Pemra’s latest assault

Updated 03 Feb 2020

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The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.
The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.

LAST month, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority invited comments on a draft resolution on Web TV and OTT (over the top TV). A cursory or detailed look lead to the same conclusion: rather than supposedly providing a level-playing field to mainstream TV and Web TV, this is part of the continued onslaught on the fundamental rights of freedom of speech, press freedom, and the right to information as guaranteed by Article 19 and 19-A of the Pakistani Constitution.

Read: Senate body takes notice of Pemra’s proposal to regulate web TVs

After the failure of the government to go ahead with legislation regarding the PMRA (a single authority to regulate all types of media), the proposal seeks to bypass the legislative process required in parliament by introducing a regulation — something that is also doomed to fail given the difficult, illegal and impractical proposition of bringing internet content under the purview of the TV regulator.

The proposed regulation also speaks of Pemra coordinating with the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority to immediately block content that violates licensing terms, effectively trying to delegitimise existing online content producers. As eager as the state seems to be to censor online content, it keeps missing the point. Ever-evolving advanced technology renders blocks on the internet ineffective because there are several easy ways to circumvent online censorship.

The only type of regulation that makes sense for internet-based content is self-regulation.

The internet is a public good, declared a fundamental right by the UN Human Rights Council, and equal access and usage of it must be free from state interference. The proposed regulation seeks to require anyone earning through video content on the internet to apply for a licence from Pemra for Rs5 million, and Rs10m in case of Web TV for news or current affairs. It clubs together websites or web platforms where content is “likely to compete with linear TV” and only excludes non-commercial and non-economic user-generated content.

The proposed regulation uses confusing language to define and differentiate between Web TV and OTT TV, and is full of internal contradictions. It defines Web TV as “the equivalent of a traditional broadcast service whereby linear content can be streamed live and the service can be accessed free of cost by simply visiting the URL (website) of the service provider” with revenue generated through advertisements. It defines OTT TV as “predominantly a non-linear model whereby recorded content of various genres can be accessed only if you subscribe to the service, which require payment of a monthly subscription fee”.

The only type of regulation that makes sense for internet-based content is self-regulation. This is because by virtue of its nature, consumption of content on the internet is different than that on television. Internet-based content requires an active pursuit of content one wants to view: there is a search for a specific website, and then for specific content on it.

Television is fundamentally different, where only the click of a button on the remote can land one on each channel. Trying to create equivalency between the two, and getting Pemra — the regulator for television — to be responsible for video content on the internet is a lost cause, apart from being beyond the legal purview of the regulatory authority.

If protecting fundamental rights is not a priority for the state, there are several economic reasons why the proposal for such a regulation should be scrapped. Such a regulation will force international OTT TV companies to exit the country rather than invest further. It does not make sense for international OTT TV providers to set up infrastructure in the country as the licensing terms propose, when the nature of the internet allows for it to be easily administered remotely, instead of awaiting ‘surprise visits’ from Pemra officials at their offices. The public proposal for the regulation itself admits that such a model does not exist internationally where licensees for Web TV or OTT TV are made to pay for a licence.

For a government that is trying to project a digital Pakistan (the prime minister is inviting top tech executives to invest in the country) such a regulation is like shooting oneself in the foot. The internet enables young entrepreneurs to start small media companies at low cost, allows content creators and artists to earn through their content on the internet, and enables a much larger segment of the population to express themselves through internet video platforms while earning from it.

This regulation would kill the existing web-based video content industry and any future potential ventures that the government should be encouraging, not to mention exacerbate the already alarming brain drain that the country has been facing due to high unemployment.

As the project of censoring critical voices in print and TV media seems to have been more or less successful, a lot of anchors, journalists, and commentators have started making use of the internet to record shows and provide their analysis. The specific attack on them is obvious by the higher licence fee of Rs10m for news and current affairs Web TV channels as opposed to Rs5m for ‘non-news’ Web TV. It is as if the state is saying that only the wealthy with capital to spare can provide news and analyse current affairs.

Because Pemra’s proposed regulation seeks to overstep the TV regulator’s legal purview, further trample on the freedom of speech, press, and right to information, and create barriers to entry for tech and media entrepreneurs, such a proposal must immediately be scrapped. A creative and digital economy must be encouraged in Pakistan where young people can use opportunities to harness technology in order to create jobs when they are unable to find any for themselves. Critical voices must be encouraged and their feedback taken into account for policy practices in the country rather than silencing, pulling financial plugs, and encouraging an exodus from the country as punishment for dissenting.

The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.

usama@bolobhi.org

Twitter: @UsamaKhilji

Published in Dawn, February 2nd, 2020