Regulating the media

Published: February 23, 2012
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The writer served as federal minister for information and oversaw the drafts of the Electronic Media Regulatory Authority Ordinance in 1997 and the RAMBO/PEMRA Ordinance in 2000.

The writer served as federal minister for information and oversaw the drafts of the Electronic Media Regulatory Authority Ordinance in 1997 and the RAMBO/PEMRA Ordinance in 2000.

The media sector is possibly the single most complex and challenging sector to regulate.

In contrast, regulation and verification of drug quality deals with physically tangible products whose ingredients can be precisely measured.  Whereas media deal with intangible material which primarily affects the mind, the great invisible, immeasurable unknown.

A notable part of what is presented as news is speculative and under-researched. A significant portion of views is skewed and prejudiced. When news and views are mixed together as they increasingly are, the blend becomes a sticky, indistinguishable mess.

Just as the claim to patriotism is said to be the first refuge of the scoundrel, the claim of threats to freedom of expression is the first refuge of the news media.

The media in general, and non-news media in particular, bring us enormous wealth of valuable information and enjoyable entertainment. Though the media is often referred to in the singular, the word and the diversity it represents is thoroughly plural. Each mass medium — print, radio, TV, cinema — has its own characteristics. Regulation requires specificity about such individual features.

There are two broad aspects of regulation. One is the grant of permission by the state to own and operate a mass medium.

Relatively, this is quite straightforward even though in actual implementation, law and policy should navigate carefully to avoid creating undue concentration of media power by allowing unchecked cross-media ownership. Or, by auctioning licences to the highest bidders, thus promoting wealth rather than public service as a core criterion.

The other aspect is regulation of media content. The content of news media, hard news as also current affairs  programmes is of special concern. This is far more complicated than licencing. Several factors shape content. In recent years, viewership ratings agencies in the case of TV,  and media buying houses which purchase large blocks of time and space to deliver optimal benefits to advertiser-clients have become powerful new influences on shaping media content. Yet they remain virtually invisible to public scrutiny and accountability in terms of the public interest as distinct from the commercial interests they serve.

While the grant of permits and licences is an inescapable state responsibility, the determination of which content violates laws, codes, norms and parameters is rife with multiple interpretations and prone to dissent.  Most sensitive of all is the question of which entity has the moral right to determine boundaries. Almost all the factors that shape media content are fluid and volatile, not fixed and static.

This variability and unpredictability causes further complications.

Rapid changes and uncertainty sweeping the world also shake the durability of legal frameworks which, in any case, are normally some steps behind reality. Pakistan itself is going through a process of extensive social, cultural, economic and political turbulence.

New media such as the participative Internet and new modes of content distribution such as the cell-phone have emerged as fast-growing parallel means of sharing information and entertainment on a mass scale to end the monopoly of monolithic mass media disseminating tightly-controlled content.

A fusion of three categories of regulation would be the ideal blend. The first is self-regulation by members of the media themselves. But as experience has shown, this will be effective only if the administration of such self-regulation is conducted on their behalf by independent professionals of acknowledged integrity such as the laudable inititative taken in Pakistan by this newspaper by the appointment of an eminent person as the newspaper’s ombudsman.

Otherwise, self-regulation becomes a cover for protecting self-interest.

And making excuses for frequent lapses.

The second category is inevitably state regulation through legislation that is fully debated and informed by extensive consultation with civil society, media specialists and journalists. Reform of existing laws and rules, the need for entirely new concepts and forms are long overdue in Pakistan. Now that PEMRA and the PTA have completed over about a decade, there is scope to examine their improvements and the inter-face between them.

Even though the Press Council has finally been established, much work is required to make its output purposeful.

The third category is the most formidable. And perhaps this is why it is virtually non-existent in Pakistan, along with elsewhere as well. And yet it is also the most needed. This is social regulation. By which the interests of the public, and not the interests of media owners, advertisers, journalists or governments are given the highest priority. Without allowing extremist forces to use violence or threats a hazard requiring eternal preventive action — social regulation  has the potential to be the most progressive influence for fair, balanced media content and an equitable media system. To an extent, state regulation represents aspects of social regulation. But the power-authority feature of the state can sometimes distort the benign yet firm purist public interest perspective which social regulation alone symbolises. Details on another occasion soon!

Published in The Express Tribune, February 24th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (7)

  • Ali Akbar
    Feb 24, 2012 - 12:16AM

    how do you ‘socially’ regulate media when the population is far from homogenous and the literacy levels are low? which segment of society will a watchdog represent?

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  • Feb 24, 2012 - 1:32AM

    @Ali Akbar: Good question!

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  • Siddh
    Feb 24, 2012 - 2:21AM

    Start by getting a CODE OF conduct approved by the govt as well as the public through a team of professionals like the writer himself, Ardeshir Cowasjee etc etc

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  • anticorruption
    Feb 24, 2012 - 2:17PM

    A very good and timely piece. Unfortunately, by and large, our media is very unwilling to even allow serious discussions on its role, let alone submit itself to any regulation. Even when a talkshow ocasionally discusses the media’s role, the panelists are the same old seniour journalists or anchors (who are obviously not neutral) whereas independent voices from the civil society are never invited.

    One more issue is that of media ownership and conflict of interest. All media outlets should be required to declare who their owners are and what their commercial or political interests are.

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  • Ilmana Fasih
    Feb 25, 2012 - 12:19AM

    I couldnt agree more to the last paragraph, of the social regulation. And media should be a resource for mass reformation and education of the masses, on political, social, health , consumer rights awareness etc. Like many Corporates who realize their social responsibility, so should media.

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  • mind control
    Feb 25, 2012 - 9:44PM

    The third category is the most formidable. And perhaps this is why it is virtually non-existent in Pakistan, along with elsewhere as well. And yet it is also the most needed. This is social regulation. By which the interests of the public, and not the interests of media owners, advertisers, journalists or governments are given the highest priority.

    Really? I thought it was the other way round. In Pakistan news channels fold up precisely because they fail to pander to the ‘public interest’, And conversely Aalims and Defense Analysts prosper, precisely because they are in tune with the ‘interest of the public’.

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  • Feb 29, 2012 - 9:58AM

    I think media should be regulated through an independent body consisting of experienced individuals of all segments of society. The nationa interests should be guarded for which forieghn office, internal, office and Defence miinistaries should be briefed regulary

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