The Times of India
Interview with Nisar A. Memon, Information minister of Pakistan
Two days before the recently held meeting of Saarc information ministers in Islamabad, Nisar A Memon was appointed Pakistan’s minister for information and media development. In an interview with Siddharth Varadarajan, he defended his government’s media policies, including the ban on Indian channels. and though he appreciated the fact that India’s I&B minister, Sushma Swaraj, came to Pakistan, he regretted she did not have a bilateral meeting with him:
How do you rate the interview Sushma Swaraj gave to PTV?
I have great respect for her. She replied to the questions very clearly. It was a good interview. Given that she has been in politics for more than 25 years, nothing less was expected of her! At the same time, I think the interview has given her a chance to have a better understanding of what the Pakistani people outside of the government think. There will be a better appreciation by her of the common man’s view over here, that they want the issue of Kashmir to be redressed, they want better relations, they want to move forward. I hope this interview will help her to bring this perception to the Indian government.
When you come to Delhi in 2003 for the next Saarc information ministers’ meeting, do you expect to be given similar time for a live interview on Doordarshan?
Obviously I will not ask to be interviewed but if I am asked, I will not want to deny that request. After all, it is my job as information minister. (Incidentally), I would have liked Sushma Swaraj to call on me as information minister, as some of the other Saarc ministers did. And I should say that I am rather disappointed that she did not. If she had asked for such a meeting, I would have been delighted.
Why has the Pakistani government banned the transmission of Indian television channels?
I think Pakistan finds it rather difficult to see that a cultural onslaught can take place. In any case, from what I gather, India should review the appearance of some of the commentators. They are full of satire. When journalists get involved emotionally with their government’s policies, they hurt the interests of their own country. They should be emotional about their country by all means but not their government. So this ban has been imposed because there was so much of negative barrage. Pakistan felt that if you can close your airspace, we can do things too. It takes two to tango. I feel that (during the Saarc meeting in Islamabad) we lost a bit of an opportunity. Swaraj should have focused on improving bilateral relations, tackling some of these bilateral issues, on the sidelines. It would have helped the two countries. In any case, you have also banned PTV in india.
Well, it was banned during Kargil, and now, only in Gujarat, by the state government. And the Indian media has criticised these things.
But PTV was covering the riots there like anyone else. I have great respect for India as a secular state but I am disappointed it has failed to protect its minorities. But I want to say that the more Indian propaganda tries to paint Pakistan black, the worse it will be for India. Such things will only fuel religious extremism. Muslims will react negatively to such portrayals and Hindu extremists will get further encouragement.
Isn’t it ironic that you are talking of Saarc-level cooperation on information and media when the channels of one country are not allowed to be shown in another?
Isn’t it ironic that we had a Saarc meeting and because of the overflight ban everyone had to take such a long route?
People in Pakistan have criticised the ban on Indian channels, saying that doesn’t the government think they are mature enough to make up their minds about what is right and wrong...
But there are also many people here who say why are we even allowing Indian journalists to come to Pakistan at a time like this? I want to keep the channels of communication open. But can you imagine, the correspondent of the Associated Press of Pakistan in Delhi — his visa has not been renewed. I raised the matter with Sushma Swaraj but she said it was the foreign ministry’s affair. Here, I am working to get more visas. Let us see what Sushmaji does.
How long will the ban on Indian channels continue?
The ban was imposed before I became minister. I have not reviewed the ban yet, to see whether we still need it, and if so, for how long.
The dismissal of Shaheen Sehbai as Editor of The News and the Sindh government’s decision to shut down two newspapers, Kainat and Janbaz, have brought the issue of freedom of the press in Pakistan under focus. Recently, you were yourself quoted as saying there is vulgarity on PTV, that people are misusing the freedom given to them. Don’t you think such things undermine a free media?
The media in Pakistan is very free and it will remain free. We have no intention to curb freedom. We are evolving a code of conduct in consultation with the newspapers themselves. As far as my own remarks are concerned, I did not say there was vulgarity. What I said was that there are some programmes which could affect the sensitivities of the people. Not everyone in pakistan is liberal or conservative. We want moderation. Nothing else was intended.
As far as Kainat and Janbaz are concerned, they published some very wrong personal information about the President. The Sindh government acted against them. We took it up. I spoke to the President himself and he did not want any particular action taken. Then I spoke with the Sindh government and said that if they have tendered an apology, we should move on, It would not be fair to create an environment where people feel freedom is being threatened. Now, you will be happy to know, the ban has been lifted.
There are reports that the proposed Press Council and Newspaper Registration ordinances have run into trouble in the cabinet with some ministers saying these laws are ‘‘toothless’’, that the government won’t be able to control the press.
In any discussion, all kinds of views will be there. The media should focus on decisions. The Pakistan government is determined to implement press laws in consultation with representative bodies. President Musharraf also wants to ensure there should be no power in the hands of officials which can be used to coerce the press. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority is supposed to create the basis for an independent electronic media here.
But critics feel that because the ordinance says ‘‘PEMRA will be bound to follow policy directives issued by the government’’, this will rob the authority of its independent character.
Private channels can start as soon as they come forward.
The media is open everywhere, so why not in Pakistan?
I have not had a chance to study the PEMRA ordinance so i cannot comment on the specific criticism.