Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry told a meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Information on February 25 that there was a need for a centralised regulatory authority for all types of media, print, electronic and digital. The minister mustered in support of his idea the convergence of news and entertainment in mobile phones because of technological advances. That may be so, although it is not yet a situation where the mobile phone reigns supreme unchallenged over all other sources of information. However, how this development justifies the setting up of the proposed Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PMRA) to oversee (and control) all media was not explained by the worthy minister. To his credit, the minister at least paid lip service to consultations with political leaders and stakeholders to forge a consensus on the proposal and that PMRA would be free from government intervention. At present, the minister informed the committee, the Press Council of Pakistan (PCP) looks after matters related to the print media, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) the affairs of the electronic media and the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) digital media and cellular companies. Fawad Chaudhry hastened to add that the new regulatory body was by no means being established to curb media freedoms. Contrary to the minister’s claim that the media enjoys more freedom than any other country in the Muslim or Third World (a dubious distinction even if accepted), media practitioners and users know the kind of control of news and information to bring it into conformity with the official narrative that has been at work in recent years. Media houses have been compelled on pain of financial survival if they do not toe the officially certified line. Self-censorship therefore is rife. The other contentious statement made by the minister to the Standing Committee was to shed crocodile tears for the plight of media workers, especially electronic media workers, who he argued did not enjoy the same protections under the law for their rights as the print media workers. He also bent his ‘concern’ for electronic media owners having to deal with problems stemming from being subject to different regulatory authorities to argue they would ‘benefit’ from the establishment of a centralised regulatory body. In the first place, Fawad Chaudhry should have taken the trouble to point out which are these ‘different regulatory bodies’ that electronic media owners have to deal with, since his statement contradicts what he had said about the existence and function of Pemra. Second, he should also have explained how a centralised media regulatory authority would benefit such owners. Merely asserting such conclusions without explicating and filling in the argument remains less than convincing. Last but not least, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry thought little of sprinkling salt on the wounds of media workers by asserting that advertising was shifting from news channels to digital forums and thereby creating problems for the traditional news media. He neglected to mention his government’s role in creating unprecedented problems for the media by hitting it in its pocket where it hurts. Government advertising has been cruelly slashed both in quantum and rates under the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government. Whatever financial difficulties the media houses had been experiencing before, this ‘gift’ from the PTI government has led to thousands of journalists and media workers losing their jobs throughout the country as a result of the shrinking earnings of all media houses.
The minister’s effort to paint the government’s intentions vis-à-vis the freedom and independence of the media in a rosy light simply does not hold water. Print, electronic and even social media are being subjected as we speak to an intolerably high level of self censorship and control through intimidation and worse. Media houses are being squeezed financially through the government’s advertising policy. The most dire consequences of all this have fallen first and foremost on the heads of media workers. In any case, in democracies the media is free of the kind of regulation envisaged in the PMRA idea. Our Constitution’s Article 19 too empowers freedom of the media and expression. The minister’s insistence on monitoring the media through one overarching regulatory authority not only cuts across the grain of these freedoms, it raises suspicions that what is being proposed is a draconian censorship regime to outrival even the worst military dictatorship in our history.