ARY News, the largest and most popular network in Pakistan, has a long history of being sued, having a show cause notice issued, and having its transmissions suspended. Six ARY network channels were banned in the United Kingdom in 2017 after the media house failed to substantiate its allegations against Geo Television owner Mir Shakil ur Rehman.
It has been sued by the former finance minister Ishaq Dar, educationist Syed Alam Shah, PML-N leader Nasir Butt, and business tycoon Mian Mansha, among others. In April 2022, Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) issued a show-cause notice to ARY News for airing what it deemed “fake/unverified news” based on informal sources about the position taken by Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States, Asad Majeed, on the ‘Cablegate’ affair.
The Premise of the Recent ban on ARY news
On 8th August 2022, the transmission of ARY News was disrupted and suspended without notice in several parts of the country. Hours later, the show cause notice issued to ARY News by PEMRA for airing “false, hateful, and seditious content”, cited the news outlet’s allegation of PML-N’s media cell being activated to malign Imran Khan and the airing of a statement made by Dr. Shahbaz Gill on the channel which “tantamount to incite rank and files of the armed forces towards revolt”.
On 27th June, ARY News claimed the activation of PML-N’s strategic media cell to prove Imran Khan as an anti-army politician. On 8th August 2022, the media outlet’s news reporter Sadaf Abdul Jabbar reported breaking news, citing the channel’s June 27th report, that the PML-N had initiated a systematic campaign against the PTI and its chairman, Imran Khan, in response to the recent martyrdom of Pakistan Army personnel in a chopper crash in Balochistan.
According to reports, the first task of the alleged government media cell was to prove Imran Khan and the PTI as being anti-military. The notice issued by PEMRA referred to this news piece and termed the news anchor who delivered the “breaking news” as “biased” and not allowing PML-N, which has boycotted the network, to express its viewpoint.
Following the breaking news, Dr. Shahbaz Gill, the PTI leader and Imran Khan’s Chief of Staff, was invited via a telephonic call for his comments on the report. Dr. Gill made an almost 20-minute-long statement where he kept iterating the PTI’s love and support for the armed forces and alleged that the government was trying to provoke the lower and middle tier of the army against PTI, saying the families of such “rank and file” support Imran Khan and his party “which is fuelling rage within the government”.
Drawing on ARY’s report, he claimed that the ruling PML-N’s strategic media cell was circulating misleading information and fake news in order to polarize the PTI head Imran Khan and the armed forces. Dr. Gill repeatedly iterated the party’s love and support for the armed forces and emphasised the necessity of a strong military for the country’s sovereignty and integrity.
However, during this talk, Dr. Gill also made a brief comment, asking the soldiers to be wary while obeying orders so as to not follow an “unconstitutional, unlawful order that endangers national security”.
Analysis of PEMRA’s Notice
As noted by Dr. Moeed Pirzada, the Nuremberg Trials held after WWII took a similar stance, as the judges at Nuremberg rejected the “following orders” defence. They stated that if a person obeys an order that is illegal under international law, he shall be liable for that decision, except in circumstances where the person may be ignorant of the illegality of the action.
Furthermore, he stated that, unlike in Pakistan, sedition charges were based on a person’s actions inciting violence/mutiny rather than mere words in the West. However, in the context of Pakistan, the country’s geopolitical dynamics and the rigorous training, postings, and operations of the armed forces require unquestioned obedience and discipline to maintain the stature of the military.
Furthermore, Article 19 of the 1973 Constitution protects the citizens’ right to freedom of speech and expression, and the freedom of the press “subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court”.
Dr. Gill’s statement is deemed detrimental to the national security of Pakistan on grounds of inciting the forces towards revolt and mutiny among state institutions. This led to his arrest on the 9th of August by Islamabad Police on sedition charges. It is pertinent to note that ARY News has distanced itself from Dr. Gill’s statements, emphasizing that comments or opinions of any individual televised by the network do not represent the channel’s policy.
