Ms Afifa Iqbal has a keen interest in identity politics, colonialism and post-colonial development. She is currently working as a Research Assistant at ITU while pursuing her postgraduate studies in Development, Technology and Policy. She is a Gold Medalist in Political Science from the University of Punjab.
“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.” ― Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
Like Mr. Pilgrim, Pakistan’s media landscape is frozen in the “amber of the moment” created and curated by constitutional and extra-constitutional forces alike. The only difference is that there is a why and a logic to it; the logic of power and control. The brass-knuckles tactics of censorship, intimidation, and violence against journalists in Pakistan are no secret.
Despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press, the government and other powerful actors have resorted to these tactics to silence critical voices and maintain control over the narrative. Then there is a politicization of the media through incentivization, the velvet glove approach. Fall in line and get rewarded. But this also necessitates judgement calls by media houses.
Like the high rollers at the Las Vegas Strip, the mainstream media houses bet on the political parties and alternatively get rewarded/penalized. The change in guard has often spelled trouble for the affiliated media house of the previous guard.
Cancelling ARY’s License: Counter-productive and Ineffective
PEMRA issued a ban on airing the speeches, both recorded and live, of the former premier Imran Khan on March 5 with the accompanying warning that any media house found in violation would have its broadcasting license cancelled.
The notification stated; “It has been observed that Imran Khan [Chairman PTI] in his speeches/statements is continuously alleging state institutions by leveling baseless allegations and spreading hate speech through his provocative statements against state institutions and officers which is prejudicial to the maintenance of law and order and is likely to disturb public peace and tranquility.”
Hardly a few hours later, PEMRA suspended the broadcasting license of ARY News, the privately owned satellite news channel. The suspension order flagged clips of Imran Khan’s speech aired during the 9 pm bulletin as “willful defiance to the Prohibition Order”.
The suspension order stated, “Foregoing in view, the competent authority i.e. the Chairman PEMRA in exercise of powers vested in Section 30(3) of the PEMRA Ordinance 2002 as amended by PEMRA (Amendment) Act 2007, hereby Suspends broadcast satellite TV Channel license conferred to M/s ARY Communications Ltd. (ARY News) with immediate effect, till further orders.”
According to ARY News management, they were unfairly targeted as the license of other news channels that broadcasted clips of Imran Khan’s Zaman Park speech was not cancelled. “The PEMRA announcement arrived after 8 pm, and practically all the networks broadcast excerpts of Imran Khan’s address in their 9 pm bulletins. The regulatory authorities, however, just suspended our license.”
While the dysfunction within the news broadcasting channels is hardly debatable given the biased reporting and sensationalism, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) has only added to this dysfunction through its hotchpotch of politically-charged and misguided policies and notices.
In the current political climate, the suspension order has proved to be counter-productive and ineffective. Issuing the order against a channel alleged to be aligned with the interests of the previous government while letting others off the hook only adds fuel to an already raging fire. More so, this selective and politically-motivated targeting provides fodder to self-styled journalists on social media platforms, particularly YouTube, who are adept at creating hyper-sensational and politically-divisive content.
If the purpose of the directive was to stop the broadcasting of Imran Khan’s speeches, then it failed spectacularly. Even without ARY News, Khan’s speeches are reaching his audience just fine. After all, this is the age of social media platforms like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. The directive disregards the reality of the digital age and the viewership habits of the target audience. We have, after all, entered 2023. Someone should give this memo to PEMRA.
In an ideal world, every institution would operate within its constitutional limits and every news channel would provide unbiased news coverage, but since this hardly seems the case for the foreseeable future, the regulatory authority could, at the very least, understand the intricacies of the digital world and refrain from issuing such orders that accomplish next to nothing.
Another important tidbit to remember is that people’s minds are not tabula rasa. The regulator cannot expect to imprint on them the state-backed narratives or erase the very same narratives from their minds when the realignment of the state’s interests takes place followed by re-articulation of its narratives. If Imran Khan was propped up as Superman in 2014 then he could hardly be Lex Luthor in 2023.
Two things the directive did accomplish were stoking the anger of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s overzealous supporters and drawing the criticism of international organizations that advocate for media freedom and safety. The Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent non-profit and non-governmental organization, condemned the revocation of ARY News’ license.
The Asia program coordinator, Beh Lih Yi, called for the immediate reversal of the act. “Pakistan’s ban on satellite television channels broadcasting former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s speeches and the suspension of ARY News’ license are the government’s latest attacks on press freedom and the right to information. Authorities must immediately reverse these blatant acts of censorship and allow the media to report on key political developments in the country freely.”
International Federation of Journalists, an associate member of UNESCO and the world’s largest organization of journalists, also condemned the directive stating; “The suspension of transmission would be tantamount to depriving Pakistan of the media freedoms enshrined in the Constitution of Pakistan that have been so hard fought for and defended by journalists and unions. The IFJ urges the Pakistani government to ensure freedom of expression in accordance with the Constitution of Pakistan and its international commitments and obligations.”
While performative in nature, such condemnations translate into lower rankings on indexes such as World Press Freedom Index. This, in turn, have some bearings on indexes such as the Democracy Index which then impact the global perception of the country. Put simply, revoking the license of ARY News and other news channels on political grounds is bad for the country’s image and economy.
Issues to Focus on
The “About PEMRA” section on the official website of the regulatory authority reads; “PEMRA has been established under PEMRA Ordinance 2002 to facilitate and regulate the private electronic media. It has mandate to improve the standards of information, education and entertainment and to enlarge the choice available to the people of Pakistan Including news, current affairs, religious knowledge, art and culture as well as science and technology.” According to this, PEMRA has to ‘facilitate’ and regulate private electronic media. Au contraire, it has thrown its full weight behind arbitrary regulation and that too mostly based on the directives of the powers that be.
During the Musharraf regime, the regulatory authority was used to clamp down on dissenting voices. Since then, very little has changed. Not long ago, it was Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman’s Geo TV that was at the receiving end of PEMRA’s wrath. Today, it is Salman Iqbal’s ARY News. In 2021, the then-prime minister Imran Khan sat with HBO’s Jonathan Swan for an interview. When asked about the causes of sexual violence in Pakistan, Khan said, “If a woman is wearing very few clothes it will have an impact on the man unless they are robots. I mean, it’s common sense.”
Despite the prevalence of rape cases in the country, the airing of the clippings was not met with any censorship or suspension orders, and they were shown on almost all news channels. Unsurprisingly, PEMRA chose to sit that one out, but it draws the line at the criticism of public institutions. The situation would be comical if it was not so tragic.
While taking stock of the current situation, I am reminded of the title sequence of a children’s classic, “A Series of Unfortunate Events”;
“You may think that Baudelaires
Ought to prevail
And be tucked some place
All safe and sound
Count Olaf captured
And rotting in jail
His henchpeople nowhere around
But there’s no happy endings
Not here and not now
This tale is all sorrows and woes
You dream that justice
And peace win the day
But that’s not how the story goes”
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