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Bizarre regulatory framework distorts media landscape

The regulatory framework governing Pakistan’s media sector has ended up engendering a media landscape that abounds with regulatory exceptions and prevents the professional development of the sector, discourages market fair-play and wantonly averts transparency and accountability. This restricts diversity in ownership and opens it to political vulnerabilities and potential manipulation of the media market. 

Different sets of rules for different players (private vs public) rather than a level playing field

Pakistan’s media regulatory framework is peculiar in its very nature, structure, mandate and application. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), which is mandated to regulate the radio, television and distribution services of electronic media in the country, can oversee only private sector media. The PEMRA Ordinance excludes existing and future operations of the government-controlled public sector electronic media from the purview of the regulator. By virtue of this exclusion, the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation (PBC), Pakistan Television (PTV) and Shalimar Recording and Broadcasting Company (SRBC) are free to operate and expand without any regulatory oversight.

These media establishments are operating under completely different sets of rules as compared to the private sector media. This exclusion of the state-run media from the purview of the PEMRA gives the government an undue advantage over private sector regulated media and distorts competition in the market, helping state-owned media to cannibalize the market from independent media. Moreover, private sector media, which is manly dependent on official advertisements, is often vulnerable to editorial manipulation through expansion of ‘non-regulated public sector media’ without any regulatory check. Hence, different sets of rules for different players in the market are against the essence of ‘level playing field’ in the sector and defeat the very of purpose of market regulations.

Focus on content regulators by media regulators rather than industry facilitation and supporting an enabling media environment

In principle, the sector-specific regulators such as PEMRA regulating the TV, radio and cable media, the Pakistan Telecom Authority (PTA) regulating the internet and telecom sectors, and the Press Council of Pakistan (PCP) regulating the print media are required to facilitate an enabling environment for all stakeholders in the sector. They are also mandated to ensure a fair competition in the market and provide multiple options to the consumers for quality services in the sector. Last not least they are expected to ensure that there is no ‘undue concentration of ownership’ by one or a few actors in the market.

However, judging from the MOM data, it appears that ownership even in the private media sector in Pakistan is heavily concentrated in a few hands. Unbridled ‘cross-media ownership’ has given more than 68% market control among the Top 40 media entities in terms of audience domination to only eight of market players. PEMRA in particular seems to have failed in ensuring ‘level playing field’ and ‘fair competition’ in the market.

On the contrary, instead of regulating the industry, the regulators have traditionally concentrated on content monitoring and censoring media on the behest of the state institutions and governments. This is evident from the fact that PEMRA has issued hundreds of show cause notices to TV channels on airing ‘objectionable’ content and imposed penalties thereon since 2017. However, there is no such notice taken by the authority on growing undue concentration of media ownership and monopolistic market domination.

Similarly, PTA, the telecom regulator, seems to be more active on blocking websites and online content instead of initiating and expediting the process of renewal of expired licenses for cellular companies in the country. The PCP, the print media regulator, on the other hand, is known for restricting its focus on content regulation and censorship and not taken any initiative to ‘regulate’ the industry at all.

Highly influenced by the government rather than exercising independence

Autonomy and independence are essential characteristics of an effective regulator.  The regulatory authority must be financially autonomous and independent from any ‘regulatory capture’ either by the state or the industry. However, it is interesting that two of the media regulators in Pakistan – PEMRA and PTA – have received massive revenues from the government during the past five years. For example, in the financial year 2016-17, PTA showed an official budget of PKR 30.9 billion (USD 292.8 million) in its audit report for the said year. PEMRA received PKR 816.9 million (USD 8.1 million) during the same period. These high cash values from the government instead of the market make them vulnerable to official control.   

Nevertheless, despite massive revenue gains over the years, including steep license fee, these regulators have traditionally succumbed to the influence of the government rather than be dictated by the growing needs of an evolving media sector. This is mainly because of the fact that the government holds discretionary authority to appoint their board members. There is no space in the law for democratic process such as parliamentary oversight of these appointments. As a result, most of the board members of these regulators are handpicked by the government. Moreover, both of the regulators are under statutory obligation to comply with the directions of the federal government.

The case of the PCP, the print media regulator, is relatively different as its board members, other than the Chairman, come from the sector. However, the PCP has been struggling in asserting its authority over the newspaper due to:

  1. Limited resources and funds – only PKR 40 million (USD 400,000) for total expenditures of the Council were allocated in 2016-17; and
  2. no role in licencing of the newspapers industry.            

All this has made these regulators either ineffective or best cases of ‘regulatory capture’ by State. The situation becomes critical when the entire market is facing undue concentration of media ownership and cross media ownership in particular (link Findings: cross-ownership). Control of a ‘a few’ players is much easier than many. Hence, the cross media ownership and regulatory capture by state has given massive control to the government over the information and freedom of expression.

'Undeclared', 'unregulated' and ‘invisible’ media

In principle, all the media in Pakistan must be regulated by independent and autonomous regulatory framework without any exception. However, alongside the state-run electronic media and PEMRA-regulated private electronic media, the media landscape in Pakistan reveals the presence of a major footprint of 'undeclared' and 'unregulated' media. FM 89.4 is one such example, which is neither licensed by PEMRA nor owned or operated by the state-owned Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation (PBC) – a public funded statutory body to run Radio Pakistan (AM / MW transmissions) and a network of FM radio stations in the country.

The presence of ‘undeclared and unregulated’ media seemingly owned by the security establishment but not officially confirmed by anyone not only amount to distortion in the media landscape through accessing massive share in the revenue (private market and government advertisements) but also disregards statutory regulations.

While the regulatory laws exclude state-run media from its purview, the regulator has failed to extend its regulatory arm to this ‘undeclared and unregulated’ media, which is operating mysteriously without even having apparent linkages with the state-run PBC or PTV. Resultantly, the lack of professed identity manipulates the right to information enshrined in Pakistan’s constitution under Article 10A.

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