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Pakistan: Media in Chains

by Mazhar Abbas, 2 November 2008

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Daily Times, November 3, 2008

Media in chains

It is very important for media stakeholders, and is in their own interest, to address the issue of ‘responsible journalism’ and the ‘media code of ethics’. Journalists are key stakeholders in the situation, but they are not the only ones

On November 3, 2007, while preparing for a live programme on the possibility of emergency rule, I was informed by a colleague that emergency had indeed been imposed by General-President Pervez Musharraf, and that all channels had gone off-air.

Later that night, I got a call from an intelligence official ‘advising’ me not to come out on the roads in protest, and that there would be zero tolerance shown to protestors, especially journalists and leaders of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists. An anonymous caller repeated this ‘friendly message’ to me the next day.

I contacted other PFUJ leaders, and we decided to meet at the Press Club in Rawalpindi. Despite apprehensions, leaders from across the country attended the emergency meeting on November 5, and unanimously decided to resist the curbs placed on the media under the emergency, and called for joint action involving all media stakeholders.

Our call for a protest movement against the media ban, and demand to end emergency and reinstatement of deposed judges made the government nervous. Soon after the first major rally in Islamabad, a case was registered against 200 journalists, including the PFUJ leadership. I asked then Secretary Information Anwar Mahmood about the case. He denied it, but it was later confirmed. If this was an attempt to put pressure on PFUJ, it failed, and the movement continued for 78 days.

Another attempt to implement the ‘zero tolerance’ policy was made during a protest camp outside the Dawn News office in Islamabad. Some political activists attended the camp and distributed a pamphlet critical of the army. A week later, we were told that an FIR had been registered, directly against PFUJ this time. This was a serious move, as the case was against the union, and that too on the advice of the interior ministry. Some senior lawyers were of the view that under this FIR, the government could impose a ban on PFUJ.

Following another executive council meeting, the union also decided on alternative leadership should the government opt for a ban and arrest the PFUJ leadership. Federal Information Minister Nisar Memon invited PFUJ leaders for talks, assuring them that the case would be withdrawn. To this day, the case hasn’t been withdrawn, but two FIRs were sealed.

Once the ‘zero tolerance’ policy failed, the government decided to go with ‘divide and rule’. They increased pressure on media owners, and in the end succeeded in getting their consent and signatures on the controversial ‘code of conduct’, in which major changes were made to the original PEMRA code of conduct. New clauses, such as ‘no criticism of the President of Pakistan’, were incorporated.

The orders to take channels off air on November 3 last year were oral and without any legal sanction. Even PEMRA officials were not in the loop. The government violated its own PEMRA law, which says no action can be taken against any TV or FM channel without notice. Two media-related ordinances were swiftly promulgated to amend the Registration of Printing and Publication Ordinance (RPPO) 2002, and the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority Ordinance (PEMRA) 2002. Government action was in violation of even these new ordinances.

And yet these channels remained available to a small section of the population through satellite dishes and receivers. The government brought about new restrictions to check the sale of satellite receivers and dishes. This was followed by an unprecedented move, where the UAE government was allegedly pressurised by Pakistani authorities to ask both Geo and ARY to shut down their Dubai stations. The order was later withdrawn after strong protest from Pakistani journalists and the international media. Further, on November 3, we were also told that the police may raid the officers of Geo, Aaj TV and ARY to seize the DSNG vans, which were then moved to safer locations.

Former General-President Musharraf took credit for giving freedom to the media by allowing private TV channels, but on November 3, 2007, he accused some of the news channels of sensationalism, calling them irresponsible. Interestingly, the channels that were banned also included sports and entertainment channels, as well as two local radio stations, FM-99 and FM-103, which also broadcasted news.

By banning non-news affiliates, the government wanted to hit the news channels financially. The abovementioned radio stations also complained that their equipment worth millions of rupees was also confiscated during raids. Authorities also took foreign news channels off air, including CNN, BBC World, Fox News and Al Jazeera, giving people little choice but to watch the ‘news’ on state-owned television and depriving them of their right to know.

For about two weeks, these channels remained off-air: Geo News; Geo Super (sports); Aag TV (music); Dawn News; KTN (Sindhi language news); Sindh TV (Sindhi news); Khyber TV (Pashto news); APNA (Punjabi news); Rohi; Dhoom TV; Royal TV; HUM; and many others.

Several talk shows were also banned after the imposition of emergency: Live with Talat; Bolta Pakistan; Parliament Gallery with Asma Sherazi; Kashif Abbasi; Hamid Mir’s Capital Talk; Aaj Kamran Khan ke sath; Shahid Masood’s Meray Mutabiq; and Asma Chaudhry’s Parliament Cafeteria.

These were the harshest measures taken against the media by Pervez Musharraf during his seven-year tenure.

On December 11, 2007, PEMRA issued a letter to TV channels containing stern warning against airing live shows, live telephone calls and also warned about the content of recorded talk shows. Channels were accused of violating the amended PEMRA Ordinance 2007, the code of conduct and its many rules and regulations. Broadcasters were threatened with punishment, which may have included up to three years imprisonment, a fine of Rs 10 million, or both.

A couple of months later, the regime made a final attempt to gag the media on February 18, 2008, when general elections were held in Pakistan. Two letters from PEMRA asked TV channels to not invite candidates on their programmes, and to not cover the elections live. In essence, the government wanted us to cover elections with ‘apolitical people’.

In an attempt to implement these two orders, PEMRA authorities on February 18 stopped the then caretaker federal law minister from participating in a talk show that was in progress. I was the anchor, and when I was told during a commercial break, even the minister was shocked. We later told PEMRA that the guest was not a candidate, but a sitting minister! The minister was later allowed to attend the show, but by that time, the Pakistan Broadcasters Association had announced a strike if these letters were not withdrawn, and shut down their channels in protest. Following negotiations, PEMRA withdrew the orders.

To this day, it is not clear which channel(s) had violated PEMRA rules. No evidence was provided, despite the serious nature of the allegations levelled against channels (“inciting people to violence”; “propaganda against Pakistan”).

The media in Pakistan had remained in chains for almost fifty years, and had faced the worst kind of censorship under military rule. And while in the past, successive military and civilian regimes had banned some newspapers and magazines. But on November 3 last year, for the first time, all private channels were banned. The dictator clamped down on the freedom of expression, but could not deter the PFUJ’s march for freedom.

Examples of such resistance from journalists are rare in this region. There were no protest demonstrations in India when former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed emergency. Similarly, there is no resistance in Bangladesh against media restrictions. Journalists in Nepal, however, created history by joining hands with political forces and succeeded despite suppression.

Throughout this period, journalists across Pakistan supported us. I also thank the lawyers, activists and civil society for their constant support. During this movement, the media community adopted a new method of protest when the government refused to lift the ban on six TV anchors. We decided to organise their shows on the street, and at times outside their offices. This received massive response.

The present government has repealed the two amended ordinances of November 3 against the media, and so far there have been no major complaints related to the freedom of the media. No press advice or notices to TV channels have been issued by PEMRA. But the controversial code of conduct still exists, and can be misused. The government has so far not addressed the core issues of newspaper employees, and has not repealed some controversial laws that could still be used against the media.

It is very important for media stakeholders, and is in their own interest, to address the issue of ‘responsible journalism’ and the ‘media code of ethics’. Journalists are key stakeholders in the situation, but they are not the only ones. Now that they have defeated the government’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy, and have ensured freedom of expression, it is time to regulate ourselves.

I welcome criticism of TV anchors and TV channels from our colleagues and from all sections of society, but with a plea: for the last sixty years, the media has faced zero tolerance policies. Let’s tolerate free media for at least thirty years. This does not mean that the media should not be criticised if there is wrongdoing on its part, but help PFUJ in addressing these issues of irresponsibility.

In this light, the PFUJ initiative for a Media Complaints Commission, brought forth during an international media summit in Lahore on August 22, 2008, in the presence of people from all segments of society, needs support.

The writer is Secretary General, Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists