Saturday, May 2, 2015

Daily Times Editorial May 3, 2015

PEMRA stirs A swirling controversy has broken out about MQM leader Altaf Hussain’s unwise choice of words about the army and its leadership in a rejoinder to Malir SSP Rao Anwar’s inappropriate press conference accusing the MQM of having links with Indian intelligence agency RAW. Altaf Hussain’s diatribe was met by strong words from ISPR and condemnations continue to flow thick and fast from political parties, some of whom have or are preparing to move condemnatory resolutions in the provincial Assemblies. Amidst all this clamour are the (usual) calls for banning the party and worse. So far, the only sensible stance has come from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif after Altaf Hussain apologised unconditionally. The prime minister while appreciating Altaf Hussain's belated dawning of wisdom cautioned everyone, including Altaf Hussain, to think before they speak, especially where sensitive issues or state institutions like the armed forces are concerned. This latest outbreak of MQM-military tension has raised fears of conflict and violence in MQM’s stronghold of Karachi, which these days is undergoing an operation by the Rangers and other law enforcing agencies to cleanse the metropolis of terrorists, criminal mafias and the armed wings of the political parties. The federal information ministry, in a reversal of its circumlocutory attitude in the past of hiding behind the plea that the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) is an autonomous body and it does not want to interfere with its working, wrote a letter with unusual alacrity to PEMRA urging the regulator to take action against the television channels that had broadcast Altaf Hussain’s offending remarks. PEMRA has issued show-cause notices to 14 TV channels to explain why they broadcast Altaf Hussain's message that has been described as ‘hate speech’. PEMRA has also directed all TV channels to install at the earliest a mechanism for delayed broadcast of live programmes to allow censoring any offending material. The prompt response of the government (through the information ministry) in awakening the otherwise asleep PEMRA is to be welcomed. The media, and particularly the electronic media, has since it gained ‘freedom’, spiralled into a free-for-all of irresponsible journalism that makes sensible people cringe. For example, in recent days, a campaign of calumny, slander, defamation and libel has been mounted by at least three TV channels (including ironically the state owned channel) against individuals who dare to question the state of human rights in Balochistan. The issue raised its ugly head when a discussion on this topic in LUMS Lahore was forcibly cancelled by the powers-that-be. Subsequently, Sabeen Mehmud of T2F in Karachi was assassinated as she left the venue of a similar discussion on the same subject. Some of those who ‘dared’ to condemn Sabeen’s murder and support the right of academia and the people at large to discuss freely troubling questions such as the human rights conundrum in Balochistan were subjected to a hate campaign on the three TV channels, labelling them foreign agents and traitors by distorting the truth, facts and throwing to the winds all objectivity and media responsibility. First and foremost, this speaks volumes for the professional competence and integrity of the three channels’ management and their editorial policies. Second, it raises the question where the ‘autonomous’ PEMRA was through all of this. If it escaped its attention, that only reinforces the suspicion that PEMRA and its officials live in Lotus land. The issue has also emerged with a bang on the internet and social media. If PEMRA is unaware of these developments, what does it say about its so-called ‘regulatory’ role? This hate-filled campaign has put the lives of the targeted individuals at risk and raised serious questions about the dysfunctionality of PEMRA. A regulator that is incapable of regulating without being pushed by the government of the day is surely a waste of time and resources. Better to use such scarce resources on better things than a sleepwalking institution. As for the ‘free’ media, it is a sad comment to make that such hate-filled, dangerous, inciteful and irresponsible programming is allowed to pass in the name of some spurious idea of patriotism that insists on dubbing all dissenting elements ‘traitors’. When will the media, and we as a society, grow up?

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