Georges Ruggiu was a radio anchorperson in Rwanda. Though originally from Belgium, he befriended than ruling regime and moved to Rwanda in 1993 where he hosted a popular radio show which spewed venom against the minority group, the Tutsis. A Harvard University study later found that his Radio led to fifty thousand civilian deaths out of half a million died during Rwandan genocide. In his shows, he routinely called the minority group as insects for whom ‘graves are waiting to be filled’. He was prosecuted and convicted to 12 years imprisonment by International Criminal Tribunal for incitement to violence and assisting in genocide.

And that was just an innocent sounding Radio broadcast, not even a fancy TV talk show or movie or documentary. The impact effect of electronic media on popular mood and actions has never been greater. One can imagine the state of affairs in our country if the belligerent Televangelists have a ‘free hand’ in propagating their versions of faith. The need for regulating media content has never been more pressing though regulating the media is trickiest of all other forms of regulations. A disparate and independent group of people, committed to freedom of expression, acting as fourth pillar of State, questioning all executive actions and playing watchdogs to social deviance are expected to be least amenable to regulation.

Like other institutional forms, the British Independent Television Authority was a pioneer in media regulation which was set up in 1954 with celebrated BBC Broadcaster Lord Kenneth Clark as its head. The Authority functions as Office of Communication (OfCom) since 2003 and is responsible for regulating all media and communication services in UK. The OfCom has elaborate Broadcasting Code which is implemented through an independent Content Board. The Code is strict on spread of hatred, disorder and crime as per section four and the section seven goes a step further in ensuring fairness in coverage to individuals and organizations. On average, OfCom imposes ten financial penalties every month in the range of twenty thousand to fifty thousand pounds.

Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) was established through an Ordinance in 2002 though the law in its present form was heavily amended and made effective in 2007. PEMRA’s last annual report which came after gap of four years in 2014 shows an exponential rise in complaints, mostly regarding TV channels, but the actions in the form of ‘shows causes’ hovered around 200 per year. Recently, PEMRA has attracted attention for initiating actions against some leading anchors and satellite TV channels but the number is still less than a hundred according to PEMRA press releases.

The number of coercive actions is but one measure to judge performance of a regulator. The benchmarks of legitimacy, accountability, fairness, expertise and efficiency need to be taken into account while evaluating regulatory functions. PEMRA is a statutory body functioning as per law made by Parliamentary but a deeper look raises questions about operational accountability when the Chairman and all twelve members are either nominated or designated by the President and Federal Government which can legally issue ‘policy direction as per section 5 of the Ordinance. The independent non-governmental or even legislative accountability mechanism is missing from operations of Authority having such bearing on public opinion.

PEMRA is responsible for taking punitive actions against the deviants and violators. The issue of fairness is crucial for the legitimacy of penalties. The Council of Complaints (COC) as per law is independent in their functions and supposedly enjoys autonomy in their actions. No specific complaints have come forward about the impartiality of its members. However , the executive side of the Authority are at the forefront about penalties while the Council’s work appear slow and time consuming apparently due to the voluntary role of members and legal complications.

PEMRA can claim to have a fair level of expertise with its Chairman being an experienced media person following Section 6 that “Chairman of the Authority will be an eminent professional of known integrity and competence having substantial experience in media, management, economics or law”. Similarly most of COC members are experienced professionals belonging to academic and social work fields. Though it appears challenging and confrontational for ex-media persons in PEMRA to call actions of their former colleagues into question.

Financially, PEMRA is self sufficient due to ‘PEMRA Fund’ under Section 14 in which all the licenses fees and other revenues are deposited to be used for payment of salaries of staff and other expenditures. It is however an interesting coincidence that in the last financial statement available for 2013-14, total receipts and expenditures are equal at 645 million with majority of revenues coming from Cable TV and majority of expenditures going into salary and benefits. The same Annual Report puts the total number of PEMRA employees at 630 out of which 518 are those having Pay Scale 6 and below while the remaining 112 are in Scale 7 and above. Keeping in view the proportion of revenues going into salary and benefits of employees, the efficiency part is quite questionable.

Regulation is always a trade-off between compliance and freedom with dilemma to avoid over-regulation which quells freedom of expression while on the other hand there is responsibility to control un-desirable behaviour. No organised society can function without regulating media content, but caution should be exercised in monitoring ‘content’ from the public perspective and not controlling how the broadcasters package their news. This is only possible with broad based accountability mechanisms over the regulator itself and development of further expertise to improve efficiency and fairness.

The writer is a member of Police Service of Pakistan and was Senior Superintendent of Police in Peshawar.