The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) recently announced a complete ban on the airing of Indian content. This vigour in enforcing old and new regulatory measures for television and radio channels in Pakistan is stimulated by multiple factors:
Firstly – simply – this is in reaction to xenophobic measures taken in India, such as ending the screening of hugely popular Pakistani drama serials and banning Pakistani artists from performing there. The move is also in compliance with covert and overt pressures for action from the government and sections of the media and society.
Secondly, in view of the abject failure and unwillingness of media owners and cable TV distributors to practice self-regulation through the Pakistan Broadcasters Association and other forums, minimal new activism by the official regulator became unavoidable.
Lastly, in view of the excessive haste with which the Sindh and Punjab high courts issue stay orders to suspend the enforcement of PEMRA’s actions against violations by media owners and cable distributors, this is a belated attempt to demonstrate authority on a subject on which high courts are likely to be reluctant to promptly issue stay orders.
PEMRA’s 14-year history is a curious mixture of frenetic activity and wilful apathy — order and anarchy. Activity and orderliness are reflected in the fact that PEMRA quite quickly facilitated the the transformation of the electronic media landscape from the state monopolies of Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation and Pakistan Television to about 300 channels today: 143 FM commercial radio channels; 45 non-commercial (campus-based) FM channels; 89 Pakistan-based satellite TV channels; 23 foreign TV channels with landing rights; and one IPTV (internet protocol) channel operated by the Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited.
Over 3,838 licenced cable TV distributors are also authorised to broadcast three to five in-house, CD-content based channels. In effect, this means we have a minimum of about 16,000 analogue TV channels. Monitoring so many channels is beyond logistics and administrative capacity.
This anarchy is self-created, so wilful apathy comes into play.
Having itself created a monster of numbers, PEMRA did not know how to manage the enforcement process. To make regulation fair and stable, the swift implementation of the Recommendations by the Media Commission, appointed by the Supreme Court in 2013, is required. PEMRA’s latest activism is – partially – a welcome move in this direction.
The writer is a former senator and federal information minister.