Invalidating opinion

10/29/2019

Through an unusual notification, two days back the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority issued an order to television channels instructing them that any anchorperson who regularly hosts his or her own show cannot appear as an ‘expert’ in another programme. This obviously raised a number of questions and was immediately questioned by journalists as well as politicians, including some of the PTI’s own leaders. The problem that arises from this is how to define an ‘expert’. Also, while Pemra said that the job of a television show host is to moderate between guests in an unbiased fashion, it is not clear why giving his or her opinion in another show would prevent him/her from performing these duties.

After the outrage over the notification, Special Adviser to the PM on Information Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan tried to (unsuccessfully) clarify that the notification was simply a reiteration of Pemra rules. That may well have been the case, but it did nothing to justify the notification or its content. Calling in journalists to comment on a particular situation or development is a standing practice across the world. Channels around the world routinely talk to both broadcast and print media professionals to obtain their insight into a specific event. It is unclear why Pakistani journalists should be deemed incapable of giving their opinion. Many of these TV hosts have been active journalists for many years or even decades and have the experience to comment on particular areas of national life.

Although on Monday Pemra seemed to have issued another notice saying the original notification had been misunderstood and seemed to say that there were no restrictions on journalists/anchorpersons appearing on TV shows on other channels as ‘experts, journalists are justified in questioning why there even was an original notification in this regard. Asking TV channels to adopt a process of determining who is an ‘expert’ is problematic in itself. Declaring that anchorpersons – regardless of their background, standing or experience – are not experts in any field raises even more difficulties. Pemra should no doubt be moderating content that is indeed guilty of sensationalisation. But censoring journalists will not help anything; and such unreasonable restrictions only further the fear of media freedom and dissent being stifled, especially when we just recently saw Steven Butler of the CPJ being denied entry into Pakistan. Pemra may want to rethink these instructions; regulation must never equal censorship.