On Thursday, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) barred private broadcaster Geo TV from airing an interview with former Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan after “monitoring” the promotional content aired by the channel following numerous complaints by concerned viewers.
Promotional clips aired by Geo on the night of April 26 and the morning of April 27 showed journalist Saleem Safi interviewing Ehsan for the show Jirga after the militant surrendered to security forces and confessed to his crimes. PEMRA, in a statement available online, called Geo’s intent to broadcast the interview “a clear violation of PEMRA’s directives that it had issued under the National Action Plan and Section 3 (3) of the Electronic Media Code of Conduct, 2015.” PEMRA has promised “strict action” against violators under Section 29 and 30 of the PEMRA Ordinance 2002. Geo did not air the interview as scheduled, following the order.
Under Section 30 of the Ordinance, “The Authority may revoke or suspend the license of a broadcast media or distribution service by an order in writing” if “the licensee has contravened any provision of this Ordinance or rules or regulations.” Section 3 (3) of 2015’s Electronic Media Code of Conduct states that “the licensee shall ensure” that “statements of proscribed organizations or their representatives or members shall not be aired unless such a statement is in an admission which may be in the larger public interest for exposing ideology, abuse of religion or barbarianism provided always that such broadcast does not in any way aid, abet, glorify or give excuse to their means and ways in any shape or form.”
While the entire interview will likely never see the light of day following PEMRA’s ruling, a 2-minute-39-second preview clip appears to show Ehsan in a motel or safe house, based on the whitewashed walls and bright red pillows and cushions visible in the background. In the edited video, the self-confessed terrorist and murder talks with Safi in his signature soft-spoken cadence, referring to the journalist with the honorific ‘sir.’ In the clip, Ehsan narrates his version of the inner workings of the Taliban and how the militants can travel between Pakistan and Afghanistan with relative ease. The video is still available on the Geo TV YouTube channel.
Conventional wisdom holds that Safi could only have been granted access to Ehsan by ISPR, the military’s media wing. However, when asked to justify the reasons behind allowing Geo to interview the former militants spokesman, the ISPR refused to comment. This has raised questions over why security forces felt it was appropriate to allow a TV channel to interview Ehsan in the first place, considering PEMRA’s clear directives on airing such controversial material.
It is likely that if Geo had broadcast the interview, Ehsan would have had an opportunity to justify or explain his heinous crimes. In fact, Ehsan’s “glorification” may not have been the primary concern, but rather an unfortunate byproduct of a public broadcast that could give an “excuse to” his actions. Auarangzeb Khan, the father of a child who lost his life in the Army Public School attack in December 2014, told daily Dawn that coverage of Ehsan’s surrender was physically painful for him. “Please don’t show him on TV. It kills us,” he said. Showcasing militants such as Ehsan, who has gleefully claimed responsibility for brutal atrocities in the past, could easily be seen as a cause of immense grief to families of the thousands killed by the Pakistani Taliban.
PEMRA’s statement cites numerous complaints expressing “anger and anguish” over Geo’s scheduled interview. It says that while the interview had already been flagged for violating broadcasting laws, these complaints through WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, and phone calls had proven the anguish it could cause. The declaration, available in both Urdu and English, gained widespread coverage online and drew praise from various segments of society.
The regulatory body did, however, mention that it had no objection to the broadcast of a confession provided by the military earlier this week. Geo, meanwhile, says it was unfairly targeted by PEMRA. Responding to the “unilateral” ban, the channel says it will “seek legal remedy and pursue what is in the best interest of the public.” The regulatory body has “misinterpreted” the nature of the interview, it added.