Govt Defends Bill To Amend PEMRA Law

Govt Defends Bill To Amend PEMRA Law
Key points

- Expands PEMRA to 13 members and a chairman
- Adds clauses on disinformation & misinformation
- Defines the period of timely payment of salary to employees
- Spreads power of suspension of licence to chairman and two members
- PEMRA empowered to stop payment of govt ads conditioned to payment of salaries
- Defines the period of media and distribution licence
- Defines the purpose of council of complaints to include unpaid wages to media workers

The federal government on Saturday defended amendments it had recently introduced in the parliament to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority Act, claiming that it included long consultations and direct inputs from editors, media workers and media owners while adhering to international media ethics.

There was uproar on social media on Friday after it emerged that the government had silently introduced amendments.

Addressing a news conference in Islamabad on Saturday, Federal Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb responded to the concerns of the media.

Aurangzeb, who had introduced the bill in National Assembly, said that they had suffered from the censorship regime imposed by the previous government and the efforts to control media.

She added that contrary to complaints from some quarters, it took the government around 11 months to draft the amendments by taking feedback from the industry on board, in line with UN resolutions and other international best practices.

The information minister said that the media of the country has itself helped define the terms "disinformation" and "misinformation", which has been included in the bill.

"This is so that so no one can misuse this bill," she stated, adding that they reviewed international best practices on disinformation and included clauses in line with it.

We have given media a decision-making role in this and have moved towards a co-regulation regime of media, she said. She said that that this was unlike the Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) introduced by their predecessors overnight  which had no representation from the media.

The federal minister said that they worked to protect the rights of not just journalists but media workers as well, defining the period within which workers must be paid and ensuring payment of minimum wage apart from creating provisions for workers to take organizations to the council of complaints.

Per the amendments available with The Friday Times, major changes have been made in the structure as well as the operation of the regulator.

Key changes in this regard have been in the number of members in the authority has been enhanced from 12 to 13, apart from its chairperson.

Further, representatives of broadcasters and the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) have been included in the PEMRA board, but they shall be non-voting members.

The other major change is fixing a period for media organizations to pay media workers within two months.

"20A-Obligation of the licensee to pay electronic media employees' salaries timely. The licensee of the authority shall ensure timely payment of salaries not later than two months to the electronic media employees working with it."

Should the organizations fail to do so, they may be deprived of payment for government ads.

The bill also defines "disinformation" and "misinformation".

"Disinformation and Misinformation has been added to the definitions in order to provide legal measures to provide challenges of false, misleading, manipulated, created or fabricated information".

The bill defined disinformation as: "verifiably false, misleading, manipulated, created or fabricated information which is disseminated or shared with the intention to cause harm to the reputation of or to harass any person for political, personal, or financial interest or gains without making an effort to get other person's point of view or not giving it proper coverage and space, but does not include misinformation."

Misinformation has been defined as verifiable false content or information that is unintentionally disseminated or shared.

Working journalists are concerned that this would allow powerful quarters to stonewall their efforts by withholding comment, as under the new law, one-sided stories could be considered as 'disinformation'.

The power of the PEMRA chairman to suspend channels has been delegated.

"To the extent of suspension of broadcast media licence, the Authority may delegate its power to Chairman and two members of the Authority."

The government has also revised the tenure of licences.

"A licence of broadcast media shall be valid for a period of 20 years and distribution service licence shall be valid for a period not exceeding ten years subject to payment of annual fee, including late payment fee if any as may be prescribed from time to time but shall not include annual gross advertisement revenue in any form whatsoever.";

Further, licence renewal fees shall be half of the applicable fee of the last bid price of the same category but will not include annual gross advertisement revenue in any form whatsoever.

Moreover, electronic media workers will be able to approach PEMRA's council of complaints regarding their wages, salaries, dues etc.

"26 Councils of Complaints -(2): Each council shall receive and review complaints made by persons or organizations from the general public against any aspects of programmes broadcast or distributed by a station established through a licence issued by the Authority and render opinions on such complaints."

(3) Each Council shall receive and review complaints made by the electronic media employees to the extent of the following matters only, namely:-
(a) payment of minimum wages policy; and
(b) timely payment of their salaries, and the council shall render opinions and recommendations on such complaints to the authority for appropriate decision or order.

(4) Each Council shall consist of a Chairperson and five members being citizens of eminence, having relevant experience and qualification as may be prescribed, from the general public at least two of whom shall be women.
(5) The Chairperson or members, unless earlier removed for misconduct or physical or mental incapacity, shall hold office for a term of two years and shall be eligible for re-appointment for a similar term as the Federal Government may determine:
Provided that the chairperson or a member may, by writing under his hand addressed to the Chairman, resign from his office:
Provided further that the chairperson and members shall hold honorary positions.
Explanation.– For the purposes of this section, the expression "misconduct" means a conviction for any offence involving moral turpitude and includes conduct prejudicial to good order, political influence or involvement, unbecoming of a gentleman, or absence from three or more successive meetings of the council.
(6) For the purpose of exercising jurisdiction under sub-section (3) for grievances of the electronic media employees, in each council, two non-voting honorary members shall be appointed by the division to which business of this Ordinance stands allocated, one from broadcasters and one from electronic media employees, who shall serve to that extent only.
(7) The Councils shall have the powers to summon the complainant, aggrieved person and the licensee against whom a complaint has been made and call for his or its explanation regarding any matter relating to its operation.
(8) The functions and operation of the Councils shall be such as may be prescribed.
(9) The Councils may recommend to the authority for imposition of a fine of not less than two hundred thousand rupees and not more than one million rupees against any individual person. The Councils may also recommend to the authority appropriate action of censure, fine up to two million rupees in respect of a licensee. In case a licensee repeats the violation, the council may recommend the suspension of the licence or prohibition on broadcasting or re-broadcasting or distributing any programme or advertisement against a broadcast media, broadcast station or distribution service operator or person for violation of the provisions of this Ordinance, rules and regulations made thereunder or any terms and conditions of licence and code of conduct for programme content and advertisements as may be prescribed.
(10) The Authority or the Chairman may refer any matter to the council for appropriate recommendations.
(11) The Council shall verify the content of disinformation on the basis of documentary evidence and make appropriate recommendations to the authority within a period of thirty days:
Provided that not more than two adjournments shall be entertained by the council upon an advance application by the licensee or the complainant, or any aggrieved person. In case of non-appearance by either party or non-filing of application for adjournment, the council shall proceed with the matter on the basis of available material and record."

Naveid Siddiqui, the Chief Operating Officer of Hum News, stated in a post on Twitter that the government should not tell a channel how to operate.