Just as the nature of news is volatile and unpredictable from minute to minute, the manner in which electronic news media should report events is vulnerable to variable factors of spontaneous utterances and actions, competitiveness, speed and sensation. All these elements fused into a potent, explosive mixture to make the live, unedited transmission of allegations against the ISI and its chief on April 19, an archetypical example of content regulation’s complexity.
Equally, the episode underlined the inadequacy of media themselves being the sole determinant of the imperatives that should shape their content. A serious, unproven accusation against a state institution and an individual was projected instantly to virtually billions of people around the world. This incident was actually a crisis in the making from the very inception of independent, privately owned electronic media in Pakistan onwards of 2002.
The Pemra Ordinance 2002 was the third version of a law unprecedented in Pakistan’s history.
First came the Emra Ordinance of February 1997 by the unelected caretaker government of president Farooq Leghari and prime minister Meraj Khalid which was deliberately allowed to lapse in June 1997 by the elected second government of prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
The second version was a draft law known as the Rambo Ordinance twice approved by the cabinet of president Musharraf in 2000 but not actually promulgated. Then came a slightly revised version known as the Pemra Ordinance in March 2002 which, with subsequent amendments, remains in force today.
Though assailed by some, the Pemra law and Pemra as a regulatory body have actually helped transform the electronic media landscape. For better and worse. We went rapidly from the extreme of monopoly to the extreme of abundance. Despite a few lacunae, several failures and weaknesses in enforcement, the Pemra law and Pemra have significantly advanced freedom of expression and media. Public awareness and engagement on vital issues have been radically enhanced.
Yet a curious simultaneity of construction and deconstruction occurred. Even as the number of channels took the giant leap, the will and capacity to enforce unwritten norms of propriety, and written laws and rules took several steps backwards. This became all the more strange because in this very period, government control of the regulatory body increased, rather than decreased.
The decline in regulatory effectiveness was vigorously enabled by the superior judiciary. This state pillar remains willing to promptly issue stay orders against Pemra’s attempts to discipline media conduct. Stay orders are prolonged for years instead of weeks. The judiciary permits the law to be flouted: non-licensed religious channels are allowed to continue broadcasting.
In addition to Pemra’s official Code of Conduct, the Pakistan Broadcasters’ Association has a ‘Proposed Voluntary Code of Conduct’ that has been in a ‘proposed’ state for the past four years. One reason for this delay is sheer arrogance. By making adoption of this code contingent to the laws of the land being amended to reflect the PBA’s wishes, media owners set themselves above an elected parliament which alone has the right to make laws. The PBA also creates a convenient escape- and-exemption clause by stating that: “…the Code will not be applied stringently on entertainment programmes, satire, drama, films and such [sic] genres”.
The cumulative result: better detailed elsewhere but suffice it here to say that we have a mixed bag of content.
No channel regularly informs viewers how to register complaints. No report is broadcast by channels on the number and nature of complaints received, actions taken. To cap it all: some PBA member-channels viciously malign each other.
Over the past 12 years, while the first category of state regulation was hyper-active, the second category of content regulation (by the state, and through self-regulation) became virtually paralysed. Effective self-regulation is viable only within the framework of public law enacted by strong leadership that should respect the people’s rights more rather than their own timid reluctance to challenge media’s misdemeanours.
Public law alone can oblige media to be transparent, accountable and responsible. Otherwise, self-regulation becomes a cover for self-indulgence and leads to the protection of narrow self-interest.