January 23rd, 2021 

By Ahmed Saeed 


The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists and the Pakistan Bar Council have slammed the Pakistan Electronic Media Authority (PEMRA) over suspension of Bol News broadcast, calling it an attack on freedom of expression.

The PEMRA suspended Bol News’s licence and imposed Rs 1 million fine on the management for “contemptuous” remarks against the judiciary made by anchor Sami Ibrahim in his talk show Tajzia.

In a statement on January 22, the PEMRA said the authority had issued a show-cause notice to M/s Labbaik Pvt. Ltd. (Bol News) on January 13 over its programme “Tajzia” hosted by Ibrahim.

According to the PEMRA statement, the channel “aired contemptuous remarks against the … chief justice of the Lahore High Court and other honourable judges while discussing the matter of appointment of judges in the” high court in the episode of the talk show January 13. The PEMRA stated that both Ibrahim and a senior correspondent of the channel “cast aspersions against the superior judiciary in violation of Article 19 read with Article 68 of the Constitution […] and the PEMRA laws including the PEMRA Code of Conduct, 2015”. Ibrahim is president and managing director of Bol News.

‘Directive based on personal grudge’

Speaking to Voicepk.net, Ibrahim accused the PEMRA chairman of taking out a personal grudge against the anchor on the pretext of contemptuous remarks made about the apex judiciary. He claimed that the action was taken as his channel had challenged the PEMRA chairman’s appointment in court. “We have also highlighted cases of certain PEMRA officials who are still employed with the authority despite expiry of their contracts,” he said.

There are 20 vacancies in the LHC which have not been filled since 2018. Chief Justice Qasim of the LHC had sent a list of 16 lawyers to the Judicial Commission but withdrew the list after the Commission raised objections to certain nominees on it. Talking about the issue of delay in judges’ appointment, Ibrahim said the judiciary had not deemed anything offensive or contemptuous in the discussion. “No judge or court has directed the PEMRA to take action against the channel over the discussion in the talk show,” he pointed out. He said the bar councils, retired judges and lawyers have regularly expressed their concern over the delay in the judges’ appointment in the high court. He claimed that the chairman acted on his own as there was no complainant in the case. “The chairman has no authority to suspend licence of a channel for 30 days,” he said.

Ibrahim said he and his channel always held the apex judiciary in high esteem and they had never cast aspersions on any judge. “However, the law and the Constitution allows comments on decisions of the judiciary and we sometimes comment on judgments as do lawyers too but we do it in a very mindful and respectful manner,” he said. The anchor said his channel has an explicit policy of standing with the state institutions such as the judiciary. “We have no favourites as we take up issues of rights and justice,” he said.

According to PEMRA statement, “The channel did not express any regrets or remorse and argued that [the] show-cause notice is uncalled for and must be withdrawn.” The authority said it has suspended Bol News’ licence after evaluating the reply submitted and the content aired by the channel. The channel has to pay the Rs1 million fine within 30 days.

‘PEMRA order violates Constitution’

Nasir Zaid, Secretary General of PFUJ, said the PEMRA was a regulatory authority under the law but has now increasingly acted as an “authoritarian authority” to suppress freedom of expression and the freedom of press. “The PEMRA procedures call for due process in complaints. There is representation of public and state officials in the complaints council and all decisions are to be made through deliberations but the chairman is now exercising all authority on his own or in certain cases on the saying of the government,” Zaidi said.

The PFUJ office-bearer said the authority was exceeding its mandate and its actions were in contravention of constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. The recent PFUJ Declaration also called for curtailing the PEMRA’s authoritarian powers as well as making it more of an independent body, he added.

Abid Saqi, former vice chairman of Pakistan Bar Council and current member, said the PEMRA directive was in violation of the Constitution. He said the right to information is enshrined in the Constitution under Article 19A. “If you don’t have independent reporting, the citizens’ right to information is impacted,” Saqi said. In his view, the judiciary would have taken note of the discussion on the talk show if they had thought it to be contemptuous or disrespectful but that was not the case in this instance.

Ibrahim said his channel had been suspended several times in the past but the judiciary had given relief to the news channel, adding that he was convinced that the courts will overturn the channel’s suspension this time too.