Following the Supreme Court’s direction, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued a new code of conduct on Friday, amending the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) Rules, 2009.
The new code raises more concerns and confusion than addressing the existing issues. To begin with, the court had taken a serious notice of the fact that the authority charged with regulating the electronic media affairs was without a permanent chairman and a complete Council of Complaints.
The issue remains ignored. As a matter of fact, the committee formed by the government to prepare the code held consultations with representatives of different media bodies but did not bother even to invite the regulating authority, thereby demonstrating that the information ministry regards Pemra as a mere handmaiden.
The long list of dos and don’ts issued by the ministry includes several good points such as prohibiting airing of any programme that passes derogatory remarks about any religion, sect, community or uses visuals or words contemptuous of religious sects and ethnic groups or which promotes communal hatreds and sectarian attitudes or disharmony.
This is necessary in view of some irresponsible programming broadcast from time to time. Another provision calls for editorial oversight to ensure compliance with the code of conduct in letter and spirit. Also, in keeping with the basic norms of journalism, licensees are required to see to it that news is clearly distinguished from commentary, opinion and analysis.
There have been many instances of careless reporting and comments due to lack of editorial oversight in some of the media houses. Yet another significant provision says programmes on sub judice matters be aired in informative manner and handled objectively.
As per an established legal custom, discussion of a case brought before a court for consideration constitutes an attempt to influence the outcome and hence comprises contempt of court. The traditional media always took care not to comment on such cases, but not anymore.
During the recent years, many of the major political battles have fought in courts and the news and views about these cases expressed freely, reflecting partisan views. Judgements are open to criticism, not legal proceedings.
Some of the new code’s provisions are bewildering, indeed. For instance, it says the licensee is to ensure that no content is aired that contains anything “indecent” or “obscene”. These words, of course, are open to many different interpretations. Such words and phrases need to be clearly defined.
Then there is the provision that says statements of proscribed organisations or their representatives or members shall not be aired “… provided always that such broadcast does not in any way aid, abet, glorify or give excuse to their means and ways in any shape or form.”
It goes without saying that no one should try and glorify violent extremists; but there are other problems. One is that the interior ministry is yet to release a complete list of proscribed organisations. Second, and more importantly, the media houses have repeatedly been pointing out that their reporters, especially those in troubled areas, have been facing reprisals from extremist groups for disregarding their statements.
This concern needs to be addressed properly. But first and foremost, Pemra must be duly empowered to act as an independent regulatory authority. Its chairman ought to be appointed through government-opposition consensus to a tenured position so he/she can act without fear or favour.