Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The battle to free PEMRA

Senior journalist Hamid Mir recounts how he was apprised of the regulatory body’s weak laws and the federal government’s complete control over it

Photo: File

This is the story of a case that was resolved not once, but several times, by the courts of law. Yet, the trial could not conclude. Why? Because either the government or the parliament was unwilling to implement the court orders.

For six years, the case dragged through the Supreme Court. During which, six chief justices came and went. The prime minister’s chair also changed hands six times over. Then, the case finally saw an end, recently, after a former chief justice was appointed the caretaker prime minister of Pakistan. In the very first session of his newly-appointed cabinet, he issued an ordinance that effectively concluded the case. He knew it had to be done, for the freedom of the media and for an impartial election.

On June 7, the Federal Secretary Information Sardar Ahmad Nawaz Sukhera told the incumbent Chief Justice Saqib Nisar that an ordinance to amend the laws of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) has been issued. He then asked for the case to be winded up. Justice Nisar, who had been heading the proceedings since four months, responded positively.

When I walked out of the court, several lawyers congratulated me. Some advised me to write a book about the case. Others suggested I take up law as a profession.

This case I am referring to involved the media, which is why I will now summarize the entire saga and request young journalists and lawyers to read up on why the orders were not implemented.

The proceedings have been published in the Pakistan Legal Decisions (PLD) since 2013. The judges, at the onset of the case, wanted to decide it before the 2013 national poll. But that could not happen.

Now, if the verdict and orders had been properly implemented back in 2013, then all those institutions and individuals who want to twist the media’s arm through PEMRA would have found their efforts blocked.

The case - Hamid Mir and another vs the Federation of Pakistan etc – first landed in the court in 2012. At that time a property tycoon had made serious allegations against the then-Chief Justice Iftikhar M. Chaudhry. The media was abuzz. A campaign against the chief justice ensued, even though those pinning allegations had no documentary evidence. Perturbed, he called a few journalists to his court, including me. Meanwhile, on social media, a list began circulating. I and some other reporters were accused of accepting land in Bahria Town, in addition to bribes. The list included, besides me, Kamran Khan, Najam Sethi, Aftab Iqbal, Hassan Nisar, Mazhar Abbas, Suhail Warraich, Muneeb Farooq, Meher and Kashif Abbasi, Nusrat Javed, Mubashar Lucman, Dr. Shahid Masood, Arshad Sharif, Mushtaq Minhas.

I realized then that our media is uncontrollable and should it continue this way, without a code of conduct, the public perception about it would change drastically. So, I contacted PEMRA and requested for immediate action against a channel that had aired the fraudulent list. Which is when I was apprised of the regulatory body’s weak laws and the federal government’s complete control over it.

A little while later, I filed a petition under Article 184/3 of the constitution in the apex court. Media personalities such as Arshad Sharif, Asma Shirazi, Absar Alam and Asad Kharal accompanied me to the court. And while we had legal counsel, we were our own lawyers, pleading our own case. Primarily because it was difficult for us to arrange to pay legal fees.

In the courtroom, we asked the court to scrutinise our bank accounts and assets and determine which one of us had been bribed. Thereafter, we also suggested that a media commission be formed to entangle the PEMRA from the state’s control, a ban on the information ministry’s secret funds be imposed and a code of conduct devised.

On the other hand, the counsel for the defence argued that our request was inadmissible. None the less, it sailed through for a hearing. The court then asked all the parties to file their responses. On August 23, 2012, Zahid Bokhari, Malik Riaz’s lawyer, submitted a written response that clearly stated that Hamid Mir, or any of the other names mentioned in the list, were never provided any undue favours or plots of land.

On September 6, 2012, Justice Jawwad S. Khawaja and Justice Khilji Arif Hussain heard the case in Quetta, and shut down the use of secret funds by the ministry of information.

Finally, in early 2013, a media commission was formed. Its first report was published in March, but the then-Pakistan Peoples Party government refused to act on its recommendations. After the national poll, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz formed government, rekindling our hope. However, the new government appointed Absar Alam as the PEMRA chairman, thereby rendering him a defendant.

Two years later, we had another success in framing a code of conduct, under the Supreme Court’s watchful eye, which was enforced in August 2015. Under Article 3 of the new code of conduct, airing conspiracies against democracy and the constitution was declared a criminal offense. Spreading hatred and allegations without proof was also a crime now. In September of the same year, the PML-N government gave written assurances to the Court that PEMRA would be made independent. But no progress was made on those assurances.

Then last year in November, the central government shut down the transmission of all private news channels, accusing them of violating media regulation. Thereafter, I recommended that Article 5 and 6 of the PEMRA Act be amended. Chief Justice Saqib Nisar directed the cabinet and the parliament to do so. In its last cabinet meeting, the outgoing PML-N government changed the law and the new caretaker government has passed the necessary ordinance. Now the federal government cannot directly order the shut down of any television channel in Pakistan.

The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority is finally free, as it should be. But it needs to implement its code of conduct to prevent the slinging of false allegations on airwaves.

Mir started his career as a journalist from the Daily Jang Lahore in 1987. He hosts Capital Talk on Geo News. He tweets at @HamidMirPAK

Note: The views expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Geo News or the Jang Group.