In recent years there has been a growing impression that an increasingly restrictive environment has been created for the media industry in Pakistan. The media landscape in Pakistan is regulated by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA). Safety & Security Today talked to Muhammad Saleem Baig, Chairman PEMRA to talk about this and other pertinent issues relating to the media industry.
Safety & Security Today: Tell us something about your educational and professional background?
Muhammad Saleem Baig: I am proud to be a RAVIAN and studied Political Science at Government College Lahore. During my time at Government College, besides my studies, I was active in literary and extracurricular activities. I remained President of Student Union as well as of Debating Club, I also won several medals and shields in various inter-college competitions and at the National level too. After attaining a Master’s Degree, I qualified the competitive exam of Pakistan and joined the Information Service Group of Pakistan. In the Ministry of Information, I have the honor to serve with several Prime Ministers of Pakistan including the late Benazir Bhutto as well as several Federal Ministers. During my service in the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, I served as Director General (Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation), Director General (DEMP) and remained Principal Information Officer (PIO) twice. In 2018, I was appointed as Chairman of Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) through a transparent competition and my selection as Chairman, PEMRA was validated by the Honorable Supreme Court of Pakistan. I have a great passion for history and political science. I am an avid reader having a huge collection of books in my personal library. In my collection, you would find some very rare books which I have collected from various parts of the country as well as from abroad.
S&ST: You have been heading PEMRA for more than 2.5 years now. How challenging did you find this job?
MSB: As Chairman of PEMRA my role is both challenging as well as interesting. PEMRA is dealing with one of the most sensitive and vibrant industry in the country, that is media. I have tried not to become just a regulator but a facilitator and made an effort to take all the stakeholders on board while formulating policies and taking important decisions. Furthermore, my focus is not only on the compliance with the PEMRA Code of Conduct 2015, but also on improving standards of information, education, and content as ordained under the law. In my view, we have succeeded in improving the quality of content being aired on Electronic Media yet there is a huge margin for further improvement. For this purpose, I personally, try to maintain a regular and effective liaison with all the stakeholders and discuss issues pertaining to the media industry.
Keeping a watchful eye and regulating media is indeed a tough job. However, I believe that a dedicated and professional team surpasses all the impediments and brings fruitful results for the manager. By the grace of Allah Almighty I am blessed with seasoned professionals in PEMRA who are managing the affairs with utmost sincerity and diligence.
In my current role, we have offices that are spread across the country. It is an incredible challenge to communicate and avoid misunderstandings in our correspondences as a lot can be left up to interpretation. However, with a competent team, I am able to work past these issues and allow a smooth workflow. Another challenge I have faced that I believe is only natural are the ever-changing trends in the media industry. As Pakistan is progressing, the media is also growing and becoming an even larger part of our society. It is a tough job to act as the gatekeeper but one that is necessary. Keeping that in mind we must ensure we take necessary actions when we believe something to be unlawful.
When you are required to lead so many people it becomes difficult to set the right objectives. Particularly, with the current pandemic situation, it is challenging to make sure all operations run smoothly and effectively with minimum delays, yet, my team is showing great compliance.
S&ST: Apart from the role of regulator, PEMRA’s mandate also includes facilitation of electronic media along with ensuring free flow of quality information. What are some major initiatives taken by PEMRA in this regard during your tenure?
MSB: During my tenure, I have been working on improving many aspects to ensure the free flow of quality information. For this purpose, we conferred the first license for Direct to Home (DTH) services in Pakistan to M/s. Shahzad Sky Pvt Ltd an Islamabad-based company. With the launch of this service, the distribution sector in the country would be revolutionized as this platform would enhance channel carrying capacity i.e. more than 200 satellite TV channels.
In order to make DTH a success and to enlarge choices to the people of Pakistan, bidding for grant of 58 satellite TV channels was held on May 3, 2020. Through bidding 8 new licenses were awarded in the category of News & Current Affairs, 27 in Entertainment, 02 in Agriculture, 04 in Education, 05 in Sports, 12 in Regional Language and 04 in Health.
Another landmark achievement is the award of the first Teleport license. This license is awarded to M/s. Telenest (SMC) Pvt Ltd, a Karachi-based company that would provide uplinking facility to private broadcasters hence saving their huge investment generally incurred on establishing dedicated uplinking facility.
We have also been conducting training and capacity building for media professionals to keep them up to date with the emerging trends in the media industry as well as with PEMRA’s Code of Conduct.
Working on the National Digitalization Policy of Cable TV is also underway in coordination with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The consultation process with different stakeholders has been started and the policy will soon be finalized and subsequently announced after the approval of the Federal Cabinet.
For the first time in its history, PEMRA acknowledged the services rendered by broadcasters under CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) by allocating air time for various public service messages. The top three channels were awarded shields by the President of Pakistan, Dr. Arif Alvi in a ceremony held at the Presidency. We have also been issuing appreciation letters to TV channels from time to time on showing compliance with PEMRA’s directives.
Based on PEMRA’s directives, all Satellite TV channels aired public service messages regarding the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic as well as the preventive measures individuals can take to keep themselves safe during this critical time.
Moreover, we are continuously issuing advice and educating all Satellite TV licensees to sensitize their teams who are responsible for content creation from airing any objectionable content. A lot more is still in the offing, with electronic media in Pakistan continuing its growth, we have been keeping up with the changes and taking initiatives accordingly be it amendments in laws and policies. One such milestone would Insha’Allah be a regulatory framework for OTT (Over the Top) and Web TV.
S&ST: In recent years, the emergence of social media and video sharing platforms have completely changed the media landscape in the country. With growing internet penetration and availability of cheap handsets the share of digital platforms is likely to exponentially increase as source of news/entertainment. How do you view the future of traditional electronic media in Pakistan?
MSB: As I have mentioned earlier that social media platforms like Web TVs are a big challenge and PEMRA is in the process of framing regulations to bring this regime under the regulatory ambit and to ensure that content being posted on such platforms follows guidelines issued by PEMRA like mainstream broadcast media.
Nevertheless, the future of electronic media is secure and the examples of developed countries are in front of us where digital media could not outclass the conventional media and the electronic media still enjoys credibility. PEMRA has also advised its licensees not to rely on news that are viral on social media. Licensees have been asked to make necessary verifications before airing any news. For discouraging this trend the Authority has taken action against those channels which aired unsubstantiated and unverified news admittedly obtained from digital platforms. PEMRA’s priority is to make the Electronic Media content true, accurate and reliable. Realizing the sensitivity of this issue, most channels have ensured that stricter in-house policies are adopted to curb the spread of potential fake news. TV channels have also improved their gatekeeping tools and are much conscious while airing any news.
S&ST: Pakistan is currently relying on the outdated analogue system for distribution. PEMRA had auctioned DTH licenses back in 2016. When will DTH be launched in Pakistan and why was there such a long delay after the auction?
MSB: PEMRA fully understands the importance of the DTH service and is actively pursuing its launch. The bidding process for the DTH license was completed in the year 2016 and 03 companies were declared as successful bidders for the award of DTH distribution service license. So far, PEMRA has issued a license to one of the successful bidder companies in February 2019. As per direct-to-home distribution service license regulation 2016 and terms and conditions of the license, the licensee is required to start its operation within 01 year from the issuance of the license. Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and lockdown in different countries, the process of import of equipment was severely affected. I am optimistic that DTH services will be launched by the end of the current year and will be available throughout Pakistan.
As far as digitalization process of cable TV networks is concerned, several attempts have been made by PEMRA for complying with the International obligations set by International Telecommunication Union (ITU) but these attempts, unfortunately, went in vain. However, the present government through the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in coordination with PEMRA is working on the National Digitalization Policy of Cable Network and the same will soon be announced after approval of the Federal Cabinet.
S&ST: What are the major challenges that you face in terms of regulating content on electronic media and what sort of violations are most common?
MSB: The biggest challenge for PEMRA is the implementation of PEMRA laws particularly the Code of Conduct 2015. PEMRA is a regulator and its functions do not include censoring of content. Therefore, the onus of producing quality content in compliance with the code of conduct as well as other laws lies on the licensees, which requires self-regulation through effective gatekeeping tools.
The Authority, however, takes cognizance of any violations once any content is aired. Over the years telecast of fake news, hate speech, mudslinging, irresponsible live coverage of unpleasant incidents and controversial subject of dramas have been the major violations. To sensitize our licensees, show cause notices, advices and warnings are issued.
When necessary, punitive actions are also taken by imposing fines, suspending/banning a particular program, or even by suspending a channel for a specific period. We have been carefully observing the trends in the media industry and engaging content creators, producers, writers and directors by sensitizing them on the public concerns on the prevalent themes of Pakistani dramas. Several meetings have been convened in this regard and Insha’Allah soon change will be visible in the drama industry. PEMRA is committed to promote brand Pakistan at all levels and to fulfill these commitments all advertisements casting Indian talent were banned. As a result, all the brands engaged Pakistani talent and now you can witness Pakistani superstars, actors and actresses in the advertisements of leading International brands.
S&ST: In recent years, a perception has been created that media is not free in Pakistan, as the regulator of electronic media what is your take on this?
MSB: This perception is totally incorrect. Media in Pakistan is absolutely free. The constitution of Pakistan guarantees freedom of speech and expression yet with certain restrictions. As regulator, it is our mandate to ensure that the restrictions either imposed under the constitution or under the PEMRA laws especially the Code of Conduct are not ignored or violated. PEMRA strictly operates under the law and tries to educate its licensees to follow the provisions of the Electronic Media (Programs & Advertisement) Code of Conduct 2015 which requires preservation of ideology of Pakistan, Islamic, social, ethical and religious values of the country. It does not allow anyone to demean any individual, community, sect or caste. It requires media persons to be neutral, unbiased and conduct programs in an objective manner rather than becoming a party to any side. Discussion on sub-judice matters is restricted, however the proceedings of a particular case can be telecasted. No one is allowed to air hateful content. Here, I would like to mention that the Honorable Supreme Court of Pakistan has directed several times that PEMRA must implement its Code of Conduct but unfortunately broadcasters consider implementation of Code of Conduct as restrictions.
S&ST: Fake news has emerged as a major issue globally. Pakistan is obviously no different. In fact, the information ministry launched a Twitter handle to quash such fake news. How do you view this issue and what is being done to tackle it?
MSB: Indeed, fake news is a big challenge for regulators all across the world and as I have pointed earlier that the main contributor in spreading fake news is social media. Information on social media is spontaneous and unverified and spreads in the spur of the moment. The mainstream media is always in search of news and at times telecasts the same without any verification. The Twitter handle launched by the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting is a good initiative and would help media as well as the public in verifying news and gathering facts. PEMRA has also undertaken steps to curb this trend by issuing show-cause notices on airing fake news and had imposed fines as well. The channels are much more conscious now, still, a few instances have occurred where fake news was aired but most channels having realized the sensitivity of the issue do not air news unless verified.
S&ST: If we look at Pakistan’s electronic media, we find a lot of news and entertainment channels. But despite great interest in sports in Pakistan, the country still has just one sports channel. In your view what is deterring media houses from venturing into this lucrative market which has a huge audience and what can be done to facilitate establishment of sports channels?
MSB: PEMRA has been enthusiastically pursuing to enlarge the choices available for citizens of Pakistan especially in the sports category as per its mandate.
In pursuance of that, we recently advertised and conducted bidding for broadcast media licenses in the sports category. Five licenses were offered for bidding. One license has recently been awarded to M/s Fast Broadcasting services (SMC-Pvt.) Limited, a Lahore-based company that would start its operations within one year. We are expecting that very soon there will be more sports channels available to the people of Pakistan. Moreover, PEMRA has also issued landing right permission to foreign satellite TV channels in the sports category and in the recent past three landing right permissions were given in the sports category.
S&ST: What sort of legacy would you like to leave behind as the head of PEMRA?
MSB: I would like to see PEMRA as a vibrant and effective organization and its employees working with dynamism and sense of ownership for regulatory enforcement. I hope that the standard of enforcement and compliance to Electronic Media (Program & Advertisement) Code of Conduct 2015 continues with the same vigor as set during my tenure.