the modern and universally accepted concept of specialisation. Pakistan unlike even the developed countries has a very unwieldy electronic media which requires a separate regulatory body due to its special status and nature. Almost all the countries in the world have separate regulatory bodies for electronic and print media in recognition of that reality. The advent of the social media with all its negative fallout strengthens the argument for having separate regulatory entities for both types of media.
PEMRA is playing an excellent regulatory role under a truly professional chairman who has added a new vitality to the vigilance mechanism to ensure that the media sticks to the regulatory laws while enjoying its freedom. In fact it is for the first since the establishment of PEMRA that a person with long experience in media management and handling government-media relations is at the helm of affairs in that organisation. This is corroborated by the increased number of notices being served on the electronic channels for breach of the ethical codes and regulatory laws. It is pertinent to point out that the ethical codes for the media under the Press Council and terms of licensing and regulation of the  electronic channels, conform to the ethical codes for the journalists and media adopted by the International representative bodies of the journalists such as  International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and Media houses respectively.
The PPO also prescribed very severe penalties for the non-conforming media entities and journalists
As they say there is always room for improvement. If the PTI government feels that the regulatory laws in vogue are not enough to ensure freedom of expression as enshrined in the constitution of Pakistan and the performance of the regulatory bodies is not up to the mark or in line the emerging media culture it can bring the changes in the laws and the required structural improvements in the regulatory bodies. But it needs to be and has to be done in consultation with all the stakeholders. Doing away with the media regulatory bodies which were a result of a thought process spread over decades with the involvement of all the stakeholders, is not a wise move. It will surely put tremendous strain on government-media relations and also portray the government in a dismal light in spite of its loud claims to promote and strengthen freedom of express and looking after the well being of the journalist community. It is hard to understand why the government feels the need for taking decision of a reactionary nature by setting up the proposed media regulatory authority?
Gone are the days of dictatorial and one sided decisions to handle the media. In my considered view formed as a result of my 30 years experience dealing with the media at the national and international level, the government move to lump all the regulatory bodies into one is not a prudent move by any stretch of imagination. Instead of fomenting hostility between media and government, efforts should be focused on strengthening the fourth pillar of the state. The print media notwithstanding the emergence of myriad of electronic channels, still retains its status and importance as a credible opinion maker and this fact is recognised the world over. The views expressed by the minister for Information to the contrary exhibit his lack of understanding of the complexities and sensitivities involved.  Perhaps it would be good idea for him to attend some international media training institute to comprehend the media culture in its true perspective.