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October 30, 2019

Media under PTI government


October 30, 2019

Has Prime Minister Imran Khan taken a U-turn on his promise on freedom of the press, if not he must revisit his government’s media policy and look into how his media team has mishandled the situation time and again in the last 13 months.

At times, it resulted in embarrassment for him and his image as a champion of freedom of the press was damaged. In the latest goof regarding Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) notification and clarification of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government emerged as a ‘divided house’.

It is time that the prime minister should also put his foot down and ask as to who is interfering in the media and why. In the last 13 months, his government’s media policy has not worked and failed practically.

One really wonders where the premier himself stands on all these issues: whether it was the issue of Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority, the idea flouted by the former information minister Fawad Chaudhry, or the formation of media tribunals, proposal moved by prime minister’s special assistant Firdous Ashiq Awan, or in the present case the restrictions on TV anchors, whose real author is still unknown, as one could see from the last night clarification issued by Pemra.

So, where is the PM’s media team and what has been its role and how far they executed the initial claims and promises made by the PM regarding free media. In the last 13 months, the government-press relationship has deteriorated to all time low and it appears as if he has not been properly briefed about the ground situation.

The prime minister needs to realise that historically the government and journalists are adversaries and it is a responsibility of the media to show mirror to the rulers. However, in case of any misreporting or baseless allegations, there is need for a proper mechanism, and not by gagging the dissent voices.

Have the PM and his media team ever gone through most comprehensive recommendations suggested by two well reputed persons Justice (retd) Nasir Aslam Zahid and former information minister Javed Jabbar, which are now even available in a book form, Media Commission.

Have they ever gone through the draft of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) regarding Media Complaints Commission (MCC), initially proposed in 2008, but the successive governments failed to implement them.

Why the government never tried to make its defamation law effective, which is the legal way of addressing issues like baseless allegations.

The writer was surprised when the PM did not even took notice of how his government image was damaged when his interior ministry’s strange ‘Stop list’ resulted in the ban on the entry of a prestigious New York-based media organisation, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) senior official, who came to Lahore to attend Asma Jahangir Conference.

Has the PM ever revisited the situation within the media and the challenges it is facing today? Journalists and the media workers are passing through one of the most difficult times in the country’s history with massive unemployment and salaries issues, which has deepen under his government.

Imposing restrictions on free thinking and freedom of expression would not help the government in any way. In view of all these actions, the PM and his government are fast losing friends, within the media and even those who are sympathetic to him could not find any reason to defend such actions.

The latest action by PEMRA is perhaps the worst example of imposing curbs on voices of the dissent.

Media bodies were expecting a very positive response from the government about the media and freedom of the press. But, it was disappointing to see the kind of anti-media policy adopted by this government and imposed restrictions.

The government, instead of taking positive steps to strengthen freedom of the press, came out with a policy of restrictions on the media. It reminds one of the days of General Ziaul Haq censorship when a ban was imposed on the statement, the press releases and speeches of the PFUJ leaders. The then Home Secretary Khawar Idrees, through a notification, banned former PFUJ and APNEC President Minhaj Barana from expressing his views and barred him from issuing any statement. It was issued on May 10, 1978.

In what appears to be a clear U-turn of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s earlier claims and promises on freedom of the press, the latest attack on the free thinking of anchors and journalists in nothing short of practical takeover of the media industry by the regulators and those who backed them.

This is not only a violation of fundamental rights of citizens but also a violation of Article 19 and the term ‘reasonable restrictions’ had been badly misinterpreted with unreasonable restrictions.

If one just goes through Pemra’s fresh notification in the aftermath of the Islamabad High Court proceedings in the contempt of court notices to five anchors, Pemra has even imposed a ban on anchors’ appearance on other channels and restricted moderator from speaking up his or her mind.

The Pemra Ordinance 2002 from day one has been controversial and journalist unions in particular had opposed it on the ground that the government and authorities could misuse such law as they had used to curb the freedom of the press in the past.

When the PTI won the Election 2018, and Imran Khan was elected as the prime minister, he praised the role of the media and said, “Had it not been free media and independent journalists, I would have not been in this position. I will never forget what the media has done for me.”

No other government in its first 13 months has taken so many anti-media steps as has been done by the incumbent government, and the record speaks volumes for it, starting from the draft prepared during the Fawad Chaudhry tenure as the minister for information. The move was to merge PEMRA and Press Council into one body called Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority, PMRA. The move was to control the media under one umbrella body.

All the media stakeholders rejected the move and after Fawad was replaced by Firdous Ashiq Awan, she dropped the idea. A few months later, she came out with her own idea and proposed media tribunals for early disposal of complaints against the media, anchors or journalists and expected decision in 90 days.

After the media backlash, the government dropped the idea. And now, through Pemra, they have decided to control TV anchors in particular, some of whom in the past had been very critical of the PPP and the PML-N governments. Perhaps, the PTI and the PM thought they would remain on their side, but when they started criticising his government policies, they too were added to the category of “biased anchors”.

Pemra, which is supposed to be an independent body, has apparently been politicised. It clearly targeted the coverage of opposition leaders, whether it is former president Asif Ali Zardari’s interviews, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s daughter Maryam Nawaz’s media coverage and now restrictions on Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s live coverage.

It is strange that only days after prime minister’s meeting with senior journalists and anchors in which he categorically stated that his government has imposed no restrictions on the coverage of JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, some TV channels faced problems after they aired his live coverage and interviews.

It was also the vision of Imran Khan to make state-run media like state-run TV and Radio an autonomous body or run under the BBC model, but there is no progress on that front as yet.

Beside, the government also not looked happy with the print media and came up with massive cut in the government advertisements and blacklisted some newspapers.

No government in such a short span of time has taken so many anti-media steps as the present one and that too soon after prime minister lauded media’s efforts and support for him and the PTI over the years. “Frankly speaking, I would not be in this position had it not been the media, anchors and journalists,” he said,

It is high time that Prime Minister Imran Khan had a frank and open discussion with his media team and takes all media stakeholders into confidence. Democracy cannot flourish without free and responsible media. It is also important to discuss as to who will define ‘responsibility’.

The writer is a senior columnist and analyst of Geo, The News and Jang. Twitter: @MazharAbbasGEO