As the Pakistani media has become more influential, government efforts to curtail it have become more creative. In early July, the Senate Standing Committee on Information and Broadcasting proposed a new media code of conduct. The bill calls for a ban on graphic footage of terrorist attacks and forbids the media from airing the statements of violent extremists.
Although Farahnaz Ispahani, a spokesperson for Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, has insisted that this bill respects media freedom, it includes a clause warning against broadcasting “anything defamatory against the organs of the State.” For this reason, the proposed bill has already been criticised as a new form of censorship.
This bill is a continuation of the state’s uneasy relationship with media, which has seen both new freedoms and new restrictions in the past decade. Flipping through Pakistani television channels today, a viewer will catch glimpses of diverse and often contradictory programming: feisty political talk shows, news coverage of brutal terrorist attacks, satirical, anti-government songs and cartoons, music videos, religious programming, footage of scantily clad models at fashion shows and sports.
This variety is a legacy of former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s decision to privatise and liberalise broadcast and electronic media. Since 2002, 92 private television channels (26 of which focus exclusively on news and current events) and over 130 FM radio stations have taken to the Pakistani airwaves. Thanks to this plurality, the Pakistani media is now more free and influential than ever before.
Since letting the media genie out of the bottle, Pakistani authorities have struggled to draft appropriate legislature that can ensure that broadcast content is appropriate, accurate and unbiased. The task has been made all the harder because the growth of the independent media has occurred alongside the rise of the extremist Pakistani Taliban. Owing to the increased frequency of terrorist attacks in Pakistan, particularly since 2007, discussion and legislature pertaining to media conduct has focused on the appropriate way to cover disturbing events such as suicide bombings.
This trend is a marked departure from the days of state-owned media. Before 2002, there were three television stations and one radio station in Pakistan, all government-run. Not surprisingly, the authorities closely controlled the content on these media outlets and focused on expressing a relatively conservative interpretation of Islamic values through the airwaves.
Concerns about Islamic propriety have been less prominent since the media was liberalised in 2002. Instead, media codes of conduct have increasingly focused on controlling the newly unbridled industry and limiting its impact on the country’s political and security issues. In an effort to retain power and dictate the tenor of domestic media coverage, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) – a body Musharraf established to monitor the airwaves and implement media legislation – issued codes of conduct for the media in 2002, 2007 and 2009. However, each of these codes have been heavily criticised by journalists and human rights activists for restricting press freedoms and promoting a culture of censorship.
Such criticism has been largely deserved. For example, the amended PEMRA Ordinance 2007 – which was promulgated in November 2007 after Musharraf announced emergency rule and banned private news channels in November that year – imposed unprecedented curbs on media freedom. They restricted live coverage, empowered the government to interrupt “inappropriate” broadcasts, and permitted government officials to seal media offices and seize privately owned equipment.
Moreover, broadcast journalists were banned from airing live coverage of violent events and prevented from expressing opinions that might undermine the "ideology…or integrity" of Pakistan, according to the PEMRA Ordinance 2007. Even more problematic were clauses that outlawed defaming the president, the military or state offices.
Despite the adoption of such rules, the media has proved to be a force for change. Media support for the Lawyers’ Movement – which advocated for an independent judiciary and non-interference in judges’ appointments – facilitated the reinstatement in 2009 of Supreme Court Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who had been deposed by Musharraf in 2007. Last year, a media campaign against a US aid package, popularly known as the Kerry-Lugar Bill, led to its wide condemnation by parliamentarians. And in February this year, Pakistani General Ashfaq Kayani stated that media support for the army’s initiatives against militants was crucial for regional stability.
The fact is that as the Pakistani media industry matures and reaches ever-wider audiences, it will need robust and consistent standards. Media professionals acknowledged the need for coverage guidelines in November 2009 when eight major broadcasters themselves adopted a voluntary code of conduct regarding coverage of terrorist attacks and hostage situations.
This initiative demonstrated that media regulation in Pakistan can prove effective, but only if it is drafted in conjunction with industry stakeholders and civil society. Future laws for Pakistani media should reflect this model – rather than top-down control.
* Huma Yusuf is a freelance journalist in Karachi, Pakistan. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).