Myth of Media Self-Regulation | Dawn

5th May 2014
by Javed Jabbar

Fortunately, both Hamid Mir , the intended victim of the 19th April shooting in Karachi and freedom of expression , will survive. Like Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme, there is no scope for a roll-back , despite the dastardly attacks on media and journalists. However, the present situation underlines the illusion of media self-regulation, specially by electronic news media.

There are two broad categories of media regulation. The physical, operational category is an exclusive State responsibility covering essentials of eligibility.

The second category is of content regulation , shared between State and media. It is only partly covered by one aspect in the first category i.e. acceptance by the licensee of the terms and conditions on which permission is granted to own and operate media. For example, in PEMRA’s case, it is mandatory for each licensee of a TV or radio channel to practice the PEMRA Code of Conduct .

But just as the nature of news is volatile and unpredictable from minute- to -minute, the manner in which electronic news media should report events is vulnerable to variable factors of spontaneous utterances and actions, competitiveness, speed and sensation. All these elements fused into a potent, explosive mixture to make the live, unedited transmission of allegations against ISI and its chief on 19th April an archetypical example of content regulation's complexity.

Equally, the episode underlined the inadequacy of media themselves being the sole determinant of the imperatives that should shape their content . A serious, unproven accusation against a State institution and an individual was projected instantly to virtually billions of people around the world . This incident was actually a crisis -in- the- making from the very inception of independent, privately-owned electronic media in Pakistan onwards of 2002.

The PEMRA Ordinance 2002 was the third version of a law unprecedented in Pakistan's history. First came the EMRA Ordinance of February 1997 by the unelected Caretaker Government of President Farooq Leghari and Prime Minister Meraj Khalid which was deliberately allowed to lapse in June 1997 by the elected second Government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The second version was a draft law known as the RAMBO Ordinance twice approved by the Cabinet of President Pervez Musharraf in 2000 but not actually promulgated. Then came a slightly revised version known as the PEMRA Odinance in March 2002 which, with subsequent amendments, remains in force today.

Though assailed by some , the PEMRA law and PEMRA as a regulatory body have actually helped transform the electronic media landscape . For better and worse. We went rapidly from the extreme of monopoly to the extreme of abundance. Despite a few lacunae, several failures and weaknesses in enforcement, the PEMRA law and PEMRA have significantly advanced freedom of expression and media . Public awareness and engagement on vital issues have been radically enhanced.

Yet a curious simultaniety of construction and de-construction occurred. Even as the number of channels took the giant leap , the will and capacity to enforce unwritten norms of propriety , and written laws and rules took several steps backwards. This became all the more strange because in this very period, Government control of the regulatory body increased, rather than decreased.

The decline in regulatory effectiveness was vigorously enabled by the superior Judiciary . This State pillar remains willing to promptly issue Stay Orders against PEMRA's attempts to discipline media conduct . Stay Orders are prolonged for years , instead of weeks. The Judiciary permits the law to be brazenly flouted : non-licensed religious channels are allowed to continue broadcasting.

In addition to PEMRA's official Code of Conduct, the Pakistan Broadcasters' Association has a " Proposed Voluntary Code of Conduct " that is in a " proposed " state for the past 4 years. One reason for this delay is sheer arrogance. By making adoption of this Code contingent to the laws of the land being amended to reflect PBA's wishes, media owners set themselves above an elected Parliament which alone has the right to make laws . PBA also creates a convenient escape-and-exemption clause by stating that : " .. the Code will not be applied stringently on entertainment programmes, satire, drama, films and such (sic ) genres. "

The cumulative result : sanctity of pure news polluted by " infotainment " e.g. playing of film songs instead of using these elements in separate programmes of satire; use of pejorative adjectives that distort facts and information; hysterical mannerisms of some presenters and anchors ; pervasive intrusion of advertising, including promotion of absurd miracle cures ; major excesses of defamation, character assassination; invasion of privacy ; violation of intellectual property rights ; excessive Indian content ; rush to broadcast without pause to reflect ; inane repetition of images in "loops" of various scenes, including terrorists brandishing weapons ; re-enactment by actors of cruel , real crimes; heedless pursuit of ratings and profit. Virtual anarchy in the name of freedom.

No channel regularly informs viewers how to register complaints. No report is broadcast by channels on the number and nature of complaints received, actions taken . To cap it all : some PBA Member-channels viciously malign each other.

Over the past 12 years, while the first category of State regulation was hyper-active, the second category of content regulation (by the State, and through self-regulation) became virtually paralyzed. Effective self-regulation is viable only within the framework of public law enacted by strong leadership that should respect the people's rights more rather than their own timid reluctance to challenge media's misdemeanours . Public law alone can oblige media to be transparent, accountable and responsible . Otherwise, self-regulation becomes a cover for self-indulgence .Which, in turn, becomes the protection of narrow self-interest.

As published on the editorial page of Dawn on 5th May 2014 titled : 'A media myth'