Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra), once again, is in the spotlight because of its stance and directions on indecency, obscenity, political and social satire, and undue criticism on the ruling elite in talk shows. The Authority has also announced a ban on re-enactment of crime shows and programmes where channels raid places in the name of investigative journalism — “to uphold the sanctity of (upcoming) Holy month of Ramzan and do not telecast anything against its sanctity,” states the Pemra advisory to television channels.
In its May 10 notice to a private tv channel, the Authority has asked for an explanation of a couple of scenes on child sexual abuse in the May 8 episode of a play Udaari. It has expressed outrage on the scene and declared it highly unethical and beyond Pakistani social values.
In her defence, Momina Duraid, producer Udaari, had said the topic and scene was “responsibly carved… with prime focus on educating our public and children for a cause. We expect our regulatory bodies to encourage us rather [than] object to it.”
The social media was abuzz with criticism of Pemra as bad regulator and ‘censorship machine’.
“The terms ‘obscenity’, ‘vulgarity’ and ‘indecency’ assume different meanings in different countries and different societies, depending on their stage of socio-economic and political development. Since we live in a global village it is becoming increasingly difficult to arrive at one single meaning of these terms,” says M. Ziauddin, senior journalist.
He suggests we should leave the meaning of such terminologies to the judgement of professional editors. “No properly educated media professional who knows laws and cultural norms of the country will violate the basic principles. Dramas need to be allowed the concession of taking artistic liberties for the sake of art and not for appealing to viewers’ carnal desires,” he says, pointing out that those who oppose honouring Manto’s work as classical literature would find it impossible to accept such liberties.
Raza Rumi, writer and analyst, says Pemra’s recent measures have come in the wake of increased criticism that the media regulator is a toothless body. “While regulation is essential for media, efforts to ban and censor are counterproductive and in fact a dangerous trend for journalism. As it is there is unstated censorship on a number of issues (Balochistan, on-ground reporting from Fata, and some religious issues for instance), and the list grows with banning crime shows.”
He adds, the media regulator is taking the easy way out by hitting on populist causes, such as “observing decency during Ramzan”.
He feels that censorship by any means is detrimental to the evolution of a democratic and information culture that has eluded Pakistan. “Despite the mushroom growth of channels, newspaper journalists and editors face multiple layers of censorship and muzzling.”
According to Rumi, the best way is to have a broad-based commission led by civil society and media practitioners who can create a comprehensive set of guidelines and standards and remove arbitrariness from this process. “In an ideal environment there should be no restrictions but given Pakistan’s constitutional and legal regime and the infancy of media we need to set down standards and enable media houses to adhere.”
Another notice issued to a tv channel recently states that actress and model, Qandeel Baloch, used “indecent” and “unethical” language for the prime minister.
Last week, the Supreme Court of Pakistan also sought a comprehensive reply from the Pemra and Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) for showing “objectionable” and “obscene” tv programmes.
The current code of conduct (2015), among other points, emphasises that a tv channel license shall ensure that “no content is aired which is against the Islamic values, ideology of Pakistan or founding fathers of the nation including Quaid-i-Azam and Dr Allama Muhammad Iqbal; incites or condones dislodgement of democratic setup against the command of the constitution of Pakistan, provided that discussions on improvement of democracy shall constitute a fair comment; and contains anything indecent, obscene or pornographic.”
Wajahat Masood, writer and columnist, says, “Public discourse has its own dynamics and cannot be extraneously regulated. The function of the state is to extend protection to all citizens when they are observing the law of the land. However, it is not for the state to define the direction and character of the discourse”.
He believes that art and literature are all about extending the horizons of human discourse. “The state authorities, like Pemra, are bound to go astray when they arrogate the right to define a collective discourse of society. The subject, content, and argument of discourse are the prerogative of the artist. Even law of the land is subject to the dictates of public discourse. All legislation is informed by contemporary state of comprehension and sensibility.”
While elaborating his point of view further, he adds that that is why we say law is always subject to amendment and state legislation has to follow the lines discovered and endorsed by human intellect.
The debate on freedom of expression, obscenity and indecency and the role of electronic media regulatory authority has been long and winding in the country. In 2012, one Pemra campaign urged tv channels to follow the generally accepted standards of decency, morality and ethics. Back then, the PML-N moved a resolution in the National Assembly to show concern over the display of obscenity and indecency on tv. The resolution aimed to “protect Pakistan’s social and religious values in line with the teachings of Islam and the Constitution of Pakistan and to take measures that Pakistani society remains secure from the menace of obscenity and vulgarity.”
Masood says such efforts by Pemra amount to artificially regulating the artistic activities in society which are bound to fail and will inevitably play in the hands of vested interests. “Pakistan is wriggling under a conspiracy of male chauvinism, militaristic paradigm, big money, and inherited status. The state needs to underscore individual freedoms and citizens’ equality. And if they want to impose particular values, they will have to debate and define laws and values. Laws should not be kept blanket before taking any criminal action under them,” he says.
Pemra needs to be liberated from the government if it is to be taken seriously. A bipartisan parliamentary body to constitute a board of governors made up of members from a cross-section of society with adequate representation of gender and profession is the only way forward. This board should be responsible for selecting the right person to head the Authority. This person with a fixed tenure should be accountable to the board and the board should be accountable to the bipartisan committee.
“Under the constitution the media is barred from criticising the judiciary and the defence services. This makes the job of the watchdogs doubly difficult because both these institutions have at times (the second one rather permanently) occupied the slot of the executive. This is one very important reason why the media feels that its freedom has been permanently curtailed,” says M. Ziauddin.
Also, he adds, “while Pemra laws are not so anachronistic, any action, right or wrong, taken by it is perceived as a move to impose censorship by the government because instead of being a statutory body autonomous of the government, it is a government department subservient to the information ministry.”