A REGULATORY BODY OR “DICTATION” DIRECTORATE?

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Since its creation in 2002, PEMRA remained talk of town for its role. A recent research study conducted by Dr Saher Asad (Assistant Professor, LUMS) suggests that PEMRA acted differently under different regimes. According to this dataset based study, decision making of regulatory body didn’t follow a certain pattern of rules and every regime used it as a tool of suppression to manipulate public opinion as well as to dictate news channels.

The only policy which remained unchanged under different regimes is ‘Censorship’. According to the study available with Reporter’s Diary, shortly after the PTI-led federal government assumed charge after 2018 general elections, PEMRA was reminding all channels through notification that focus of news cycles must be shifted from crime and “negative reporting” to positive news about the country .

According to study, during the tenure of PTI led federal government, some controversial amendments were made in Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016 to counter fake news which were revealed through judicial review as another draconian attempt at censorship. Within first two months of current PMLN-led coalition government, many FIRs were registered against senior journalists which were termed violation of article 19 of the constitution by journalist bodies and human rights watchdogs. PMLN –led government is also accused of ordering media channels to not cover the protest of PTI . PMLN –led government is also accused of PEMRA notices/advisories to channels, warning them of severe repercussions if they don’t stop “ridiculing” the army and judiciary.  

To look at patterns of notices sent by PEMRA, the research study focused on PEMRA notices issued between Jan 2018 and June 2019. This period is quite interesting as it covers two different political regimes of PMLN and PTI respectively. Jan-May 2018 time period belongs to PMLN government and Aug 2018-Jun 2019 covers PTI-led government tenure as well as an interim government period of Jun-Aug 2018.

 During this 18-month period, PEMRA sent around 110 notices to multiple media channels.

The above graph shows that the notices are evenly distributed across the various regimes. This graph depicts that in terms of per unit of time, PEMRA sent fewer notices under the PTI-led government.

The study also revealed that PEMRA mostly sent notices for allegedly making derogatory remarks against army and judiciary. The second most important category is of offensive or hateful content and third is indecent content. The below mentioned figure also illustrates that, PEMRA sent few notices focusing on actual false or defamatory content (7.3%).

Under both PTI and PMLN regimes, derogatory remarks against the army and judiciary remained the focus of PEMRA’s notices. As per percentage, it is slightly lower during the PTI-led regime. Another interesting fact is that there are no notices of this category sent by PEMRA during the tenure of interim government in 2018.

The research study concludes that the evidence presented through this post raises interesting questions about the arbitrary nature of media regulation conducted by a seemingly autonomous media watchdog under different political governments. There is a need to build a data-driven quantitative research agenda around these issues and also consider the role of causality in establishing important relationships, such as why no anti-establishment conversation is taken note of during apolitical governments.

In final findings, some pertinent points are raised. As per final findings, PEMRA show cause notices, advice or warning, directives, and prohibition orders are clubbed together into “notices”.  Out of these, around 60% were show-cause notices, taken after a channel has already aired content that is not acceptable to PEMRA and then channels are given time to respond to PEMRA in terms of why action should not be taken against them. 31% were advice or warning notices and 7.27% were directives while the remaining 4.5 % were prohibition orders.