Sunday September 19, 2021

SC-appointed commission wanted decentralisation of Info Ministry

September 14, 2021
SC-appointed commission wanted decentralisation of Info Ministry

ISLAMABAD: Instead of devolving power of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting as recommended by the Media Commission set up by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 2013, the information ministry is bent upon controlling the media through draconian laws, which it is adamant on introducing via centralisation and control.

The Media Commission was appointed in 2013 by an SC bench composed of Justice Jawwad S. Khawaja and Justice Arif Khilji after a petition was filed by Absar Alam and Hamid Mir, who prayed for developing a mechanism to ensure freedom of press. A two-member Media Commission was formed. Justice (R) Nasir Aslam Zahid and former information minister Javed Jabbar submitted recommendations after interviewing 165 individuals and 80 media-related organisations.

Where they urged regulations for media framed in a manner that they don’t curb freedom, they also recommended decentralisation of the information ministries at federal and provincial levels in addition to granting autonomy to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority and making it independent of government control.

The Federal Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and the four provincial Departments of Information require substantive restructuring, concluded the commission. Explaining it further, it noted: “Certain departments and functions should be either abolished, or significantly reformed, in order to ensure that the continued functioning of this institutional framework does not impede or obstruct the fulfillment of rights guaranteed by Article 19.”

For instance, the recommendation continued, there should be horizontal de-centralization and de-control in the selection of advertising agencies and selection of media for advertising by government entities to replace the existing centralized system with a new accountable, monitored autonomy-based framework. This recommendation was made as the commission understood there was a clear conflict of interest between the media and the government as the latter tends to use advertisement as a carrot to suppress truth and ensure favorable coverage.

Another important recommendation was related to PEMRA which is under the government control and the Media Commission suggested bringing it under parliamentary oversight. There is an urgent need, the Media Commission noted, to revisit and reconstruct the laws, regulations and rules by which PEMRA exists and functions.

“Whether it is the minimal function of allocating frequencies in the air-waves or whether it is the complex question of defining parameters for content of media (without unduly curtailing freedom of expression), the regulatory institution in Pakistan in the second and third decades of 21st Century should have the capacity to reflect new realities and the means to enforce the principles of fairness, transparency, accountability and independence,” it noted. This last desirable quality in particular i.e. of “independence” brings us to the second element that should shape a review of the existing laws or a formulation of an entirely new law, the consequent need for regulation to become relevant to new realities.

“In order to be genuinely independent of partisan influence by the Government-of-the-day which represents the majority in Parliament but does not necessarily represent or ensure representation of the unanimity of Parliament, in order to ensure that a regulatory body is also independent of commercial influence, PEMRA, or any new entity put in place, should be authentically separated from the control of the Executive. The power to appoint the Chairman and the Members of the Authority or any other new entity charged with regulation of electronic media and related fields could vest with one of the following two proposed forums. The regulatory Authority should be administratively responsible to the Parliament of Pakistan, rather than to a Ministry or to the Cabinet Division,” according to the recommendations related to PEMRA.

The Media Commission also stressed on the need of reviewing media laws. “The Commission is of the view that the Standing Committees on Information & Broadcasting of the National Assembly and the Senate establish a Media Laws Review Task Force comprising media specialists, to conduct a comprehensive review over, say, a 6-months period of all media laws, rules, regulations and Codes in the context of the new objective conditions,” it said.

While fundamental ethical values are eternal and universal, the definitions of terms, words and phrases in the context of usage by media and in the context of the immediacy of news coverage requires re-visitation and possible reinterpretation, the recommendations continued. It would be most timely and useful that purposeful consultation be conducted both within the media sector and with civil society, and with the relevant administrative Ministries and Departments.