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“Pemra should have a law for cable operators” — Javed Jabbar

Renowned media analyst dwells on various aspects of media freedom and responsibility

“Pemra should have a law for cable operators” — Javed Jabbar

Javed Jabbar a renowned media analyst, a former senator and a former federal minister for information, was member of the Media Commission formed by the Supreme Court of Pakistan to prepare a report on media affairs in the country, based on nine terms of references (ToRs). TNS interviewed him at the launch of the report in Lahore.

The News on Sunday: What has gone wrong with Pemra and what can be done to make it right?

Javed Jabbar: First, to be fair to Pemra, the body has done a few, important things.

In a short period, soon after its inception in 2002, Pemra has created an entire framework of rules, regulations, and processes for licensing several dozens of private TV channels and FM radio stations and over 2500 cable TV distributors. Pemra has helped transform the electronic media landscape of Pakistan within just a few years.

However, in the same period of the past 12 years, the federal government has increased its dominance of Pemra, instead of gradually reducing it. Be it by enhancing the number of ex-officio government officials as members to reducing non-official members to a minority or by appointing only former or serving government officials to be the Chairman or by transferring/retaining the administrative control through either the Information Ministry or the Cabinet Division.

Its financial self-reliance — because it meets its expenses through its own revenue from license fees and does not receive any government grant — is also ultimately nullified because the Secretary of Information Ministry is the Principal Accounting Officer for Pemra. Such excessive governmental dominance, often reflecting transient but partisan influence, prevents Pemra from evolving as an authentically autonomous, unbiased, impartial regulatory body.

TNS: Attempts by both the private sector and the state have failed to promote a professional media? What needs to be done to ensure a professional media?

JJ: The failure is not a complete failure. Even in the case of state media, such as PBC and PTV, the contribution of these two pioneering electronic media has been formative and substantial. In finding and nurturing talent and skills in all the spheres and sectors, from news and current affairs to entertainment to sports to music and drama, in achieving high standards that were once admired in South Asia, including India.

The weaknesses became larger when these two corporations were retained by the tight clutches of the state and governments declined to conduct institutional, internal organisational reform in the light of entirely new external conditions generated by the advent of private and competitive media. And, ironically now, with private media virtually running amuck with commercialisation and advertising and infotainment, it is PTV and PBC that offer modulated, mature tone and content in place of the hype and hysteria of the private media. Their pre-occupation with government news continues in the news bulletins but in other respects, even now the state media offer welcome alternatives to the imbalance of private media.

Yet, there is obviously need for major reforms as recommended by the Media Commission.

Where private media have become excessively commercial, ratings-driven and often irresponsible, they have also brought a new liveliness, energy, innovativeness, candour, humour, and variety to the scene. So, it is not a case of total failure. There is an urgent need for reform as also specified in the Recommendations of the Commission, starting with the Pakistan Broadcasters Association being obliged to formally adopt and enforce its own Code of Conduct that remains, mysteriously, in draft form for over 4 years. The government and parliament have to enact new measures to enforce accountability, and humility, of private electronic media without curbing responsible use of freedom of expression.

TNS: Consumers are a key stakeholder of the media sector but do not find an effective mechanism to impact quality of content. How can they do so?

JJ: To achieve this end, people will have to look at media as a subject which deserves their active participation. They participate in social activism, religious gatherings, political party meetings but media issues do not occupy top position among their sensibilities. It is a misconception that media is a highly specialised field and ordinary people cannot influence it. They must realise that media has a direct relevance to their lives and their well-being and should come with suggestions. The concept of media literacy and education should be there and form part of school curriculum.

I would give you an example of the detachment shown by people in matters related to media. When the media commission placed advertisements in newspapers and asked people to give their opinion, very few of them responded. This was despite the fact that people were unhappy about media and kept on expressing their anger in private meetings but did not bother to send a written and formulated response.

TNS: Content distributors (cable operators) are easily manipulated by third parties (government, intelligence, political parties and religious groups) into allowing or disrupting distribution of content producers (TV channels). Thus, channels and consumers have no direct relationship. How can this be addressed and how can the effect of cable operators’ mafia be diluted?

