The reforms in a system are spurred by the interplay of inadequacies existing in the system itself, slackness on the part of the operators of the system to implement the regulatory mechanisms or the casual and indifferent attitudes of those for whom that system has been devised and most importantly the resultant unpalatable consequences of these ingredients. The saga of the Geo-ISI tiff over the Hamid Mir episode and the wave of anxiety and anger unleashed throughout the length and breadth of the country in the backdrop of the content of the Geo morning show ‘Utho Jaago Pakistan’ are beyond doubt quintessential of the interplay of these variables.

Both the episodes constituted a breach of the terms and conditions for the grant of licence enunciated in clause 20 (b-c) of the PEMRA Ordinance, by the concerned TV channel, which stipulate that the licensee would “ ensure preservation of the national, cultural, social and religious values and the principles of public policy as enshrined in the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and that all programmes and advertisements do not contain or encourage violence, terrorism, racial, ethnic or religious discrimination, sectarianism, extremism, militancy, hatred, pornography, vulgarity or other material offensive to commonly accepted standards of decency.”

It is also a reality that PEMRA which is a regulatory body for electronic media failed to mount quick and timely responses to these indiscretions and take appropriate action in the form of a reprimand, fine or cancellation of the licence as deemed necessary after affording the opportunity to the channel to explain its position. The lack of a prompt response to these episodes is, to some extent, attributable to the administrative wrangles within the organization and the incapacitating impact of stay orders given by the courts in cases where PEMRA took action against the offenders. These stay orders in some cases, are three to four years old awaiting vacation. Even the appointment of Chairman PEMRA by the government is hampered by the court actions.

The consequent fallout of the channel’s indiscretions and the inaction by PEMRA was that religious elements jumped into the fray and even issued an edict terming the content of the programme ‘Utho Jaago Pakistan’ blasphemous, which has triggered a wave of country wide demonstrations and demands for a ban on the TV channel. Several petitions have also been filed in the courts to ban Geo TV. But despite the fact that the matter has become sub-judice after being taken up by the courts, some TV channels are busy creating unnecessary hype with regards to the issue and some of them even indulge in a smear campaign against the channel in brazen violation of clause 20(n) of the PEMRA Ordinance which says, “The licencee will not broadcast any programme and discussion on a matter which is sub-judice.” Seen through the prism of this clause, the decision taken by the private members of PEMRA after the matter had become sub-judice, also has no legal validity, leaving aside the issue of whether they were under authority to call the meeting or not, or to take the decision which was immediately disowned by the spokesman of the regulatory body. My personal contention is that the matter of blasphemy does not fall under the jurisdiction of PEMRA as there exists a proper law to deal with the issue and probably most of the petitions filed in the courts have been submitted under the blasphemy ordinance.

The egregious circumstances created by these episodes, nonetheless, have also created something good out of the bad by highlighting the flaws afflicting the regulatory body and the undesirable practices of the electronic media, and it has brought into focus the need for rectifying those inadequacies and putting into place an effective mechanism to check the recurrence of such incidents and the evolving of an agreed code of conduct for the electronic media. The government has formed a committee, and rightly so, to look into the situation and evolve an agreed code of conduct for the electronic media and it is also contemplating forming an independent commission to deal with such cases.

The move to evolve a code of conduct through consensus (in consultation with the representative of the media bodies), is a welcome step but the setting up of a separate commission to deal with such matters might not be such a good idea in light of the experience of the mess and confusion created by entities with overlapping responsibilities. Instead of creating new organizations and putting more burden on the national exchequer, the focus should be on making PEMRA more effective at handling such eventualities.

This is an age of self-regulation of the media. My considered view is that the powers of PEMRA to cancel the licence of a media channel do not fit into the obtaining and emerging media culture of the world, more so the democratic dispensations like Pakistan where the incumbent government believes in the freedom of expression with responsibility. While contemplating changes in the legal framework, this aspect needs to be kept in mind. It would perhaps be in the fitness of things to remove this clause of the ordinance as it does not make any sense in view of the existence of separate libel and defamation laws in the country and an ordinance to deal with the issue of blasphemy.

Perhaps it would also be advisable to create a review committee within PEMRA comprising functionaries of the organization, representatives of the electronic media, and members of the Broadcasting Association of Pakistan, charged with the responsibility of monitoring the implementation of the code of conduct on a quarterly basis and to suggest administrative and legal measures required for the purposes of effective implementation of the arrangement.

he writer is a freelance columnist.