February 19th, 2022
By Hamid Riaz
While hearing a petition filed by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) regarding the rights of the journalists’ community in Pakistan, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) Chief Athar Minallah had called upon senior journalist Hamid Mir and Media Laws expert Advocate Umar Gillani, to present “research” on two core issues plaguing Pakistan’s media sphere: the first on ‘cross-media ownership’, or the concentration of ownership in the media industry; the second, on ensuring editorial freedom of journalists, by shielding them from commercial and political pressures.
Interestingly enough, despite the fundamentally distinct natures of the queries posed to them, one cannot help but notice the fundamental and glaring similarities in the responses to the court of both Mir and Gillani.
“Laws exist, but the government is not interested in implementing them,” was their response. “Instead the focus is on introducing new, often parallel legislation, which again suffers from non-implementation.”
HAMID MIR: “On monopolization in the industry”
Take, for instance, the issue of monopolization in Pakistan’s media industry.
“Only six or seven groups control the entire media of the country,” said Mir in an interview with Voicepk. “Which seriously abrogates the citizens’ right to information. This concentration of ownership means that smaller often more independent and regional news outlets/platforms are not able to compete and make space for themselves. At the same time since the media is owned by so few people, it is easy for them to band together and decide to collectively ‘censor’ certain themes and ideas with impunity,” he explains.
According to Mir, the solution to this dismal situation is staring us in the face, but again, no one has bothered to look back even once.
“The PEMRA ordinance, 2002 and PEMRA rules, 2009 have explicit provisions directed at the ‘Exclusion of Monopolies’ but the body itself does not work to ensure implementation,” despite being hyper-active otherwise.
As per the law, PEMRA is responsible for ensuring that “no person benefits from monopolies”, from “ensuring open and fair competition”, and “enlarging the choices available to people in information realm” by taking safeguards such as setting up upper limits to the maximum number of licenses that can be issued to a single entity or by closely regulating mergers, etc. PEMRA’s failure in abiding by its own rules rightly prompted the Chief Justice to summon a response in the next hearing, scheduled for March 8.
UMAR GILLANI: On protecting journalists from commercial pressures
Gillani is an expert on Pakistan’s media laws, and when reached by Voicepk, he had a similar diagnosis of the ailment.
While pointing towards the “Newspapers’ Employees Conditions of Services Act 1973” Gillani states that the law which is almost half a century old provides a vast array of protections that a vast majority of local journalists do not enjoy, even to this day.
“Every senior journalist who is a member of the union, whom I have met, knows this Act by heart because they have been pleading for its implementation for such a long time,” says Gillani. “For example, the Act gives journalists ‘tenure security which essentially means that no working journalist can be terminated before the natural expiry of their contract without good cause. But to this day no court has defined what this ‘good cause’ can be. Similarly, journalists are entitled to wage security, contract protections, provident funds, and medical benefits under this Act. We all know how many journalists enjoy these perks,” quips Gillani.
And a huge problem is that this ancient law only applies to print media journalists but according to Gillani even that can be remedied if the court of law, for the time being, expands the definition of newspaper journalists to include all journalists until the legislator takes appropriate steps.
MORE OF THE SAME: The Journalists’ Protection Bill
“If the 1973 Act awards 99 protections to journalists, the Journalists’ Protection Act awards only one,” exposes Gillani. “The current government wants to defraud the people of Pakistan by introducing redundant and cosmetic pieces of legislation like the ‘Journalists Protection Bill’ instead of ensuring that journalists get to practically benefit from protections awarded to them by existing laws,” opines Gillani.
Mir agrees with Gillani’s views on chronic non-implementation of existing legislation and points towards that irony that the Journalists’ Protection Bill itself has now fallen victim to the non-implementation Gillani vehemently highlights.
“The government has been patting itself on the back since passing the bill but has no moves to actually start enforcing the provisions of this law. For example, the bill mandated the formation of a commission to deal with cases of violence against journalists, no such commission exists. And there is absolutely no discussion going on about the formation of this commission,” points out Mir.
Adding this non-existent commission for the protection of journalists and media professionals to a long list of that media professionals enjoy, only on paper.