The question of media ethics and what this term entails has become the focus of public discourse once more. PEMRA, the regulatory body for the media is naturally assumed to be the provider of answers, the great giver of just conclusions, the stoic delineator of ethics in journalism, and the public is looking to them for a resolution in the confrontation between the ISI and Geo. Based on historical analysis however, not much should be expected from the country’s media regulatory body. PEMRA has summoned Geo to explain its position, but should we really be looking for arbitration from an organization that is not just powerless, but also too spineless to inculcate any real values or pass any real judgment?

The purpose of an independent observer for the media is to ensure that commercial interest does not get in the way of reporting the truth, and PEMRA has been unable to do this since its inception. Individual media houses are obviously concerned with maximizing revenues and ratings, and the higher purpose of access to information for all is undermined because of this. Under the law for example, no channel can display more than nine minutes of advertisements an hour. But the lack of implementation shows how absent regulation is leading to the provision of information taking a backseat.

Due to the PML-N’s personal battle with PEMRA chairman Chaudhry Rashid, an attempt was made to replace the media watchdog chief with one of the government’s own appointees. When this failed due to a stay order from the IHC, the government formed a three member committee in PEMRA which exercises powers similar to that of the chairman, causing confusion and undermining the authority and the entire basis of a neutral organisation. Electronic media has a plethora of avenues through which the public can be exploited, and the need for an independent observer is clear. But this observer must retain its independence at all costs and not be manipulated by the media or the state. In the case of PEMRA, it is failing on both counts, and the interests of both have overridden public good and the right to free information. Deferring to it for judgment, and looking to it for answers, is perhaps putting too many expectations on a weak, easily corruptible party. Can PEMRA really handle the pressure of the Geo-ISI showdown? Realistically speaking, no it cannot.