Tuesday, March 4, 2008

GAGGING THE MEDIA

MUHAMMAD MAHTAB BASHIR
ISLAMABAD

The media, print and electronic, are the most influential tools for disseminating ideas, philosophies, ideologies, consciousness of fundamental, civil, human rights, religio-political to socio-economic, and cultural issues for the masses. The media has always been used to endorse the policies of the government of the day.

Brusquely after Gen. Musharraf ordered the suspension of the constitution of 1973, curbs were imposed on the media through amendments in two ordinances. These choke them from printing or broadcasting "anything which defames or brings into ridicule the head of state, or members of the armed forces, or executive, legislative or judicial organ of the state."

The General had promulgated Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Third Amendment) Ordinance 2007 and in this amended ordinance, many amendments were made under Section 20 and 30 of the PEMRA Ordinance 2002. The blanket powers had been given to the PEMRA in the said amendments to seize broadcast or distribution service equipment or seal the premises of the licensee under the garb of public interest. In addition thereto, further unbridled powers have also been given to the PEMRA and its chairman to direct without notice, the closure of any broadcast or distribution network for such period as it might determine. The violation of amendments by media channel owner is liable to be punished up to three years imprisonment or with a fine which may extend to Rs10 million or with both, and in case of violation by distribution service licensee or its representative, they are liable to be punished up to one year imprisonment or with fine up to Rs5 million or with both. This amended ordinance is also applicable to entertainment programming in addition to news and current affairs.
All news channels and other entertainment channels have been proscribed without any justification and cogent reason. All licensees of Pemra and members of the Pakistan Broadcasting Association) PBA were already complying with the Pemra laws, rules and regulations made there under including the terms and conditions of license. After promulgation of the amended ordinance, there was no further justification to pass any directions to cable operators of the country to proscribed the private TV channels throughout the country.

With the dawn of 21st century, Pakistan's media sector has observed a sea change along with mushroom growth of private televisions channels and FM radio stations reflective of present government's unflinching commitment to free press in the country. On the initiative of General Pervez Musharraf, Freedom of Information Law was introduced in 2001-02 and the government relaxed the rules in media sector. However, the history of this country illustrates that freedom of expression and media stay alive as long as it is reflecting government's own agenda. The judicial crisis and its aftermath especially 12th May in Karachi, the launching of a book authored by Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa on the military's corporate entity that highlighted and brought information into the public domain, and last but not least free media trial of present establishment exposed the depth and dimensions of the military thus promptly resulted restrictions on media, after imposition of half-baked martial-law.

The clampdown on the electronic media is unprecedented that all private news channels have been forcibly put off air depriving people of their right to know and express. In the face of strong national and international outrage the government has decided to pursue a policy of divide and rule by driving a wedge within the media. The policy of gradually restoring certain channels while keeping others off air is a sad reflection of this policy. The curbs on media are against the interest of Pakistan and contradict the progress made by the country during the last few years towards a democratic process. Media plays an important and constructive role in holding free and fair elections and a free press always plays an important role in a democratic society but it seems that under emergency and containing the role of media, General wants to play his cards using his ‘discretionary powers’. The media, especially the electronic, has been accused of sensationalizing the present scenario, and I daresay, they may have, at times. But that is for the viewers to decide, No government can proscribe media to its basic functioning, and under such ‘Democratic process” not at all.

Musharraf's attempts to gag cyberspace, however, have proven pointless. Minute-by-minute diffusion of information about the arrests of rights activists and lawyers, their whereabouts and the sharing of information on how to gain access to blocked channels through the Internet is underway like never before. The commerce ministry has given a notification to dish antennae retailers that the import of technical inputs would now be regulated by PEMRA and certain DCO’s have already in their acts to warn those shop keepers to shut down their shops. The only way out to stop trade of dish antennae is to lift the ban from cable TV, can government do it, at present, No way. As long as media is biased in favour of the current government mechanism in power, it will not be censored or strangled, but if it exposes the subjugation and violence perpetrated against dissent by government and its political supporters, the act of censoring takes place. What is worse is the fact that government organs are now leveling allegations against judiciary by crossing its premises. Now the government's boast of having made the media the most free in the country's history has been well-exposed.

The freedom of expression and freedom of press can be ensured in our society only when an elected representative of the country with a democratic process get into an act and makes all institutions powerful under the dominance of constitution and true implementation of rule of law. Unfortunately, the present regime has failed miserably in all aspects of moving things rolled smoothly and freedom of press is just another victim of this 'democracy' headed by a man who proclaimed army uniform as his second skin.

Hukmrano say kaho hosh may ayain Kausar
Hum bhi bethay thay kabhi aisay hi aiwano may
(Kausar Niazi)


Published in daily The Frontier Post on 16th Nov, 2007

MUHAMMAD MAHTAB BASHIR
House # 2026, Street # 32,
I-10/2, ISLAMABAD.
Cell: 0300 52 56 875

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