Dark day for media freedom In the rush by the media to be holier than thou, it appears everyone will end up being burnt. Yesterday the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) suspended the licences of three private television channels after they were caught in concurrent controversies that damaged their reputations and threaten the gains made in decades of struggle for press freedom in Pakistan. The three channels are owned by one media house. Their suspensions and the subsequent order that their offices and properties be sold speak to how tentative press freedoms in Pakistan are. PEMRA will deliver a final decision on May 28, but the offices of the channels have reportedly been sealed and their transmissions are no longer available. Let us make no mistake, this is not a good day for the media, nor is it a victory for religious tolerance or the legal process. It is an indictment of a legislative framework that allows press freedoms and rights to be annulled at the slightest provocation. It is an indictment of a public that has been manipulated by vested interests using religious sentiments and it is an indictment of the press itself, which jumped on the bandwagon condemning the media house, like vultures circling a corpse to peck at its flesh. The lapses in editorial judgment that led to this scenario are stunning; already in the soup for levelling allegations against the military establishment, the media house should have been exceedingly careful in its programme monitoring to ensure it was not giving its enemies more ammunition to work with. The channel landed in a blasphemy controversy because of a segment that normally would never have raised any eyebrows but for the scrutiny the channel was already under. Ironically, this particular media house has been at the forefront of commercialising religion for monetary benefit, broadcasting among other things a popular Ramzan show, the host of which is Pakistanâ€™s best known religious celebrity. The channel has now become a victim of the religious sensibilities it exploited for commercial considerations. The vilification of the media house by other media organisations could result in a rollback of press freedoms across the board. It appears that many journalists in Pakistan have forgotten the days of draconian censorship and press persecution this country has seen in the past. While no longer the prerogative of state security organisations, the press it appears can now be targeted by manipulating public sentiment and creating religious outrage. One would imagine this is a clarion call for media houses to show solidarity to preserve press freedoms. However, after news of the suspension broke, several television talk show hosts celebrated, calling it a â€˜victoryâ€™ for Islam and Pakistan. The public and certain political parties that â€˜spontaneouslyâ€™ demonstrated for the channelsâ€™ closure will undoubtedly also realise the consequences of their actions later, but it may well be too late by then. The heart of the problem here is legislative. While the obvious deficiencies of the blasphemy law that was used in this witch-hunt is one matter, the lack of a legal framework to regulate news content has become a serious issue. Talk of â€˜freedomâ€™ versus â€˜responsibilityâ€™ has become the rage in circles critical of the media, but the analysis lacks a cohesive framework to define either. The fact is that journalists around the world are only constrained by their ethics while media organisations are responsible for the material they publish and can be taken to court for publishing incorrect information. This is the responsible route for individuals or institutions that feel hard done by the press. Pakistan lacks an authoritative body like the Press Complaints Commission in the UK for bringing forward grievances against the press. The Press Council of Pakistan is virtually moribund and has done little to adjudicate in cases of defamation, libel or slander. In fact there is a dearth of legislation to clearly define these issues or lay out appropriate penalties and a judicial and evidentiary framework to apply them. This is an area the government needs to move on quickly, particularly since the relevant models are already there. The setback to press freedom we witnessed yesterday must remain an isolated incident and cannot be allowed to spread. Dark day for media freedom ************************* This is a total indication that Pakistan is a bundle of contradiction. It proves that they know not what they are and what they want to do.