Censorship central – 12 Apr 2023

ALMOST every directive that emerges from Pemra reveals its antipathy to the right of freedom of speech. In its A latest communique, the regulatory body has announced a prohibition on the `broadcast and re-broadcast or live coverage` of explosions/blasts or terrorist attacks. This came after twin blasts targeted the police in Quetta on Monday in which at least four people were killed and 21 others injured. According to Pemra, in the wake of terrorist attacks, satellite TV channels resort to `marathon transmissions ignoring basic journalist [sic] norms and ethics… .` The directive also said that `airing such content portrays very shabby image of the country across the globe which consider Pakistan as an insecure place for visit and investment..

There has certainly been some questionable reportage of terrorist attacks while they were unfolding; that merits the regulator`s attention, but a blanket ban on coverage of acts of terrorism as a whole is censorship, pure and simple. Regulations should be reasonable, aiming to restrain egregious excesses, rather than clamping down on the flow of information. It is not the media`s job to `portray` the country in a flattering light by suppressing the news; its duty is to convey facts to the public. But Pemra appears to have forgotten that facilitating information is one of its core functions. Instead, it has evolved into a handmaiden of the security establishment and the government of the day, which in turn gives them licence to intimidate the media into suppressing inconvenient facts. For example, there is a blackout on coverage of the Pashtun Tahuffuz Movement; not a minute`s footage even of its massive rallies has been aired. Pemra`s allegiance to the centres of power also results in supremely ironic turnarounds on the nation`s television screens. During the PTI government`s tenure, interviews and press conferences of opposition politicians were repeatedly taken off air or muted. Now that the tables have turned, the regulatory authority last month banned the broadcast and rebroadcast of former prime minister Imran Khan`s speeches and press talks, a move rightly struck down by the court. Criticism of the security establishment is perennially on mute.

Some directives by Pemra have been patently mystifying, such as the ban on TV channels airing reports on the rape that took place recently in Islamabad`s F-9 park. Or its bizarre move in 2019 to restrict television anchors to the role of moderators and bar them from appearing as experts on talk shows on any channel, including their own. As pointed out in the law under which Pemra functions, free flow of information is integral to accountability, transparency and good governance. Inhibiting coverage of events on broadcast media encourages both misinformation and disinformation on social media, which further muddies an already chaotic public sphere. The regulatory body`s actions are a disservice to the people.

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