#MediaParNazar Update: Democratic discourse and relations with friendly states

On 30th September the government asked Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, PEMRA to take notice of broadcasts criticising the Saudi handling of the Mina Tragedy. See Dawn’s news here.

Following these instructions PEMRA sent an SMS to news managements saying  “Some channels are airing programmes on Mina accident and indirectly [accusing] Saudi Arabia of mismanagement. They need to be reminded that Article 19 of the Constitution restricts comments that may affect relations with friendly countries.”

This is not the first time, TV Channels have been asked to keep criticism of Saudi Government in check. Earlier, in May 2015, PEMRA had issues notifications to all channels citing the same clause and asking them to refrain from airing programs that might harm Pakistan’s relations with friendly countries aka Saudi Arabia.

It is perhaps telling that we aren’t more shocked by these instructions that are obviously against any notion of freedom of expression. The Mina Tragedy has affected thousands of Muslims across the world, including hundreds of Pakistanis. It is natural and pertinent that all factors related to the tragedy are discussed critically. The fact that the government felt the need to issue such directions is reflective of the general PML-N mindset that focuses more on gagging information rather than talking about issues and finding solutions. More importantly, the notice issued to TV channels has bring to light the nature of ‘freedom of expression’ guaranteed by the Pakistani constitution.

To put things in perspective, we have to look at how the right to freedom of expression is defined universally. First, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UDHR, seen as the bible of defined fundamental rights, holds that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.  Article 19 in the constitution of Pakistan however, takes this text and binds it within subjective parameters of “any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defense of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, or incitement to an offence”. The frames within which the press is supposed to practice its right is thus made so restrictive that freedom of expression remains only symbolic.

The premise of ‘reasonable restrictions’ is so wide that absolutely any and everything that doesn’t please the government, political or otherwise, can face a perfectly legitimate ban. From “decency and morality” to the recently used “relations with foreign states”, all of these caveats are open to interpretation and open to abuse. Take the reports regarding the issues with the large scale Chinese investments as an example; it is very easy – and under Article 19 of the constitution – justifiable and legitimate to impose bans on any investigation and reports exploring possible corruption in the Pak-China economic relationship.

Who would benefit from such gag?

Perhaps we should also look at who current gag on critique of Saudi management benefits. The Sharifs have had historically good relationship with the King and Kingdom. They have benefited politically from their kinship with the Kings-men. Saudi Arabia and its human rights record are often under criticism globally. Why then the questioning their management of a tragedy of this magnitude be a problem? This notice then appears to serve the political interests of the PML-N government rather than protecting Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia.

News reports have noted that despite a wave of anti American sentiment on TV, there has never been a notice issued to any channel to keep it in check. This, despite the fact that the US remains Pakistan’s closest ally in the war against terror and brings the largest chunk of civil military aid. The fact that criticism of one ally is accepted [and perhaps encouraged as a political gimmick] and other immediately stomped down upon proves beyond doubt that the parameters defined in the Article 19 of the constitution are not just restrictive and contradictory but often misused and abused.

A constitutional amendment is a far more difficult, taxing and challenging a process than a simple legislative amendment. But as this notice from PEMRA proofs, the legislative changes will remain merely symbolic unless a deeper discussion on the nature of fundamental rights within the constitution is started.

Asad Baig

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