Media tribunals

September 21, 2019

The government’s announcement that the federal cabinet had approved a plan to set up to set up media tribunals which would hear complaints against the media in place of the Complaints...

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The government’s announcement that the federal cabinet had approved a plan to set up to set up media tribunals which would hear complaints against the media in place of the Complaints Commission of Pemra which had previously undertaken this duty has caused some concern. Whereas the government has said that complaints against the government itself could also be made at the proposed tribunals, there is suspicion about how accurate this assertion will prove to be. The media tribunals have a time limit of 90 days to dispose of cases. As we have learned in the past, speedy justice is not always good justice. The decision, which Dr Firdous in her latest statement on Thursday has said is yet to be finalised, has angered the PFUJ and the Pakistan Broadcasting Association. The two bodies which represent most working journalists in the country say they will not accept the decision and have every intention of opposing it. Political parties including the PPP and PML-N have joined these groups, along with smaller parties, human rights outfits and media watchdog bodies. The government, it appears, will face a difficult task given that the tribunal suggestion has yet to make its way through parliament. Media analysts also believe the tribunals could do more harm than good. Dr Firdous has explained the idea was tabled after some ministers said they had been 'mistreated' by the media. It is uncertain in what manner they were mistreated and whether they complained about this to the concerned organisations.

What is also a concern is that all stakeholders including media persons, owners of media houses and media bodies had not been taken into confidence before the move was announced. Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan has said this will be done – but it seems rather obvious that the time to build confidence among all those involved in the working of media should have been taken before the decision was made. It was also vital that professional journalists be consulted. Media regulation, while important, must have the confidence of all those involved. If this does not happen, there will always be distrust. The HRCP has also said that it is deeply concerned over the further pressures placed on the media and has asked what steps have been taken to ensure that such tribunals would safeguard the independence of the media.

What is of some interest is that even as these tribunals were being discussed, the finance ministry said that it was setting up a Media Monitoring Cell to monitor all news related to the economy so that immediate rejoinders and rebuttals could be issued. In another situation, this may have placed positive pressure on working journalists to check on the accuracy of their information. But we know that in our country, despite media freedom laws, it is almost impossible to gain information through official means and journalists must depend for this reason on sources. The first move towards setting up any kind of tribunals – if indeed they were deemed essential in the first place – should have been to ensure a workable and systematic Freedom of Information Act. For now, there is some question of whether this proposal can make its way through parliament given opposition disapproval. The opposition holds a majority in the Upper House and may well attempt to block a bill which ranks among the more controversial laws on the media in Pakistan’s history.

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