Islamabad: On Monday, the opposition in the Senate blocked the passage of a bill that would give Pakistan Electronic Media Regulation Authority (PEMRA) the ability to oversee employee salary-payments at TV channels.
The PEMRA Amendment Bill sought to give the regulatory body authority to act against TV channels deferring payments to employees. Senator Faisal Javed, the mover of the bill, said it would ensure the signing, renewal ad extension of contracts with media channels and their employees, and offer protection of jobs and wages to working journalists.
The opposition rejected the bill on the basis of the possibility of misuse of authority by PEMRA.
Pakistan People Party (PPP)’s Raza Rabbani said he did not doubt the intention behind the bill. However, he said that “PEMRA has a record of suppressing the truth,” referring to censorship attempts of the press in the country in recent times.
Mr Rabbani further stated that freedom of press had been curtailed in the country, with journalists often being forced into compliance with government through pressure tactics.
Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N)’s Senator Pervaiz Rashid also opposed the passage of the bill.
Soon after, the opposition staged a walkout from the Senate after an altercation with the Minister for Information. The PEMRA Bill was not passed.
This came at the time when the media regulatory body has been under criticism for attempts at institutional overreach. Earlier this year, attempts to bring web content under PEMRA oversight were condemned by the public. While PEMRA exists to regulate the broadcast industry, increased incidents of arbitrary television censorship and policing of digital content point to the tightening of freedom of press and expression in the country.
However, attempts to regulate and oversee the contractual obligations of news organizations towards their employees are a necessary tool to safeguard the rights of journalists. Delayed or withheld payments to employees remains a common occurrence that is unaccounted for in the journalism industry in Pakistan.
Safeguards against this already exist within the Constitution, under which non-payment of salaries to employees is illegal. However, laws to protect employees must be actively implemented through regular oversight and accountability.
A journalist, speaking under anonymity, said: “Media houses have employees over the barrel. Mass lay-offs at several established organisations has meant that those journalists that have their jobs are desperate to keep their positions, and they are willing to make compromises. No cases have gone to court because the parties usually settle, and no successful class-action suits against media houses have happened either.”
“The government has said repeatedly that it has made payment of due advertisement revenue to media houses conditional on employees getting paid, but this has never been followed up on or enforced,” he added.
Attention towards employee rights in journalism is a need of the hour, and the government is responsible for ensuring compliance to law by media houses. Instead of relegating this important task to a media content regulatory body, thereby empowering it beyond its intended jurisdiction, there must be attempts to assign a separate oversight body, like a dedicated ombudsman, to ensure the protection of journalists’ rights in Pakistan.