YET again, Pemra has waded into the territory of attempting to sanitise our screens of not just particular content, but of concepts themselves. This is not the first time that the authority has issued ‘advice’ regarding the broadcasting of satire. And, indeed, its repeated calls for TV channels to develop more robust in-house editorial oversight mechanisms is warranted, given a general absence of self-regulation among media houses when it comes to enforcing codes of conduct — which often result in the broadcast of all manner of unethical content, from the invasion of privacy to defamation to hate speech. However, by attempting to cast itself as an arbiter of acceptable forms of humour, Pemra not only exposes itself to mockery but also reveals the antipathy of public figures and institutions towards criticism.
Tolerance of satire (or lack thereof) is a good indicator of the health of a functional democracy. It is no coincidence that, throughout history, authoritarian figures have sought to censor and suppress satire, considering the genre’s unique ability to make people laugh at — and even question — the sophistry, ulterior motives and imperiousness of those in power. The world over, including in Pakistan, lampooning public figures is a time-honoured tradition for precisely this purpose: to pull the flimsy scaffolding from under received wisdoms, to throw up impediments in the path of cults of personality, to act as a countervailing force against abuses of power. At its best and most sharply honed, satire expresses the fundamental optimism of dissenters and their desire for change. In issuing such overbearing notifications, Pemra is sending a message that conflates respect for authority with the fear of it. But seeking to preserve either through suppression or intimidation is bound to fail. Comics will continue to find ways to challenge and subvert such repressive policies, even if it comes down to offering “praise undeserved as “satire in disguise”. The medium is designed to make the powerful uncomfortable. It wouldn’t be funny — or true — if it didn’t.
Published in Dawn, June 15th, 2019