Shahbaz Gill’s statement was his personal opinion and not ARY’s editorial policy. Nevertheless, paragraph 3 of the PEMRA show-cause notice bases its order to ban the transmission on the assumption that the content aired on ARY News (in its entirety) is seditious and in violation of the constitution of Pakistan.
The show cause notice issued by the watchdog further stated,
“The statement made by the guest on ARY News is a violation of Article 19 of the Constitution as well as PEMRA laws. Airing of such content on your news channel shows either weak editorial control on the content or the licensee is intentionally indulged in providing its platform to such individuals who intend to spread malice and hatred against state institutions for their vested interests.”
PEMRA has stated that the comments aired by the TV channel were in direct violation of Section 20 of the PEMRA Ordinance 2002, the Electronic Media (Programs and Advertisements) Code of Conduct 2015, and the Supreme Court’s decisions in a 2018 suo motu case requiring PEMRA to ensure editorial monitoring of shows before they are aired.
ARY News claimed that the suspension of the channel’s transmission was a clear violation of Islamabad High Court (IHC) orders which barred PEMRA from closure and relegating ARY News to lower numbers on the sequence of TV channels.
The PEMRA sought a response within three days from the CEO of ARY Communication Pvt. with an explanation “as to why appropriate legal action may not be initiated against the channel.” The body also directed the channel’s CEO, who was not in Pakistan, to appear in person on August 10, 2022, along with a written reply.
Response and Reaction
Following the suspension of ARY News’ broadcast and the issuance of show-cause notice to ARY by PEMRA, FIRs were registered against Salman Iqbal, founder and CEO of the channel, and several anchor persons including Arshad Sharif under treason charges.
The media outlet’s Senior Executive Vice President and Director of News, Ammad Yousaf, was arrested from his residence in Karachi allegedly without a warrant on 10th August. It is reported that senior journalist Arshad Sharif has fled the country amid detention threats. These developments have been condemned by politicians, the journalist fraternity, and civil society.
The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) demanded that Pakistani authorities immediately suspend all legal action against ARY News personnel and rescind the transmission suspension orders.
The IFJ noted, “PEMRA’s suspension of ARY News’ transmission, the arrest of Ammad Yousaf and the registering of FIRs against several ARY News employees are blatant acts of legal harassment and censorship against Pakistan’s media”.
Revocation of ARY News’ NOC
The Interior Ministry cancelled the no-objection certificate provided, and updated annually, to ARY News. The notification issued by the ministry to PEMRA, dated August 11th stated, “The NOC issued in favour of M/S ARY Communications Private (Ltd). is cancelled with immediate effect and until further orders on the basis of adverse reports from agencies.”
According to the ARY News website, the termination of ARY’s NOC by “the coalition government led by PML-N” was an “economic murder of more than 4,000 media workers affiliated with the media outlet.” According to the article, it was also “a new move against the journalist fraternity,” and it was done without notice.
With the security clearance withdrawn, PEMRA announced that ARY News’ license could not be renewed for a term of 15 years and allowed PEMRA to legally shut down ARY News’ transmission nationwide without notice.
Sindh High Court Orders
In an interim order, the Sindh High Court suspended the notification of cancellation of the NOC. On August 23, the court directed PEMRA to promptly resume the ARY News broadcast and also directed the cable operators’ organisation to immediately begin airing the channel.
The SHC single-judge bench headed by Justice Aqeel Abbasi also issued directives for the media regulatory authority to take action against cable operators who defy the court’s decision.
Despite constitutional protection for freedom of speech and expression, and freedom of media, the journalist fraternity continues to be victimized for criticizing the policies of the incumbent government and the role of the establishment in the country’s politics.
The recent ban on ARY news, the suspension of its transmission without notice, cases being registered against its officials and workers, and detention of and torture of journalists are characterising an unprecedented crisis in the history of media, particularly private satellite television in Pakistan.
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