People & Society

Absar Alam: The watchman

Published 19 Jun, 2017 11:24pm
Illustration by Zahra Abdus Samad
Illustration by Zahra Abdus Samad

When the Pakistani media woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, it found itself transformed into a monstrous vermin. And no one is better placed to know and handle this untamed creature than the chief of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra), Absar Alam.

A former journalist with vast experience in both print and electronic media, Alam has been at the helm of several news outlets. He was also part of the founding team of a Lahore-based, private news channel.

With these credentials, one would expect him to navigate through the murk that is the Pakistani electronic media with relative ease, better than most. He, however, seems to drive himself deeper into quicksand every time he tries to take a step.

Under him, Pemra has had an eventful couple of years. The more recent developments took a sombre turn with the authority’s employees receiving death threats. Last month, Alam held a press conference in which he played back a telephone conversation with a man threatening to maim or kill Pemra staff if they did not immediately reverse their decision to revoke the license of Bol News, a private television channel.

Earlier, Pemra had barred Bol News from airing a show by televangelist-turned-anchor Dr Amir Liaquat Husain who defied the ban with incredible arrogance, hitting out at Pemra for being ‘anti-Pakistan’. What is it that makes Pemra under Alam such an easy entity to snub and disregard? Much of the answer to that lies in Alam’s own past.

First, Alam’s appointment was challenged in court by those who claimed that he did not fulfil the criteria set for the post. His association with the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz has also been an open secret, while his work with a controversial donor-cum-advocacy organisation, Open Society Foundation, has not helped his reputation either. Alam certainly sees no conflicts of interest, but his critics do.

In 2012, he and senior journalist Hamid Mir petitioned the Supreme Court over journalists’ source of income and the use of the government’s ‘secret funds’ to win their favour. A list of implicated journalists was made public the following year on the orders of the apex court.

This included the names of many journalists who had either refused to travel on the government’s expenses or did so inadvertently. Many journalists who had hitherto untainted reputations felt shortchanged by their peers, Alam and Mir.

Journalists also took exception to Alam and Mir’s demand for an accountability commission, arguing that they were advocating unnecessary state intervention that would curb the freedom of media. Now that Alam is himself a victim of interventions – from courts and the invisible protectors of a channel’s freedom to broadcast – he bemoans Pemra has no real power.

Alam’s critics also point out that he has been selective in levelling fines and penalties (which spiralled under his watch) on news channels, targeting some and sparing others.

By bringing all stakeholders on board, he could have devised a comprehensive television policy that would help the medium regain the trust of consumers and play a constructive role in providing information and entertainment.

But instead of working towards reforming the institution of Pemra in line with the complexities of today’s global mediascape, Alam chooses to base his line of action on knee-jerk decisions that serve little regulatory purpose.

It also needs to steer clear of moral policing, which is exactly what it is doing with the Ramazan transmission guidelines. “Dancing, singing and exercising have been prohibited as is the tossing of presents to audiences,” reads one such stipulation in the notification issued last month. “No bedroom scenes, kissing or hugging between the opposite sex,” reads another. One wonders if Pemra is a regulatory authority or a religious one.

Then there is also the matter of Pemra’s jurisdiction. Since Pemra is only a regulatory authority with no mechanism for enforcement, it has to seek the help of the Federal Investigation Agency, police and other law enforcement agencies to implement its verdict. This makes for poor institutional independence.

Those in line of Pemra’s fire easily manage to get stay orders from courts, undermining its authority and challenging its legal ambit. Set up through an ordinance drafted and amended under a military dictator, Pemra’s most urgent need is to have its manual debated in the parliament. At the moment, its mandate is foggy at best and predatory at worst.

Unlike Franz Kafka’s protagonist, the Pakistani media is itself responsible for a lot of its woes. The electronic media, many argue, has succumbed to sensationalism and reactionary tirades that do no service to journalism.

Pemra and Alam will have to somehow convince news channels of their obligation to be responsible; even if that comes at the cost to ratings. For that to happen, Alam will first need to come clean on all the various allegations being levelled against him.

This article was originally published in the Herald's June 2017 issue under the headline "The watchman". To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.