Saturday, September 29, 2012

PEMRA: Regulating the taste of people

So, this time Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) is on a mission to define Obscenity. It may be a political ploy and what's the story behind the curtains the managers of TV and Radio channels must be knowing well. Also, the issue of Obscenity may be a covering fire and the intended target is something else, such as editorial independence of the electronic media in Pakistan. Better the electronic media should regulate itself and before the PEMRA comes in to strangulate its freedom!

Many a questions need to be raised about the character and mandate of PEMRA, and a 10 year report card is required to view its role as a facilitator.

The following piece was written in May 2004 and is still relevant:

PEMRA: Regulating the taste of people

The institution of government was founded to protect the life, liberty and property of citizens from the usurpers be they individuals or countries. Or, what purpose could or does it serve? Surely, people did not and do not need somebodies to rule them? But, with the passage of time, various ambitious individuals, elites, representatives of this or that class, and organized political / religious parties, monopolized it to rule the people, to regulate their lives according to their philosophies, ideologies, visions, wishes and tastes. Thus, the institution of government started losing its raison d'etre.

In Pakistan too, the institution of government has become a tool in the hands of such utopian adventurers. As regards the electronic media, first there was the tyranny of the state-sponsored Pakistan Television. People had to watch or listen to what the government wanted them to watch and listen to. Then, there was a bit of liberalization. One or two other channels made their debut under the censorship of the government. But, the advancement in technology played its role in empowering people to have their choice. Dish antenna gave them more freedom, but this freedom was restricted to those who could afford its high price and the license fee levied by the government. It was an innovation on the part of small business people that they started operating various channels available on the dish through cable and brought them within the reach of many a people. This was illegal. As creation is always followed by regulation and taxation, so, the people in the government thought of taxing and regulating it. This is how Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) came to be established on March 1, 2002.

It was mandated to:

1. Improve the standards of information, education and entertainment.

2. Enlarge the choice available to the people of Pakistan in the media for news, current affairs, religious knowledge, art, culture, science, technology, economic development, social sector concerns, music, sports, drama and other subjects of public and national interest.

3. Facilitate the devolution of responsibility and power to the grass-roots by improving the access of the people to mass media at the local and community level; and

4. Ensure accountability, transparency and good governance by optimizing the free flow of information. []

But, the way PEMRA is behaving goes starkly against its mandate. Instead of improving, it is deteriorating the standards of information, education and entertainment. Instead of enlarging, it is restricting the choice available to the people of Pakistan in the media for news, current affairs, religious knowledge, art, culture, science, technology, economic development, social sector concerns, music, sports, drama and other subjects of public and national interest. Instead of facilitating, it is blocking the devolution of responsibility and power to the grass-roots by restricting the access of the people to mass media at the local and community level. And, instead of ensuring accountability, transparency and good governance by optimizing the free flow of information, it is thwarting this process by obstructing the free flow of information.

In addition to the unwelcome requirements for obtaining Cable TV license comprising 8 categories ranging from B-1 to B-8 based on the number of subscribers, PEMRA controls the Cable TV by manipulating the tariff structure. For inclusion of new channel in the list, all the interested parties are required to have to make formal request to the PEMRA followed by a presentation by local agents or channel holders about the contents of program. The most sinister part of PEMRA is its banning of various foreign or particularly Indian TV channels on this or that pretext, and that too totally against the wishes and demand of the people. But, the most glaring example of its going against its own mandate is its ‘List of 54 Cable TV Eligible Foreign Channels’ [] which lets no Cable TV operator act freely to meet the demands of its clients. This is not only a setback to the Cable TV business but an encroachment upon the freedom and choice of the people also.

This list is tagged by conditions such as: that Cable TV operators will have to apply mosaicking to eliminate undesirable segments / parts of the program (parts of programs that are not in conformity with PEMRA program and advertisement codes from eligible channels). The channels in the PEMRA list include 2 religious, 9 news (out of which 2 are in Arabic and 7 in English), 8 educational / information (all in English), 6 kids (all in English), 12 sports, 17 entertainment (out of which 9 or 10 are in English, two in Chinese, one in Bengali and one in Turkish and others) channels. As to Chinese, Turkish and Arabic channels, no doubt people in Pakistan won’t be interested in watching them even if they are given the opportunity to choose to do so. These languages are beyond their comprehension. Although, a little number of people may understand and enjoy most of other news, educational / information, kids, sports and entertainment channels in English (more than 30) but majority of people can have no interest in them.

As this selection of channels by PEMRA does not include Pakistani Urdu and other regional languages channels and which means that people are free, or in this case, forced, to watch them, one is at a loss why other international Urdu channels have not been considered for this list? Clearly, they must have been part of this list for the sole reason that the language spoken and understood on the both sides of the borderline, i.e. in India and Pakistan, is same. But, probably because of the fact that most of such international Urdu channels are based and being telecast from India, and, information ministry of Pakistan has a history of banning the Indian channels on the pretext of countering the cultural invasion, political propaganda, and protecting our national values, all of these channels have been banned. This is inadvertently described by information policy makers in Pakistan as an act of patriotism.

But, on the other hand, we have a very different story to relate. When during the 80s first ever Indian movie was to be telecast from an Indian channel and which could be viewed in the city of Lahore, there was shortage of TV sets and antennas in the market of Lahore, and there were too many people in Lahore landed from other cities to watch that movie. Months back when this time the ban on Indian channels was imposed, people especially women launched a vehement protest campaign to assert their right to watch channels of their choice. Not only are people to suffer this ban due to the unavailability of entertainment they want to have but this time it is affecting badly the business of cable TV operators also. They lodged their protest by issuing statements to the press and making representations to the concerned quarters, and striking and closing down the telecasting of any channels whatsoever.

All of this has proved in vain and the information policy bosses seem in no mood to lift this notorious ban on Indian channels. And, all of this is happening in the face of present SAARC summit and unprecedented friendly gestures on the part of both governments. In view of the ongoing attempt at normalization of relations between India and Pakistan, keeping this ban imposed is unintelligible. Not only this creates an impression that the government of Pakistan lacks a consistent and coherent policy towards its neighboring country but lets the doubts lurk as to its sincerity and trust in the ongoing process of normalization.

Most of all, this ban on Indian or, for that matter, on any other media, is a stark violation of the freedom of individual citizens to enjoy their lives as they wish. This forces them to watch and listen to what the busybodies of PEMRA want them to and amounts to imposing a special ‘taste’ in them whereas it is the people the taste of whom these busybodies of PEMRA should follow. As no regulatory body has the right to regulate the life of people but they themselves, controlling the taste of people for this or that reason is quite fascistic an act and is clearly beyond the mandate of PEMRA. What PEMRA needs to do is to look after the interests of the people such as: that Cable TV operators are providing what they promised to their clients and the quality of their service; and to redress the grievances / complaints of the people against the Cable TV operators, etc. Other than this, PEMRA has no right to regulate the taste of people; rather it should regulate its own taste to meet its mandate.

[This article was written in May 2004.]

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