Pemra's mantra: See no evil

Updated 12 Nov, 2016 09:32am

In the escalating war on freedom of expression on both sides of the Indo-Pak border, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) issued a warning to TV channels to comply with the long-standing quota restriction on the airing of Indian content — or be ready to face steep fines.

The Pakistani state is understandably angry at what it sees as a squeeze on its global image and its regional interests by India, as a consequence of the acrimonious, deteriorating relationship. This state anger is manifesting itself in several ways, including a growing intolerance for all things Indian in Pakistan, especially the entertainment world.

This climate of rising xenophobia forced cinema owners and film distributors in Pakistan to grudgingly ban otherwise wildly popular Bollywood films, hurting their businesses in the interest of the country’s ‘honour’. This was a riposte to the banning of Pakistani artists from Indian productions.

Under Pemra regulations, a licensee channel can broadcast a maximum of 10 per cent of airtime content that is produced outside the country — which translates to two hours and 40 minutes in a 24 hour cycle. Of this 10 per cent, a maximum of six per cent can be Indian-produced content.

Pakistani broadcasters, especially entertainment channels, air more than six per cent Indian content, a breach that is usually tolerated. But two developments have drastically worsened the climate of intolerance. First, in an unusual step, the board of directors of Pemra authorised its chairman – Absar Alam, a former journalist with a progressive bent – the decidedly regressive powers to unilaterally revoke the licence of a channel if it violates the content airtime restrictions.

The choice here is not between patriotism and professionalism. Defending the people’s right to choose what they watch is imperative.

Second, in an apparent self-consideration that even this step of disallowing the procedural right of appeal to a licensee was inadequate, Alam announced that he had written to the government to approve a blanket ban on all Indian content on Pakistani TV channels. The government instantly obliged and on October 19, Pemra banned Indian content altogether.

These steps have consequences that are disturbing at many levels.

Firstly, by undertaking these steps in disregard to existing regulations, some of which are already regressive, Pemra has assumed the role of content regulator rather than an industry standards regulator. As a regulator of the private broadcast sector, the primary role of Pemra is to safeguard the interests of the consumers against exploitation by the industry and the state, and to improve technical broadcast quality and standards.

However, while state interests change, public interests do not. By choosing to side with the state, whose current policy of anger is likely temporary and will fade with time, the regulator has not only breached the trust of the citizens and their choices and the interests of businesses that are legal and have made extensive investments, but has also put a squeeze on the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and right to information as guaranteed by the Constitution.

Secondly, proposing a ban on Indian content on TV altogether is patently discriminatory and incompatible with broad practice when there is no similar blanket ban on Indian content across all media, including print media, film and music markets, which continue to function without a fuss or any artificially pumped-up patriotism.

Disallowing the universal principle of rights to reply and defence against alleged violations of regulations and laws translates into a dictatorial bent and will convert Pemra into an extension of the government, instead of an independent authority defending people’s choices and strengthening the broadcast sector’s professionalism.

The choice here is not between patriotism and professionalism. Defending the people’s right to choose what they watch is imperative. Censorship should lie with the people, not the regulator, and the best censorship is the TV remote in the hands of the viewers.

An earlier version of this article was published in the Herald's November 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is a media and political analyst.