General Musharraf has often claimed the credit of ‘opening up the media industry’ and making the way for private news media in Pakistan. The claim dates back to the creation of Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, PEMRA that was created under the PEMRA Ordinance 2002. The Ordinance was passed in haste following pressure from IMF and other international bodies that stressed upon free flow of information and transparency as a condition.
PEMRA Ordinance was thus passed and licensing of private channels became possible. However, the same Ordinance was also to become a tool of control over private media. By creating subjective codes and ensuring that the Authority was under the control of Information Ministry instead of the Parliament Gen. Musharraf made sure that PEMRA and by extension the media would always be susceptible to political pressure asserted by Federal Government and head of the state. From the appointment of Chairman PEMRA, to the selection of Authority’s members and the composition of the body – every aspect of the PEMRA Ordinance has been designed to ensure that PEMRA remains a puppet in the hands of the government and has no power to operate as an independent Authority.
This is why in 13 years of its existence not a single chairman appointed to head the Authority has had a direct stake in the media or understood the dynamics of the media industry. The bureaucrats appointed to act as Chairman or Acting Chairman PEMRA had no understanding of the pre requisites of an independent media industry and have been used as a tool to exercise control over channels. The Authority’s lack of power has also been obvious in its complete inability to take action on its own behest – these actions have been rendered moot via stay orders easily obtained by media owners – while those actions obviously taken under direction from higher forces have been implemented without challenge. One after another the Chairs appointed to head PEMRA have failed to do anything to bring the necessary reforms in the Authority or initiate measures that can actually add to the development of media industry.
In fact since 2011, the Authority has operated only with Acting Chairmen as the government apparently failed to find anyone who could fill up the position on a more permanent basis. Recently however, a series of news items hinted towards the impending selection of a Chair.
First, there was a story by The News’s investigative editor Ansar Abbasi who wrote, “the government has lowered the eligibility criteria for the appointment of the new Chairman PEMRA amid fears that the selection standard has been compromised to appoint a favorite.” The change referred here was related to an advertisement placed in the newspapers that asked for a “simple graduate (BA/BSc) in disciplines like media sciences, business, management, finance, economic and law to apply for the job”.
If one looks at the PEMRA Ordinance, the only eligibility criteria defined in Section 6.2 defining members of Authority states that “The Chairman of the Authority shall be an eminent professional of known integrity and competence having substantial experience in media, business, management, finance, economics or law”. The advertisement seeking a ‘graduate’ within the specified disciplines was thus not a deviation or lowering of the eligibility criteria but was well within the parameters defined in the PEMRA Ordinance.
A few weeks after the publication of this story, news reports named senior Journalist Absar Alam as a shortlisted candidate for the position of Chairman PEMRA.
This news has received a mixed reaction in the media, with accusations of favoritism and hand picking dominating the media discourse. The coverage of this news, sadly, has yet again exposed the unprofessionalism prevalent in the media industry.
While it is important to scrutinize anyone who has selected to hold such an important position, it is also important to be absolutely clear about the actual issues with any selection. If Absar Alam is indeed handpicked and isn’t the best candidate amongst the other applicants, the media does have the right to question and criticize his selection. However, in the current scenario, where the selection has not even been finalized, scrutinizing one name while ignoring the credentials of other candidates who are apparently still in the run reeks of professional incompetence.
In particular, a story published in Pakistan Today and penned by Mian Abrar, chose to describe Alam as “as country head of the Open Society Foundation – which seeks to combat discrimination by empowering lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex communities to promote and defend their human rights”. Not only does this description does injustice to Alam’s long journalistic career but also links with falsely to a cause that in Pakistani context remains highly controversial and dangerous. Alam heads Foundation Open Society Pakistan, that does not have the mandate or the agenda to work on LGBT rights and focuses primarily on media development, education, governance and law and justice. The oversight made by the journalist and his editor Arif Nizami puts both Absar Alam and his team at risk of persecution.
The media in Pakistan is no stranger to the consequences of hate speech – Salman Taseer lost his life after being aligned with a controversial cause on air. LGBT rights and advocacy around these rights remains a dangerous cause to be associated with in Pakistan. The newspaper may be well within its rights to comment and scrutinize any accusations of favoritism and handpicking, it is important that the critique is based on actual investigations not heresy.
The issue that such responses have chosen to ignore is the actual process of selection of the Chairman and the members of the Executive body defined in the PEMRA Ordinance. According to PEMRA Ordinance 2002 “The Authority shall consist of a Chairman and twelve members to be appointed by the President of Pakistan”. The appointment of the Chairman then remains a discretionary power. As long as the selected candidate full fills the key requirement of being “an eminent professional of known integrity and competence having substantial experience in media, business, management, finance, economics or law” – the government is well within its rights to appoint him as the Chairman.
The discussion then, has to be focused on what sort of reforms are required to ensure that PEMRA operates as an independent body and the appointment of PEMRA Chairs and members is done in a way that ensures that the best candidates who understand the media industry and the requirements of its developments are selected.
However, before such reforms are made, if a journalist is selected as Chairman of the Authority, the selection should be seen as a positive development by the industry for it would be the first time in the history of PEMRA that someone who has intimate knowledge of the media industry would be in a position that allows him not only to regulate without a dictatorial, bureaucratic or politically inclined attitude but also to actually work towards development of the media industry.