The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) issued its latest show-cause notice to the Bol News TV show “Live with Dr Shahid Masood”, claiming that the show discussed sensitive information “recklessly and carelessly”. It was a few days earlier that PEMRA put Amir Liaqat Hussein, also at Bol, on notice for his reprehensible tirade against several other individuals, including activist Jibran Nasir accusing him of blasphemy, along with his demeaning rhetoric against India. But much to the chagrin of PEMRA and many others, he was frothing and fuming on his and other channels the next day, mocking the PEMRA ban as if the ban had no significance whatsoever. It should be noted that Bol News is run by AXACT, a company that, according to New York Times, had been running a fake degree awarding racquet and faced investigations for several months before being allowed to go on air, apparently following underhand deals with the government and the establishment.
Missing or deficient implementation of the existing laws is certainly nothing new in Pakistan. Also, bans on individuals or organizations in the Pakistan haven’t yielded fruitful outcomes. Let us consider the history of official bans/ orders and their implementation in this country; on Jan 12, 2002, Pakistan banned six radical outfits including one Shia organization. All of them resurfaced and continue their missions to date with different names, although the Anti-Terror Act 1997 specifically mentions that no person associated with a banned outfit would be allowed to operate under a new name. The same is reiterated in Point number 7 of the National Action Plan (NAP) which undertakes that “the defunct outfits will not be allowed to operate under any other name”. But reality on ground point to the contrary; once LeT became JuD, for instance, and its charitable arm assumed the name of Falahe Insaniat Foundation (FIF), it has only multiplied in numbers and remains very much active even in the capital Islamabad. Authorities risk inviting violence from supporters if a heavy handed action is taken against any of these organizations. But that should not deter the state from taking legal actions against such elements, not only for the country’s law and order situation, but a number of international treaties place compliance obligations on the state of Pakistan.
The recent catapulting of aberrations such as these anchors should be blamed on the boundless greed of the corporate sector. Most multi-nationals and national companies dole out hefty advertisements to the shows that they believe draw huge audiences. The only consideration for them, it appears, is the promotion of their products. The government itself, in fact all major political parties, dish out huge advertising campaigns to major TV channels. Has the government or PEMRA reached out to such sponsors to persuade them to also consider the socio-political impact of their product promotions? Why not engage the corporate sector on the commitments that the state of Pakistan made to its people and the international community? It needs to proactively take the business houses in confidence on, for instance, point number of 5 of the National Action Plan? It promises “strict action against the literature, newspapers and magazines promoting hatred, decapitation, extremism, sectarianism and intolerance.” This alone is enough to take care of the thoughtless and parochial rhetoric resonating on Bol and some other channels. Point number 11 speaks of “ban on glorification of terrorists and terrorist organisations through print and electronic media”. These points on the NAP sound sweet, yet questions need to be asked whether all state organs joined hands to make media channels and anchors comply with these SOPs.
Even if most of the commitments under the NAP are disregarded, point no. 15 (No room will be left for extremism in any part of the country) encapsulates the entire NAP commitment, particularly because TV and radio offer a huge space to people at large. And if the government promises no to leave “any room for extremism in any part of the country” it really has to prioritize the electronic media as the most critical tool in countering religious and social radicalization. If the all state institutions are sincere to the national/public interest and consider radicalization of minds as a “creeping monster,” then advertisements worth billions of rupees should be made compliant with the NAP. Why should leaders of banned outfits – particularly those who are under the scrutiny of neighbouring countries – adore the TV screens? Only punitive action will make the political rhetoric credible and as a major step to the NAP implementation. A daunting task for government, the establishment, PEMRA and corporate sector indeed. An effective implementation of the NAP could ensure long term stability in the country and counter extremism on all levels.
The author Imtiaz Gul is the Executive Director of Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS).