IHC Restrains PEMRA From Taking Coercive Action Against TV Channels

Does not stop the implementation of new notifications from PEMRA, which halts live coverage of court proceedings

IHC Restrains PEMRA From Taking Coercive Action Against TV Channels

The Islamabad High Court (IHC) on Friday refused to temporarily block a move by the electronic media regulator, PEMRA, which had banned the live coverage of court proceedings in the media.

Endorsing the notification issued by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), the IHC conditionally barred PEMRA from taking coercive action against TV channels.

"Meanwhile, no coercive measure shall be taken against any TV Channel, provided the notification is adhered to and followed in letter and spirit," read the written order issued by a bench comprising IHC Chief Justice Aamer Farooq after hearing a petition filed by the Press Association of Supreme Court (PAS) and Islamabad High Court Journalist Association (IHCJA). The PAS and IHCJA had challenged PEMRA's notification from May 21, 2024, whereby the authority has imposed certain restrictions on electronic media reporters from performing their reporting duties.

The IHC has, however, issued notices to PEMRA and the information secretary. 

During Friday's hearing, the counsel for the petitioners contended that the notification violates Articles 19 and 19-A of the Constitution. They further contended that no prior intimation was given to the stakeholders before the notification was issued and that the notification violated relevant rules and regulations. 

The counsel further submitted before the court that through the notification, TV channels had been prohibited from airing tickers or headlines about court proceedings.

Mian Aqeel Afzal and Fiaz Mehmood, the presidents of PAS and IHCJA, respectively, contended in their petition that the two letters issued by PEMRA to all licensees had, in effect, carried purported amendments to the Electronic Media (Code of Conduct) 2015. 

Their petition, filed through their counsel Advocate Umer Gillani under Article 199, claimed that through the notifications, PEMRA had imposed a blanket ban on the live coverage of statements issued in open court by various actors of the justice system, including judges, lawyers, parties and witnesses. 

"By imposing a blackout on court proceedings without even consulting the judiciary, PEMRA is effectively committing an assault on the independence of the judiciary, in addition to violating the public's right of access to information, journalists' freedom of speech and litigants' right to a fair trial," the petition contended.

It was argued that the notifications were procedurally defective and thus liable to be set aside.

"Last but not least, the notifications, which sound a death knell for the profession of courtroom journalism, have jeopardised the right to livelihood of the members of the petitioners' organisations and amount to a violation of their rights under Article 18 of the Constitution," the petition maintained.

The letters referred to in the petition include one issued by PEMRA on May 21 titled "Directives – Discussions on Sub-Judice matters" to all satellite TV Channel Licencees. 

The letter was followed by a corrigendum, which made only minor changes to the first letter.

The petition said the letters began by mentioning Rule 4 of the Electronic Median (Programmes and Advertisements) Code of Conduct, 2015. The petition stated that the rule permits the live reporting of court proceedings and does not impose any blanket ban. It added that the letter relied on a judgement by the Supreme Court from 2018 in a suo moto case to change this rule.

"It is important to bear in mind that the said judgment also did not impose a blanket ban on live reporting of court proceedings," the petition stated.

"It is a fact that in the seven years which have passed since the pronouncement of that judgment by the Supreme Court, live reporting (Television Tickers and Headlines) have continued unhindered."

It further noted that "the first letter of 21st May did not contain any exclusion clause regarding live broadcasts. This was added through the second letter issued on the same day. This in itself shows the arbitrary and capricious manner in which PEMRA is dealing with this issue, which is most sensitive in terms of independence of the judiciary as well as media freedom."

The petition said that after the notifications were issued, Show Cause Notices (SCNs) were issued to various channels for allegedly continuing to provide live coverage of court proceedings.

"In the wake of the issuance of SCNs to Licencees, there is now an imminent threat to the livelihood of courtroom journalists."

The petition said that many of these journalists had spent the first two decades of their careers covering the courts, but now they were at risk of being rendered redundant because of the media blackout imposed by PEMRA on coverage of court proceedings.

It stated that the notifications do not specify exactly what set of facts prompted the PEMRA chairman to issue the notice at this particular point in time.

"It seems probable that this assault on judicial independence and media freedoms was prompted by the recent live coverage of the case of an eminent poet who has been subjected to enforced disappearance," the petition argued, noting that in the case, the court, faithful to its oath to defend fundamental rights, took stern notice of the habeas petition filed for his recovery.

The live reporting of those proceedings drew considerable public attention, which might have made certain cogs in the state machinery uncomfortable, resulting in the issuance of the present illegal and arbitrary notifications."

The petition further contended that PEMRA's notifications were tantamount to arbitrarily and summarily amending the Electronic Media (Programmes and Advertisement) Code of Conduct 2015, adding that there is a step-wise procedure to arrive at a decision to issue such notifications. However, it seems this was not followed, as it was effected through a corrigendum.

The high court has adjourned further hearings until May 28.

The writer is an Islamabad based journalist working with The Friday Times. He tweets @SabihUlHussnain