EACH day it seems there is a fresh assault on the fundamental right to freedom of speech. The arguments about ‘upholding the rule of law’ that are used to bolster such restrictions are specious and misleading. They cannot disguise the actual objective behind this campaign, and it is no less than a sustained campaign, which is to erase every vestige of dissent and discomfiting opinion from the public domain.

On Thursday, Pemra issued an order in response, so it claimed, to a complaint that some TV channels had aired the speeches of a proclaimed offender — clearly meaning Nawaz Sharif — and banned satellite news channels from airing any speeches, interviews and public addresses by proclaimed offenders or absconders. In its statement, Pemra repeatedly referred to its code of conduct, and to the Supreme Court’s emphasis on broadcast media’s compliance with it.

The aforesaid code of conduct often mentions the need for the electronic media to observe fairness and impartiality. But is Pemra itself practising what it preaches? How can it explain that in March 2019 it explicitly cited the right to freedom of speech when it dismissed a complaint against the speeches of retired Gen Pervez Musharraf and Allama Tahirul Qadri being broadcast, despite both individuals also being proclaimed offenders?

Or consider the fact that in March 2015, Saulat Mirza, a death-row prisoner was able to make a lengthy ‘confessional statement’ on camera from his cell without Pemra taking any action against the TV channels that aired it. The application of the law must be consistent in order to be credible. Given what has gone before, Pemra’s directive is clearly geared towards preventing Mr Sharif’s words from reaching the wider public.

In fact, censorship by the authorities is becoming a troubling pattern. On Friday came yet another prohibition order, in which Pemra directed TV channels to stop broadcasting news about the motorway gang rape, although this time it was on orders of the ATC in which the crime is being tried.

Giving credence to the police’s argument that media reporting was hindering the arrest of the prime accused, the judge in question said such coverage would “[diminish] the evidentiary worth of the material collected by the prosecution” and also “disgrace” the victim.

The media in this matter has largely conducted itself responsibly and protected the victim’s identity, despite the huge publicity the horrific case has garnered. If the court has any reservations, it can order the media to refrain from showing pictures of the accused so as not to compromise the identification parade. A blanket order such as this one serves no purpose.

Indeed, continuing coverage will keep up the pressure on law enforcement to do its job and ensure that both perpetrators are prosecuted. In the process, the “disgrace” will hopefully be placed where it should be — at the door of the rapists, not the victim.

Published in Dawn, October 5th, 2020

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