Netizens mostly supporters of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) came down hard on the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) for allowing live telecast of PML-N supremo Mian Nawaz Sharif’s address on TV channels in connection with flood relief efforts in the country. The ground for the criticism is that Mian Nawaz Sharif has been declared an absconder by the court while the PEMRA has imposed a ban on the broadcast of speeches, interviews and public addresses by absconders and proclaimed offenders through a letter issued on October 1, 2020. Back in 2019, before flying to the UK, Mr. Sharif had given an undertaking to the Lahore High Court to return to Pakistan within four weeks or as soon as he is declared healthy and fit to travel by doctors. He was also given a bail in the Al-Azizia Mills corruption case in which he was serving seven-year imprisonment in Lahore’s high-security KotLakhpat jail. Since his departure to the UK in November 2019, he has not returned to Pakistan despite efforts by the PTI government to bring him back so that he could undergo the remaining prison sentence.
Though putting curbs on freedom of speech is against democratic norms, yet the PEMRA has been found of violating its own order in the Nawaz Sharif case. Interestingly, Nawaz Sharif’s speech was actively covered by the country’s leading news channels, including the state-owned PTV. In this scenario, the role of PEMRA is questionable. Being a media watchdog authority, it is the responsibility of PEMRA to act itself against the provision of airtime to court convicts. PEMRA needs to clarify its position because such examples can set a bad precedent. At a time when Nawaz Sharif was allowed to make a live speech, a PEMRA ban has also been in place against the live telecast of speeches by PTI chief Imran Khan. So, allowing airtime to Nawaz Sharif and banning live speeches of Imran Khan puts a question mark on the neutrality of the authority. State institutions do not need to become a party in such cases. Instead of becoming a tool of vengeance for political parties, the PEMRA needs to act as per law. A regulator that is incapable of regulating without being pushed by the judiciary is surely a waste of time and resources. Better to use such scarce resources on better things than a sleepwalking institution.