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Pakistan: Electronic Media Regulatory Authority Issues Directive Barring TV Anchors from Offering Opinions

(Nov. 21, 2019) On October 27, 2019, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), an independent federal institution responsible for regulating the issuance of broadcasting licenses and distribution of privately owned print and electronic media channels (including those for radio, television, and satellite broadcasting), issued a directive under Section 18(g) of the Television Broadcast Station Operation Regulations, 2012 on “discussions & analysis on sub-Judice matters” (those under judicial consideration and therefore prohibited from public discussion). The circular referred to the High Court of Islamabad’s order of October 26, 2019, in which the Court “took cognizance” that TV talk shows and anchorpersons/journalists were maligning the judiciary “with mala fide intension” and tarnishing “the image and integrity of the Hon’ble superior courts” in violation of PEMRA’s code of conduct. The directive was sent after television journalists commented the previous week on the release of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on bail from prison on health grounds on October 26, 2019, after an alleged “purported deal.” The directive referred to clauses 4(3) and 4(6) of the Electronic Media (Programmes & Advertisements) Code of Conduct – 2015, which prohibit broadcast licensees from airing discussions prejudicial to sub-judice matters. These clauses require licensees to ensure that

(3) Programmes on sub-judice matters may be aired in informative manner and shall be handled objectively;

(6) Content based on extracts of court proceedings, police records and other sources shall be fair and correct.

PEMRA then directed news channels to “refrain from airing discussion, analysis, speculations etc. on sub-judice matters,” stating that “the licensee shall be held responsible for any biased, unfair analysis or propaganda against judiciary and state institutions by their employees.” Of particular controversy was the direction that “[the] role of anchors is to moderate the progammes in an objective, unbiased and impartial manner, excluding themselves from their personal opinions biases and judgements [sic] on any issue,” and therefore “anchors hosting exclusive regular shows should not appear in talk shows whether [on their] own or other channels as subject matter expert[s].”  The directive concluded with the statement that “[n]on-compliance to [sic] the above directions/guidelines … shall compel the Authority to initiate legal action” under sections 27, 29, 30, and 33 of the PEMRA Ordinance 2002 as amended by the PEMRA (Amendment) Act, 2007.

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PEMRA’s decision has come under strong criticism from government officials, two high courts, and nongovernmental organizations. Eleven TV anchorpersons filed a petition against PEMRA’s directive in the Lahore High Court, arguing that the directive “violated Article 19 of the Constitution, which grants every Pakistani citizen the right to freedom of speech.” The Court barred PEMRA from “taking any ‘adverse action’ against anchorpersons” until further directions from the Court were issued. The Islamabad High Court (IHC) on October 29, 2019, also issued a contempt of court notice to PEMRA chairman Saleem Baig for using the Court’s name to issue the directive. The minister of science and technology Fawad Chaudry, a member of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, tweeted that the “notification to ban anchors from appearing on other shows is uncalled for, illogical and unnecessary” in response to another tweet by the minister of human rights, Shireen Mazari, who was questioning how it can be determined who is or isn’t an “expert” in a field. The Pakistan Electronic Media Editors and News Directors Association, “a recently formed professional group,” said in a statement that “Pemra’s order is unlawful [in] that [it] clearly exceeds its mandate and appears to be yet another attempt to stifle a free media in Pakistan. The order must be withdrawn forthwith.” In a statement by Reporters Without Borders, Daniel Bastard, head of the media watchdog’s Asia-Pacific desk stated that “[i]t is not the media regulator’s role to dictate who can express opinions during debates, or to decree what can or cannot be said” and “[t]his grotesque PEMRA directive not only violates journalistic independence and pluralism but even goes so far as to criminalise opinions.”

After overwhelming criticism, on October 28, 2019, PEMRA was forced to “walk back” its ban, announcing in a subsequent notification that its order had been misinterpreted, that “[b]y no means it was [sic] to restrict freedom of expression,” and that PEMRA “is fully supportive of freedom of express as enshrined in the Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan with a role to regulate it within the bounds of PEMRA laws and [PEMRA’s] code of conduct.” On November 17, 2019, it was reported that the chairman of PEMRA had issued an “unconditional apology” before the IHC in the contempt case and “expressed regret for issuing a ‘misleading’ advisory that banned appearance of television anchorpersons in other talk shows.”