Monday, June 04, 2007

More Curbs on Media in Pakistan - Musharraf In Panic

Pemra ordinance to further terrorize the media
Afzal khan/ Islamabad
Islamabad June 4: The latest PEMRA ordinance in a series of overt and covert measures is designed to further tighten the noose around instruments of free flow of information to the people. These steps represent a classic misperception of every government in distress to hold the media responsible for germinating, if not actually creating, the trouble. It deludes itself with the thought that once the people are shut off from knowing what is happening on the ground, the crisis would vanish.

The ordinance accords some more powers to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) to put private TV channels further strains. It is the government's answer to the outrage being voiced within and abroad to a virtual censorship imposed on the electronic media along with some clumsy attempts at shutting channels, disrupting talk shows and confusing viewers by shuffling location of these channels. Aaj, ARY and Geo bore the brunt of this assault and suffered closure or disruption at regular intervals.

Ostensibly, the ordinance aims at strictly enforcing the 'code of conduct' imposed some years ago despite serious objections raised by journalists and civil society activists that it is too loosely phrased and liable to be arbitrarily interpreted and applied. Some draconian measures are provided against those channels deemed to be in breach of this code of conduct.

Eleven amendments have been made in the existing ordinance. The PEMRA has been authorized to seize equipment, seal premises and suspend a broadcaster's licence found or perceived to have violated the code. The ordinance shall remain in force for three months, after which the President can extend it.

The PEMRA has also been authorized to make rules for executing the curbs contained in the code. The measures like cancellation of licenses, seizure of equipment and sealing of premises are apparently aimed at terrorizing the channels to submit to government pressure.

The ordinance also covers mobile telephones and internet. This is ridiculous. It has emerged from a funny remark by a senior journalist a few days ago in his programme "Bolta (talking) Pakistan" while discussing the restriction on live coverage of planned trip to Abbotabad on June 2 by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.

He suggested that the government is positioning itself to fight out technology as well. But it can be easily blunted. The denial of uplinking facility to transmit coverage to headquarters of TV channels for onward broadcast can be trumpeted by relaying it through mobile phones os the use of internet. The government first silenced the talking Pakistan and has now tried to control mobiles and internet. What it cannot control are the rumours which travel faster and with some lethal impact.

The press has been under immense strain since the eruption of judicial crisis and even before. But the fresh ordinance comes amidst a media blitz unleashed by the government in the aftermath of recent national seminar organized by the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA). Taking umbrage to some anti-Musharraf speeches and anti-army slogans shouted by crowds outside on the road, the government apparently seized this opportunity to wriggle out of an embattled position. Full blast propaganda was launched to label all dissent as a malicious attempt to undermine image of institutions, in particular the army.

The President launched the offensive last Wednesday while addressing army officers in Jhelum garrison where he slammed lawyers and the media for "humiliating" and maligning the armed forces. A chorus of denunciations by ministers and other functionaries was then followed by Friday's statement by corps commanders conference taking "serious note of the malicious campaign carried out by vested interests.

The presidential decree was promulgated just when the Senate was in session and two days ahead of the start of the budget session of the National Assembly. The legislation being done outside the four wall of the Parliament has been the norm and not exception which seems to be spirit of authority to issue ordinances. A more eloquent mockery of the worth of the much-trumpeted claim that the assemblies would, for the first time, complete their full term could hardly be possible.

Also See, BBC story New Control on Media in Pakistan

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