U-turn on media reforms
ONE hopes the recent unfortunate reversal by the Supreme Court of its previous position regarding the ban on hunting of the houbara bustard does not become a signal for other state institutions to also go into reverse gear.
But over three months before the Supreme Court totally changed its views on one subject, the Ministry of Information, Broadcasting & National Heritage on another subject performed a somersault. This was made the more remarkable because the acrobatic feat took place in the hallowed premises of the Supreme Court itself. Responding to a court query about the status of implementation of recommendations by the Supreme Court-appointed media commission made in 2013, the ministry submitted a second concise statement to the court in September 2015. The second statement, in several significant respects, was entirely opposite to the ministry's position in its own first concise statement provided to the court on July 26, 2013.
To compound this bizarre change, there is not a single word in the second statement to justify the rationale for the change. Brief contentions (each of which is feeble) are given in the second statement to explain the new positions being taken on the recommendations. But there is no explanation whatsoever about the 180-degree change.
Neither the Ministry of Information nor the relevant office of the Supreme Court circulated a copy of the second concise statement to the media commission's chairman (Justice [r] Nasir Aslam Zahid) nor to its member (this writer) when the same was received by the court in September 2015. It was only by inadvertence that this writer, in his capacity as a member of the Senate Forum for Policy Research (SFPR) was provided a copy of this second statement by the forum's secretariat in endDecember 2015, subsequent to the forum's strong endorsement of the media commission's recommendations and in preparation for the next meeting of SFPR. A total of about 35 recommendations were made by the media commission. In its first concise statement to the court on July 26, 2013, the Ministry of Information endorsed about 30 out of these 35 recommendations. Apart from being relevant for potential implementation by the federal government and the four provincial governments, several recommendations require potential implementation by other sectors eg media ie PBA, APNS, CPNE, PFUJ, and advertisers, ie PAS (Pakistan Advertisers' Society), advertising agencies, cable operators, the judiciary, ECP, civil society forums.
For the record, implementation has been undertaken by the Ministry of Information in only about a handful of the about 20 major recommendations directly relevant to the federal government. Such recommendations, while also being relevant and their implementation being a positive sign, are nevertheless not as conceptual and fundamental as about the dozen other recommendations which are of a basic, structural nature.
In seven out these 12 recommendations the ministry has performed spectacular U-turns. These seven are: to address the phenomenon of technology convergence, a single new ministry after merger of the Ministry of Information with the Ministry of Information Technology. Correspondingly, a single regulatory body after the merger of Pemra and PTA. The new regulatory body (or Pemra) be made directly accountable to parliament, and be authentically autonomous, separate from executive control. The chairman and members of the regulatory body be appointed after consensus between the heads and leaders of both houses of the federal parliament. To convert PTV, PBC and APP from state-owned, government-controlled entities into genuine public interest media organisations, disinvestment of 75pc shares to the public with a restriction of a maximum of 2pc shares to be held by any single shareholder, preferably through periodic rotation, by civil society forums of high repute. To prevent further saturation of analoguesystem-based cable TV distribution with further new TV channels, a temporary freeze on issuance of new licences till the adoption of digital technologybased systems which can enable distribution of hundreds of channels. An appropriate new name for the proposed new single ministry.
Each of these recommendations was explicitly and categorically supported by the ministry in July 2013. Whereas in September 2015 each of the above has been opposed ! In five other instances, the second concise statement performs zigzag turns. For instance: in the crucial matter of dealing with the proposal to replace the centralised, often corruption-prone, long-prevalent system for the placement of government-controlled advertising in print media, the second statement resorts to mere reliance on already existing rules and procedures to claim that the existing system works well. Whereas the whole point of an alternative, decentralised, transparent system would obviously require new rules and procedures. It misrepresents actual recommendations of the media commission to justify its new positions, without acknowledging that this means completely changing the ministry's previous positions. Such a reversal represents possible contempt of two institutions: the Supreme Court, and parliament ie the federal minister of information during question hour in the National Assembly on Dec 12, 2013 had explicitly referred to the first concise statement submitted to the court by his ministry. In the eighth and ninth meetings of the National Assembly Standing Committee on Information, held on, respectively, April 16 and April 30, 2014, the standing committee endorsed, in the presence of the information minister, and the thensecretary, most of the recommendations which are now being opposed, or misinterpreted or misrepresented.