A recent fine levied by PEMRA on Geo TV is an indication of the way the wind blows in the country. The reason for the penalty was simple; a show by host Najam Sethi alleged that the Pakistan Army – like all other state institutions – was plagued by institutional corruption. A simple statement, one that in other states would not have made anyone think twice, ended with a fine against the TV channel of Rs1 million. Attaching the idea of national security and the sanctity of the state to the reputation of the armed forces is in itself an extremely problematic idea. The job of journalists and is to be sceptical and ask the questions no one else wants to. For the electronic media regulatory body to fine a channel over this is ridiculous – this does not qualify as slander, unless someone can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is the case. If other institutions can be asked hard questions, why is one above any and all forms of scrutiny? In any case, how does one institution have so many economic interests all over the country, alongside land holdings (not counting the cantonments)?
Asking questions is never wrong. An institution is never sacrosanct. The soldiers itself and their sacrifices are honoured and revered, as they should be. But asking questions of financial dealings and other issues is an important service to the country, one that most are branded traitors for. The blinders must be taken off, and these ‘no-go’ areas of debate need to be crossed if we are to progress as a country.
All (animals) state institutions are equal, but some are more equal than others. This modified quote – from a novel about a dystopian world, seems apt when looking at the Pakistani picture. The constant debate surrounding the civil-military relationship and the obvious imbalance is one that commentators and political experts alike have pondered about since the country’s inception. Of course, the thoughts and opinions that diverge from the official narrative are often limited to secret whispers and insinuations, rather than addressing the root of the problem itself.
With the return of a civilian democratic government in 2007, it went back to business as usual with regards to voicing dissent against the power players in strong institutions. The tussle between various state institutes has carried forward ten years later, and it seems that not much has changed. Every civilian failure brings with it the dread of a sudden upheaval, prompted by the propensity of the civilian governments to shoot themselves in the foot, and for other power players to fill in the vacuum (often after they engineered the vacuum themselves).
As a regulatory body, PEMRA has to have proof that the information is flawed before looking to fine a TV channel. If the complainants cannot prove this, there is no case.
In any case, the complaint based system itself is more than half the problem. It takes a five-year-old to figure out how flawed it is. You bombard PEMRA with enough complaints on an issue, and it bans, fines, or reprimands, based on elusive and often unexplained standards. All you need is a large number of people to lodge the same complaint. There is no real scrutiny on the seriousness of the issue, and when there is, it is looked at with pre-historic binaries such as having some issues that are completely closed off to debate, no matter how significant.
We saw this when PEMRA banned the Ramzan telecast of Hamza Ali Abbasi’s show, without even considering how important the discussion of topics such as the blasphemy law or Ahmadi persecution is, in light of the violence surrounding them. Whatever his other faults, this was a show that would have actually been a refreshing change from the daily Ramzan telecasts which offer up nothing new, and do not even attempt to make a positive change in society.
As a regulatory body, PEMRA must have a transparent system for redressal of complaints, instead of merely basing it on the volume of complaints received. This is lazy, unoriginal and utterly nonsensical. As journalists, it is their right, nay, duty, to ask questions when the need arises, without people jumping at their throats whenever the establishment is concerned. And the general public, must not raise institutions or individuals on pedestals without having a touch of the same sort of scepticism normally only reserved for the civilian government. We must all do better.