View Full Version : The Media Commission confusion - Javed Jabbar - 29 June 2018

29th June 2018, 10:55 AM
A recently published news story stated, “Supreme Court disposes of media commission case”. This wording portrays an erratic approach by the SC to the 2013 Report of the Media Commission. Coming on the virtual eve of the 2018 polls, the reported decision highlights how the SC has made no conclusive pronouncement on the substance of the report by a Commission constituted by the Court itself. The item also claims the Court held 100 hearings on the said petition. To date, the SC has not held a single hearing in five years to which the Chairman and Member of the Commission were invited to help determine what should happen to the Commission’s total recommendations!

A court normally ‘disposes of’ a petition, not a Commission’s Report. The reference to the ‘disposing of’ presumably only refers to the petition jointly filed in 2012 by two prominent journalists, Messrs Hamid Mir and Absar Alam. Disturbed by malicious defamation on social media and sections of mass media alleging that they were recipients of secret funds from a major private builder and others, and concerned about covert, coercive threats to media freedom, their public interest petition under Article 184 (3), among other requests addressed to the Court, suggested that a Media Commission be formed by the Court to ascertain the facts regarding use of secret funds and about other relevant media issues, including corrupt practices.

With consensus among petitioners and respondents, a two-member media commission comprising Mr Justice (r) Nasir Aslam Zahid as Chairman and myself as a member was constituted on January 15, 2013 by an SC Bench comprising Mr Justice Jawwad Khawaja and Mr Justice Khilji Arif Hussain. Given nine large-scale Terms of Reference (TORs), the Commission was asked to provide proposals to prevent corrupt practices in the then-imminent polls of May 2013 as well as proposals for more long-term application.

In view of the short pre-poll time-frame, the Commission acted swiftly, consulted widely and submitted part one of its report on March 21 2013. It focused only on TOR-F which dealt specifically with media and elections. The Commission made eleven main poll-related recommendations requiring actions by all stake-holders. Only a handful were acted upon — because the SC did not issue comprehensive directives. No assessment of implementation was announced by the Court.

Emerging communication technologies are shaping entirely new spaces for conventional and social media. Though uncertainty will — paradoxically — remain a constant in the years ahead, most, if not all the 30 so-far-unimplemented recommendations of the Media Commission remain relevant five years after they were first presented

But to its credit, the SC accepted both the petition’s request for the abolition of official secret funds and the Commission’s own research findings and observations on the same. As also, the Commission’s suggestion to order the conduct of forensic audit of government advertising placed in bogus print media. However, inexplicably, ECP did not create the suggested political advertising cell in ECP or PID to ensure that advertising and payments by political parties to print and electronic media were routed only through such a cell. As no limits are prescribed by ECP on campaign expenditures by political parties, the proposed measure guarantees transparency and a level playing field for all parties. Even now, five years later, despite reminders addressed to the Secretary ECP, there is no action on this recommendation.

Part Two of the Commission’s recommendations were submitted on May 31 2013. Major structural reforms proposed included integration of two ministries and regulatory bodies; disinvestment from state media; creation of public interest electronic media ; new revenue models for TV channels ; placement of PEMRA under Parliament; financial transparency and professional accountability of media-houses; overdue clearing up of backlog of stay orders by High Courts issued on PEMRA notices to channels; review of 64 media-related laws and their revision; monitoring only, instead of total control by PIDs over government advertising; accountability standards in journalism; enforcement of codes; safeguards against defamation and enhanced safety measures for journalists.

Belatedly, on one of the Commission’s recommendations and on the Court’s direction, the (caretaker) Government has on June 6 2018, amended the PEMRA law to provide for the majority of PEMRA Members to be from outside the government, and only three from the government. This will notably reduce the influence of partisan governments on the regulatory body. But several other major recommendations remain unaddressed.

To the best of one’s knowledge, the SC remains strangely silent to date on the brazen U-turn performed by the Information Ministry between July 2013 and September 2015. In its submission to the SC on the earlier date, the Ministry endorsed 30 out of 35 recommendations. However, after dragging its feet for two years, the same ministry adopted exactly the opposite position on seven major recommendations and misrepresented five recommendations in a second statement given to the court on a later date. No explanation was given about the reasons justifying this somersault. Nor has the court cared to ask for the reasons. Even the National Assembly of 2013-2018 demonstrated two behavioural extremes. On 12December 2013, the then minister informed the NA that his ministry had submitted the original statement of endorsement. In its meetings on April 16 and 23, 2014, the NA Standing Committee on Information, in the presence of the minister and secretary also endorsed most of the Commission’s recommendations. Followed by profound disinterest and inaction for the next four years!

Emerging communication technologies are shaping entirely new spaces for conventional and social media. Though uncertainty will — paradoxically — remain a constant in the years ahead, most, if not all the 30 so-far-unimplemented recommendations of the Media Commission remain relevant five years after they were first presented. While the soon-to-be-elected Federal and Provincial Legislatures and Governments will face the challenge of formulating new policies for new conditions, the SC continues to bear unfulfilled responsibility to do full justice to the Commission’s Report — and only then “dispose of” it!

The writer is the former Federal Information Minister and Senator

Published in Daily Times, June 29th 2018.