Government’s topsy turvy media policy
Geo TV’s unwarranted barrage of defamation against the prestigious national institutions of Army and Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) which lasted for over eight hours following a murderous attack on one of its anchor persons exposed the weakness of the government of Pakistan regarding media. The unfortunate episode of casting slur on ISI and DG ISI by Geo TV channel and its wicked repetition as well as its parroting by other organs of the Jang group would have been cause of a libel suit against the media house in any civilized country. The Government itself should have taken cognizance of the baseless smear campaign which was devoid of any evidence. Perhaps it got shell shocked and failed to react to the marathon affront to democratic and unfair journalistic practices. The accused i.e. Army, ISI and DG ISI, to their credit, instead of storming the Geo TV or Jang group, they adopted democratic methods to redress their grievance and referred the matter to their parent organization. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) deliberated on the matter for another agonizingly painful two days but then they referred the issue to Pakistan Electronic Media Authority (PEMRA).
Meanwhile the public itself was grieved at the insulting behaviour of the TV Channel towards the saviours of the nation, who have borne the brunt in every trial and tribulation including manmade and natural calamities. Pakistan is currently embroiled in a war on terror in which over fifty thousand precious lives have been lost. The common citizens perceived the slander campaign against Army, ISI and DG ISI as an attack on Pakistan itself, since these institutions have been in the fore front for defending Pakistan. Protest rallies favouring the armed forces and ISI demanding punitive action against the TV Channel and media group ultimately brought the government to act.
The lethargic attitude of the government, in defending an essential pillar of the state, the defence services, lent credence to the grist mill, which was conjecturing cracks in the civil military relationship, which was being fanned by the Jang group itself.
Political figures of varying ilk also thought it opportune to air their own grievances against the armed forces and spewed venom. However, once the Government came out of its slumber and moved PEMRA, a crisis of a different nature came to the fore. PEMRA was sans any legitimate leadership. The judiciary had ordered the removal of the former incumbent on charges of corruption, while his replacement by the government was not allowed to operate owing to counter lawsuits. In this murky and divided environment, PEMRA was unable to get its act together for weeks, till four members of the Governing Body met and ruled for the channel to be shut down because of its defamation campaign against the armed forces. Unfortunately, instead of accepting the verdict of the PEMRA legislators, the government went into a tail spin and various factions were either in favour of the PEMRA judgment or were opposing it. Threats and intimidation were issued targeting the PEMRA members, who had made the ruling, but credit must be given to them that they stuck firm. Meanwhile Geo TV continued sullying the waters. This gave an impression that the government of Pakistan and the Jang group were clandestinely on the same page and had a common target: the army.
Ultimately good sense prevailed and after a delay of forty five days, the MOD and the Government came out loud and clear for justice, hurriedly appointed a new PEMRA head and enforced the PEMRA ruling censuring Geo TV, closing it down for fifteen days and imposing a nominal fine. The Jang group retaliated by counter suing the Army, ISI and PEMRA for exorbitant amounts of money. In an effort to distance themselves from the Geo TV and Jang group, the Government and more specifically the MOD, announced that it would ask PEMRA to review its ruling and consider a harsher punishment.
In hindsight, the issue, which was a serious one, should be examined and lessons drawn from it to ensure that no media group assumes unbridled powers and has the capacity to slander, defame and denigrate state institutions. Today it was the armed forces; tomorrow it can be the government itself. If the rumours are to be believed, Jang group was acting on behalf of India and furthering the agenda of the arch enemy and nemesis of ISI, Indian security agency the RAW.
The Government needs to have a clear handle on the media, that does not mean that it should shackle it with draconian laws, which would anyway be rejected by the media but instead, realistic regulations need to be put in place so that media freedom may be enjoyed but with caveats that state institutions be spared of slander campaigns. If evidence of wrongdoings exists, it should be provided to the relevant agencies and the judiciary, so that necessary punitive action may be taken. PEMRA must be reorganized and it should have representatives from various factions of the society so that they have a say in the content the people of Pakistan are exposed to. Foreign and alien culture, comprising harmful and seditious or subliminal programming must not be allowed to pervade the minds of Pakistanis. If necessary legislature and requisite regulatory action is not carried out, the scientific advancements in media can turn the gullible and entertainment starved Pakistani society to serfs and minions of those who wield the reins of media tools.
It was being speculated that once the fortnight’s ban on Geo TV is lifted, the media house will come out with fresh stories condemning and attacking the government to hoodwink the people that Jang Group and the Government were not teamed together. Hindsight is twenty-twenty and we can see that nothing of this sort has taken place and the speculation was perhaps the figment of imagination of some myopic analysts and anchors. Let us hope that good sense prevails and the government’s media managers do a better job than having a topsy-turvy media policy