How do you curb disinformation while promoting free speech? Pakistan’s case shows it’s not easy
In 2019, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority chairman had to apologise unconditionally to the then-chief justice of the Islamabad High Court.
The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, or Pemra for short, had directed channels not to feature TV anchors as news analysts on shows other than their own, based on a court order. Except there was no court order.
When Pakistan Muslim League (N) supremo Nawaz Sharif was granted bail after a stint in jail and his platelet count dropped dramatically, several anchorpersons had gone on air, alleging that a deal had taken place in which the judiciary was involved.
Pemra, tired of playing whack-a-channel-with-penalties for discussing sub judice matters, thought of a novel solution – since it is anchors going on shows as commentators making these allegations, why not stop anchors from commentating. Genius, right?
The Islamabad High Court would have none of it, and issued a show cause notice under the contempt of court laws to the chief of the media regulatory body for using the excuse of a court order to restrict anchors.
Ironically, in trying to stop the wilful slander of the judiciary, Pemra nearly ended up committing contempt of court.
Damming the flow
Fast forward to 2023, and Pemra is still struggling for a measure of control. In another novel idea, it ordered a blanket ban on the coverage of the F-9 rape case. The ban, a source from the regulatory body told me, was based on a complaint from the victim against various channels revealing her identity. Pemra laws allow fines for violating the privacy of rape survivors, but instead it sought control over regulation.
Meanwhile, the regulatory authority does not have jurisdiction over social media and can do little to duct-tape all stripes of YouTubers, whom audiences are inevitably turning to for information or opinion when they can’t find it on the mainstream. Information is like a flood, you dam one portion, and the breach is more devastating somewhere else.
Under the same chairman, it managed to prevent Nawaz Sharif from ‘maligning’ institutions and serving generals in the Gujranwala jalsa of 2020. Ishaq Dar got the blunt end of the regulatory stick after a few TV appearances in 2019. It also managed to impose a delay mechanism for Maryam Nawaz, while her and Asif Ali Zardari’s interviews were pulled off air based on a phone call.
Now, Pemra’s latest problem is Imran Khan. The chairman remains the same, the faces of the problem change.
Pemra has attempted to restrict Khan’s appearances thrice since he went from prime minister to opposition, and it has been thwarted each time by the courts. The first time was in August last year, when it ordered channels to stop live-telecasting Khan’s speeches. Bleep bleep, and the institutions are safe from slanderous words. Khan had been accustomed to free reign as both prime minister and opposition leader with jalsas, addresses to the nation and telethons. But the latest ban was absolute, and the court decided the problem was bigger.
How do you contain anger, accusation, propaganda and political hyperbole? And what do you with all the people and institutions who feel insulted? Where does information end and hate speech begin? The Lahore High Court will need to make that decision as it constitutes a larger bench to determine whether a leader of a political party with a digital media juggernaut can be banned on the mainstream. His accusations will flow through WhatsApp, Facebook and TikTok.
Like the police lathi-charging women at an International Women’s Day march or water-cannoning protesters, the regulatory authority is cut from the same uniformed cloth – its primary tool is brute force rather than indirect persuasion.
Regulators are meant to encourage good behaviour, lightly penalise bad behaviour, and – as in most liberal democracies – allow the marketplace of ideas to flourish. Media pluralism is seen as a counter to demagoguery and propaganda. The rest is up to the courts through the defamation laws. It has become a bit of a joke how several Pakistani channels, journalists, and political figures have won large defamation suits in the UK, where many channels broadcast to the politically passionate Pakistani diaspora.
In the UK and Europe, independent public broadcasters with large audiences fill in the gap of meaningful content left by partisan or corporate media. In Pakistan, we can’t fix dry and discredited Pakistan Television Corporation and then complain about the weather.
On the other side of the pond, where state regulation is looser, the likes of Fox News’s Tucker Carlson are allowed to cherry-pick the violence of the January 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill in the face of facts. Meanwhile, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was fined $1.44 billion for falsely claiming that the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax by the parents of a child who was killed in the tragic event. The business empire he built through radio, YouTube and a website selling merchandise is crumbling.
Content regulation is a struggle, but there are better ways to do it than wanting the muscle to control information like China without the neural network.
The problem with the Pemra is that the novel ideas and the wobbly dance it plays with free speech don’t come from within. Its former chairman Absar Alam said he once got a call from a military officer, asking to lift a ban on a favourite anchor who had been using the blasphemy card against anchors and TV channels.
The pressure, said Alam, is not just from intelligence agencies, it comes from the government, from the Pakistan Broadcasters Association, from the judiciary, from powerful anchors, from digital campaigns run by political parties and their affiliated journalist mouthpieces. “Bureaucrats can’t resist that kind of pressure,” said Alam.
Even in using its powers, the regulatory authority is selective. For instance, it has the power to cancel licenses, but only chooses to do so when particular channels are out of favour. One channel got away for years without paying its uplinking fee that ran into millions while its no objection certificate was later cancelled under instruction from the Ministry of Interior. “These are just channels that had one plug in one socket, and that has been pulled,” said Alam.
Of course, news channels open the door to the regulatory authority’s stick as well. “Channels don’t have editorial boards, don’t fix their business models and use influence to circumvent the law,” said Alam.
An amendment to the Pemra law is now seeking to make broadcast licenses conditional on whether the channel spreads disinformation. Beyond the usual eye-roll of the legal definition of disinformation and the danger of it becoming another tool of the media regulatory police, a reminder from 1996:
“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”
This article first appeared in Dawn.