JJ: This can happen when stakeholders and regulators start respecting the principle of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR). Today, thousands of in-house cable operators are showing pirated content. Religious channels do not have licenses but they are on air. Even some mainstream channels are playing melodies without paying royalties to the original owners of the content. Pemra should come up with a law to control cable operators and the judiciary should extend its support for its implementation. At the moment, it is weak and does not even have a chairman. The collective bodies, such as those of broadcasters, cable operators, and journalists can play an important role but a problem here is that all of these are divided and pitched against each other. Enforcement becomes difficult in such a situation.

TNS: The report does not talk at length about the need for journalists’ trainings, minimum qualifications to become a journalist and the security of media personnel. Why is it so?

JJ: The TORs of the report were wide but not too comprehensive. That was why some issues were not covered or mentioned briefly in the report. Another consideration was that topics such as wage board, journalists’ security, etc, which had already been taken up by stakeholders, including the government, PFUJ and owners, did not need detailed mention in the report. However, the report did talk about journalists’ professionalism and prior experience and education.

TNS: Who do you think shall decide national interest? Can freedom of expression be granted as a right when there are too many champions of national interest?

JJ: This is a very pertinent issue which even haunts countries like USA. You have the examples of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden who are both admired and abhorred at home. There are people who consider them heroes and those who condemn them for being traitors. I think there should be some bare minimum standards which should be adopted unanimously. For example, any release of content which may lead to redefinition of territorial jurisdiction shall be termed harmful to national interest.

TNS: There are several laws to manage media but they are hardly implemented. Besides, media house owners are reluctant to follow different codes of ethics. How can this situation be improved?

JJ: The main problem here is that the authorities are reluctant to use their powers and enforce laws. In other words, one can say there is a profound retreat from use of power. There is no clarity. The government does not want to entangle with media as it gives them the much-needed media coverage. This confusion is seen in every sector. For example, the state is not clear on whether to launch an offensive against terrorists or hold talks with them. I think the situation can be improved if the concerned authorities resort to non-discriminatory use of their legitimate powers wherever needed.

TNS: Why was the media commission important and what are the 5 key recommendations it has made?

JJ: Five principal recommendations of the Media Commission could be summarised as:

1. Major re-structuring of the Ministry of Information including , merging it with the Ministry of Information Technology, including re-naming it, making the new entity relevant to the realities and new technological imperatives of the 21st century and de-centralising control over Government advertising.

2. Similarly, re-construction of Pemra, merging it with PTA and placing the new entity directly under Parliament to make it accountable on a non-partisan basis, and to make the appointment of its Chairman and Members also through a bipartisan consensus.

3. Transformation of state media entities, such as PBC, PTV and APP into public service entities through distributive mass ownership of their shares , downsising, ending of monopoly of PTV over income from license fees.

4. Enactment of an over-arching new law to define and enforce self-regulation by each sector so as to end on-going anarchy and hold media owners accountable through obligatory transparency and measurable indicators.

5. Ensure that each newspaper, TV channel, and radio channel appoint an independent Ombudsman, amongst several other self-reform by media themselves.

TNS: Why have representative media associations like PBA, APNS, CPNE and PFUJ failed in cooperating and collaborating with each other for the larger interest of the sector? How can these foes become friends?

JJ: Representative forums like APNS and PBA have so far been effective in protecting and promoting their own interests, e.g, in dealing with PFUJ, on issues such as the Wage Board Award. Periodically, with CPNE they have demonstrated solidarity on issues, such as freedom of media. But they are also now riven by internal schisms which, unlike the past, are now openly expressed to people at large, reaching a bizarre level of viciousness and animosity. To convert such bitterness into reconciliation requires strong leadership by parliament and government that should not be intimidated by media but must set parameters of conduct and dialogue. Secondly, media owners themselves have the responsibility to enforce a ceasefire and acknowledge the larger shared duty. Thirdly, advertisers should use the power of their placements to persuade media owners to adopt constructive rather than destructive modes.

Fourthly, citizens’ forums, NGOs, the people at large should become activists in demanding responsible and balanced media conduct. Lastly, PFUJ should attempt unity between its present three groups. Working journalists could show the way!

Shahzada Irfan Ahmed

shahzada irfan
The author is a staff reporter and can be reached at [email protected]

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