Pemra’s Overreach

10/29/2019

Despite backlash, controversy and embarrassing U-turns, Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) continues to push its agenda of greater control over the content that is produced by media houses – more specifically the widely watched TV news channels. Once again, after sending out a directive that was nationally condemned for being too restrictive and suppressive, the government had to hastily step in to do damage control. The Special Assistant to the Prime Minister for Information and Broadcasting Firdous Ashiq Awan had to appear before the media and walk back the Pemra directive in the form of a ‘clarification’; however the ideological and policy bend of Pemra shines clearly trough despite the redaction.

Admittedly, there is always fair amount of on-going argument over a media regulator’s exact role and its legal ambit in any jurisdiction, and adjustments and reform are a part of this evolving process. But the latest directive has gone beyond all reasonable conceptions of how a media channel should behave. Pemra believes that anchors hosting news shows are “moderators” and therefore should not express their own opinions, and therefore should also refraining from appearing as experts on other platforms. This is completely irrational. Unless they claim otherwise, no TV show host is supposed to be “unbiased” and “neutral”. All media organisations, from newspapers to online-only websites, have a set of issues and agendas they focus on the most and many have a clearly defined ideology as well. They are free to take a side and opine on whatever they want.

Similarly, it is irrational to say TV show hosts are not “experts” and cannot present themselves as such. A journalist having spent decades covering national politics is undoubtedly an expert in recent history and the political landscape. More so than academics, they are best suited to challenge politicians on their narratives.This was not all. Pemra’s central trust was against unfounded “speculation” and how it tarnishes the reputation of the government and its institutions – like the judiciary. Here it also goes beyond reasonable limits. While it makes sense not to speculate on the result of an ongoing court trial – known as the principle of sub judice – speculation itself is not harmful at all. News analysis, and the profession of punditry in general – political or otherwise – is founded on reasoned and debated speculation. What direction is the country headed? Will the economy stabilise? How will a foreign country behave? These are the questions that are being asked, and answered, every day on TV screens worldwide. Speculation is an integral part of the exercise.