The evolution of current affairs media in Pakistan has entered an interesting phase — the transition from a more-or-less freewheeling age to a potentially more focused regulatory regime that can end up arriving, in the best case scenario, at a free speech environment but one that does not brook hate. Or it can morph into a nanny regime that is anathema to a democratic, open, pluralistic future that the country aspires to.
In the first phase in 2002, a shift occurred from a monopolistic state-owned broadcast media sector to a plethora of private-owned tv channels and radio stations, expanding the media space manifold relatively quickly. In a rapid second phase, a switch of news focus from only talking about the government to coverage of a broader range of social, political, economic and cultural pluralism (regional coverage in six languages) with citizen’s perspectives was effected.
In the third phase, as happens when media pluralism are embraced anywhere in the world in countries of socio-political transitions on the back of cutthroat market competition based on a controversial ratings system, hitherto taboo topics being covered by Pakistani media, and boundaries of even what is permissible being pushed, have acquired a critical mass.
Street agendas, news agendas
The results are controversies (“even raising the ‘settled’ issue of Ahmadis being non-Muslims amounts to blasphemy”), frayed tempers (“women, shalwars and husbandry”) and hurt egos (“I’m embarrassed when my children see ads for condoms and ask me for explanations”). These examples are from the last three weeks only but constitute a representative sample of street agendas and socio-cultural beliefs and habits translating into a national news agenda.
How these developments play out constitute the current fourth phase of transition. Arguably this is the most critical phase of transition of media evolution to navigate. Why? Because this phase will determine if Pakistan is able to come to terms with its multi-national, multi-ethnic, multi-linguist, multi-faith, multi-sectarian and multi-class character by embracing these extraordinary pluralism and agreeing on the broader set of principles that will accommodate these pluralism.
In the early stage of responses to the transition to this phase, how is Pakistan faring? As expected, not too encouragingly.
Amid the raging content-related controversies, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra), which regulates the private broadcast sector only, has stepped in to mediate. Its defining response has been to fine, ban and warn tv channels with a view to burying controversies rather than addressing them through larger principles. This default response is an outcome of the technicalities of its parent law and attendant regulations — all of which were birthed by a military regime without consultations with relevant stakeholders.
State interests, citizen interests
The problem with the default response of the state is that it interprets everything from the narrow prism of its own interests rather than that of citizens based on immutable fundamental rights as guaranteed in the constitution. The issue of who can say what, or not, on a current affairs tv channel is not an issue of the media alone (and hence to be mediated by its regulator, Pemra, only) but an issue of freedom of expression (therefore primarily related to citizens and regulated by constitutional guarantees).
Hence, any response here should necessarily have to be based on the fundamental principle of free speech. What should not be permissible is hate speech. But if you ban, for example, both the questioner (Hamza Ali) and the responder (Kokab Noorani) — even though both were on different programmes and on different tv channels — that is tantamount to equating a polite (and entirely justified) question and a death threat (and incitement to violence).
This is not solving the problem, it is exacerbating the problem by shirking the problem.
Make no mistake about it — this latest phase of transition in the Pakistani media evolution is an opportunity for Pakistan to nudge itself into the right framework of pluralistic expression and a healthy democratic, pluralistic and inclusive debate about the country’s future that both evolves and helps enforce the guidelines of what is acceptable and what is not as the country conducts a dialogue with itself about its future. It would be a mistake to see this opportunity merely as a crisis of credibility of the media to be treated administratively through the media regulator. Pemra is only as good as the restrictions of its framework of its parent law and regulations.
Code of ethics, code of conduct
We can find fault with Pemra — and yes there are several serious ones, including the fact that in light of its young age and its patchy experiences it considers itself as a regulator of content rather than as a regulator of the sector — but it would be foolish to weigh the regulator with the burden of ensuring the value of freedom of expression based on its current restricted mandate and orientation.
Having said this, the ongoing latest phase of transition of media is also a great opportunity for Pemra to improve its outreach with stakeholders to focus on bettering market fairness, facilitating greater public-interest focus by media businesses and to become a superior champion of consumer interest by focusing on media literacy for consumers.
What the state can do to combat free speech is to first acknowledge that freedom of expression, as defined in Article 19 of the constitution, is restrictive and falls short of international standards. It should enlist the support of parliament and citizens to revisit Article 19 with a view to narrowing these restrictions by reflecting official commitments made by the State of Pakistan to the UN, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). It should also acknowledge that some laws and provisions discourage free speech which impair pluralism and it should remove impediments in the legal framework and enforce pluralism guaranteed in the constitution.
What is also needed is a responsible current affairs media, principally governed by a consensus code of ethics espousing journalism best practices — rather than only through the various codes of conduct for staff that representative media associations have in place but rarely practiced.
To be professional, the media in Pakistan will have to principally be the guardian of public interest and the country’s pluralism rather than simply corporate or state interests.