Malik Ashraf


THE Cabinet in its meeting on 9 July took serious view of the interview of the former President Asif Ali Zardari by Hamid Mir for Geo TV which was taken off the air immediately after it started. The Prime Minister particularly seemed irked by the episode and it was decided to ask PEMRA to justify the airing of interviews of the under-trial prisoners and there was a consensus in the cabinet that there should be a ban on interviews of the under-trials. I wish that somebody from amongst the cluster of media advisors and media mangers around the Prime Minister could have informed him that the mandate of PEMRA was not to stop the media from interviewing anybody but to expand the choice available to the public for accessing news, optimizing free flow of information and to ensure that the channels do not cross the Rubican stipulated by the conditions of licensing and the code of conduct issued by it for the electronic channels.
Neither in the conditions for licensing nor in the code of conduct for the electronic media issued by PEMRA it has been stipulated that the media will not interview the under-trials or inform PEMRA before indulging in any such exercise or the channel would seek permission from it before airing the interview. As such PEMRA has no legal authority to prevent such episodes or the means to know in advance that some under-trial was going to be interviewed by a certain channel. Further no law of the land or the constitution stipulates any curbs on such activity. Asking PEMRA to explain why the interview was conducted and aired is simply not justified.
PEMRA can take action against any channel only after it violates the licencing conditions and its code of ethics, the job it is doing excellently with utmost diligence as is evident from the notices issued to 21 channels for airing unedited press conference of Maryam Nawaz in which a video of the judge who convicted Nawaz Sharif in the Al-Azizia case was unfurled. PEMRA for the first is headed by a really professional person who is performing his mandatory role in a manner which is beyond reproach. The media has resented even the sending of notices to the channels by PEMRA.
Federal Education Minister Shafqat Mahmood in a press briefing after the cabinet meeting tried to justify taking off air interview of Zardari and Government concerns in regards to allowing media to conduct such interviews by saying nowhere in the world the under-trials were allowed to be interviewed by the media. I am afraid he is terribly wrong. No media regulatory law anywhere disallows any such undertaking. Perhaps he is deliberately trying to show ignorance about interviews of the under-trial celebrities around the world hitting the headlines. He is probably not aware of the fact that even within Pakistan channels are regularly airing programmes of crimes and interviews of the under-trial criminals involved with the assistance of police. I would advise him to watch the TV programme ‘ Jurm Bolta Hey’. If TV interviews of hard criminals are permissible then why make distinction in case of the political leaders who are heads of the parties enjoying mass support? The position taken by the PTI on the issue has certainly not gone well with the public and sent out wrong signals to the outside world as well as is evident from boycott of a press conference of our Foreign Minister by the media in London.
The current disposition of the government towards media unfortunately is tantamount to muzzling the freedom of press. I hope it is not contemplating to promulgate a law for pre-emptive action against the media outlets and channels, which will take us back to the days of the draconian Press and Publications Ordinance promulgated by Ayub regime. The PTI Government particularly Prime Minister Imran Khan has to be very cautious in regards to putting any curbs on the media. Political issues must be fought at the political level. Incurring hostility of the media will be quite damaging for the Government itself as it would neither generate any goodwill within the country nor endear it well in the eyes of the world community.
This is an age of media freedom. Democracy and freedom of expression go hand in hand and reinforce each other. Media as fourth pillar of the State represents the society. Putting curbs on it means putting curbs on the fundamental rights of the people. The freedom of expression is contingent upon right of the people to know, which enjoys universal acclaim and acceptance. Granted that there is no concept of unbridled freedom anywhere but putting cubs on media without any violation of the existing regulatory laws is also not acceptable, especially when a democratically elected government is ruling the roost. The media is rightly furious over taking off air interviews of Zardari and Maryam Nawaz as well as the closing of three channels.
The PTI Government is better advised to focus on building ‘Naya Pakistan’ by tackling the challenges that the country is facing. Opening multiple fronts against the opposition parties and media would act as a debilitating factor in realising the stated objectives of the regime. People are indeed looking up to and have many hopes from the PTI Government, particularly Imran Khan. If he wants to bring real change and achieve his objectives then he must not allow himself to be swayed by subjective considerations. He must refrain from earning hostility of the media and putting unnecessary pressure on it as well as media regulatory organs of the Government.
— The writer is freelance columnist based in Islamabad.