THE culture wars appear to be heating up once again as regulators and the superior judiciary wade awkwardly into the realm of media content monitoring and censorship.
The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority has issued a flurry of advisories and warnings to TV channels recently that have focused on the alleged erosion of traditional values and Pakistani culture caused by the broadcasting of so-called inappropriate and culturally insensitive entertainment content. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has asserted that Indian content on Pakistani TV channels undermines Pakistani culture and therefore should not be allowed to air locally.
The interventions by Pemra and the superior judiciary have once again put a spotlight on a complex set of issues: the rights of media creators and distributors versus the sentiments of some media consumers; the imposition of a monolithic state-approved culture in a reasonably diverse society; and moral policing versus upholding the constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights of the people.
At the outset, what is troubling about Pemra’s interventions is that they appear to be arbitrary and subject to the whims of the regulator rather than a consistent enforcement of rules and norms that have been rigorously and transparently evaluated.
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Pemra has a viewer feedback and complaint management system on its website. For the month of December 2018, complaints against 41 satellite TV channels are listed: nearly half the channels have a single complaint lodged against them, while the highest number of complaints registered against a single channel is 22.
While Pemra may not have to wait for viewer complaints, it is striking that censorship measures are being taken in the name of viewers while there is little evidence of mass grievances on its own online system. Moreover, the mere registration of a complaint is not automatically an indication of a legitimate objection.
Pemra’s recent guidelines suggest an interest in moral policing rather than promoting a vibrant, popular and commercially successful local broadcast entertainment industry.
It is also unclear how this country’s TV channels, owned, managed and consumed by Pakistanis, could be undermining its culture — are Pemra’s anonymous bureaucrats and technocrats really the arbiters and custodians of local culture?
Perhaps most striking is that Pemra appears to believe it is operating in a vacuum. In an age where Pakistanis are rushing online and where Indian movies dominate the cinema experience, is Pemra protecting consumers more than it is hurting freedom of choice and commercial creators?
A reassessment is needed.
Published in Dawn, January 11th, 2019