In Pakistan, all religious (Islamic) satellite channels are operating without license for the past many years because there is no category of religious channels in the rules of country’s media regulatory authority (PEMRA).
Prominent information analyst and a former federal minister Javed Jabbar, who also co-authored the Media Commission Report in 2013 on the direction of Supreme Court of Pakistan, recently said whenever the Pemra attempted to make broadcasters comply with laws in the past, stay orders were obtained from courts. He said many illegal television channels are functioning without any hindrance. “Also, no religious channel has any licence,” he said, referring to this as a reflection of the failure of the state of affairs.
The mandate of Pakistan Electronic Media Regularity Authority (Pemra) aims to “enlarge the choice available to the people of Pakistan in the media for news, current affairs, religious knowledge, art, culture, science, technology, economic development, social sector concerns, music, sports, drama and other subjects of public and national interest.” However, a senior official of Pemra, asking not to be named, said there is no category of ‘religious’ channels in its list.
“The operations of all religious channels, whether local or foreign, are illegal and many of them have obtained temporary court ruling (stay-order) to continue their operations and the matter is pending before the court for conclusion. The courts have directed ‘no coercive action’ against some channels till the conclusion of the cases, which are pending since 2005,” he says.
The authority, he says, is certainly afraid because you cannot take action on a sensitive issue related to religion. “When we take such actions, we have to face a series of protests outside our offices.”
Jabbar said, “It is a cause of serious concern that the religious TV channels operating without licence are functional but those with licences were being shut. How these Islamic channels are able to run their operations without advertisements remains a question.”
In 2009, in an operation, Pemra blocked illegal channels including unregistered Indian channels, foreign sports channels and some religious channels. However, one tv (QTV) was provided immunity by the Sindh High Court and the matter is still subjudice. Similarly, another religious channel Madni TV also got relaxation from the court.
Officials in Pemra reveal that the authority started receiving applications for religious channels or getting landing rights but there was no category for such channels. The authority referred the matter to its parent ministry (Ministry of Information) in federal government which asked the law ministry to give its opinion. The law ministry further consulted the religious affairs ministry and later suggested to have this category.
However, there was no clear directive from the information ministry without which the authority cannot amend its rules. The matter was twice referred in the past few years but the government has not reached a conclusion. The authority cannot take action against these channels because of religious sensitivity. “You better know what happened with the largest television network (Geo) in the name of religion,” the official said highlighting the sensitivity and adding, “They remained hesitant to apologise before the country’s top intelligence agency for several weeks but they had to offer immediate apology to everybody when they were charged on religious grounds.”
The Pemra officials consider the matter sensitive because such channels can cause any sectarian rift at some point, turning the situation from bad to worse. This was one of the major reasons for not adding this category of channels into the list, an official told TNS.
In 2010, a sectarian uproar was noticed after an (up-linked) religious channel aired a statement of Dr Zakir Naik in a live show terming the tragedy of Karbala as a political movement not a war to defend Islam and praised Yazeed. The authority came into action after a series of protests. On the other hand, after the closure of the channel, many also took out protests calling to lift this ban. They warned Pemra and government of massive protests if the channel was not restored. The religious sentiments call for banning Indian channels, un-Islamic channels spreading ‘obscenity’ and allow Islamic channels instead.
“The situation shows that state’s ability to take action is compromised if you become defiant. The state cannot stand against these religious groups who have lot of sympathisers who support these religious channels,” said prominent political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi.
“Such operations or religious channels are part of the effort of religious orthodoxy to dominate social and state discourse. The state can close down one channel for violation of certain principles then why should certain types of channels be given a free hand,” he asked.
He suggested all illegal channels, without any category discrimination, must be closed and the judiciary should recognise that they cannot decide on every administrative measure. He felt the situation is gradually moving towards the erosion of the civilian state. “Ultimately this might become a category in the Pemra rules but at the moment the state should enforce the existing law.”
“It seems hard for the state to stop these elements without major action and strong political will. These issues have sectarian dimensions too,” said veteran journalist and human rights activist Hussain Naqi, while citing the glaring examples of extrajudicial killings in blasphemy cases. “You cannot stop these channels but you cannot allow their illegal operations either.”
He said these things can lead to big accidents and if state does not wake up lawlessness, anarchy and violence can increase. “You will see violent anarchy and you will forget 1947,” he said, adding, “The state is not ignorant but afraid.”