While the world was celebrating ‘Press Freedom Day’, in Pakistan the government it seems was busy attacking the ‘free media’.
The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) recently revoked the satellite television licenses of Bol News and Bol Entertainment (Pak News) after the interior ministry denied clearance to its four directors. According to details, PEMRA has ordered PakSat to stop the broadcast of all Bol networks immediately, and also directed the cable operators and distribution networks to put the channels off air. The regulatory authority has made it clear to take strict action according to the law against all those who will violate the order.
The notification comes days after Bol aired a short investigative report criticizing PEMRA’s regulatory head Absar Alam’s suspicious rise to the institution’s top made possible by creating loopholes in the system. According to the report, in a case pending with the Islamabad High Court, questions were raised on his appointment as it was not based on merit. Alam is said to be close to the Prime Minister. Allegedly a newspaper ad for the job vacancy and job requirement as PEMRA’s chairman was systematically altered in connivance with the government to fit the portfolio of the current chairman which led him to be selected for the job. The Bol report also points out although the chairman’s tenure is for four years, a government notification dated November 11, 2015, says he has been appointed until further orders. Moreover, the report mentions allegations of Alam abusing his authority, and getting tailor-made notification about his salary and other perks issued despite the case being in court. It claims his salary and perks and privileges were increased several hundred times. BOL has claimed that it is ready to go to court over its report. According to PEMRA chairman Absar Alam, Pemra employees have also been threatened by unidentified people for taking action against different media outlets.
What is a classic case of ‘state and media’ has to be understood in more nuanced terms; to start with, media in Pakistan, although relatively free, is in no way completely just, ethical, or even conscientious. And in the same vein, the state also does not share those qualities. It can be said that state powers use electronic media to their advantage, and the electronic media uses and manipulates the minds of the public for their own interests. On one hand the media holds the state and government accountable for their actions and lack of, and on the other hand, the same state uses the media platform to further their own political agendas. It is being said that PEMRA showed leniency to the Geo-Jang group when all other institutions demanded strict action against them. Not only that, the current chairman of PEMRA apparently has strong ties with the likes of Mir Shakilur Rehman and Najam Sethi. The BOL network also does not share a sterling reputation on it being associated to the Axact Scandal in 2015. Since then, BOL has renegotiated its image in light of political fluctuations which has made it a ‘platform’ through which the concerns of the common man are relayed. Despite the image overhaul, BOL news has taken on controversial anchors like Amir Liaqat and Hamza Ali Abbasi as political and social analysts.
While BOL’s credibility might be questioned, at the end of the day it is not a government institution that should ideally embody just, honest, and contentious values- although it needs to inculcate journalistic ethics and transparent reporting. Just, honest, and contentious values need to be epitomized by our state institutions. Instead, our state institutions are used to stagnate free speech because of personal attacks that might have some semblance of truth in them. While BOL might be up and running soon, there still remains a question mark on the character of PEMRA’s chairman and his deep ties to a political agenda.