IN an effort to mould the narrative, and prevent “undesirable” opinions from making it to the airwaves, Pemra has warned TV channels not to give a platform to “zealots” and “hatemongers”. In an Orwellian edict, quite obviously targeted at further shrinking the space available to the PTI and its sympathisers, it has referred to the May 9 violence, and has urged the electronic media to promote national harmony. The electronic media regulator says that giving space to “hatemongers” will end up “polluting innocent minds of the public”, and has called for a media boycott of those who damaged the country’s “peace and tranquillity”. It is apparent that these instructions have come from powerful quarters, and are a thinly disguised warning to the media to stay in line.
There is no shortage of actual zealots and hatemongers in Pakistan who air toxic sectarian, violent and divisive views that qualify as hate speech. However, applying these labels to political actors is debatable. While the May 9 violence cannot be condoned, the question is, who will decide who falls within the overly broad definition of ‘zealot’ and ‘hatemonger’? Will it be section officers at Pemra, officials within the information ministry, or other quarters? The fact is that blackouts, boycotts and bans targeting undesirable political actors have failed to work in the chequered history of this country, and are likely to fail this time around as well. Of course, there can be no space for the glorification of violence and hatred on the airwaves and in print. But using legal tools and arguments designed to prevent extremists from propagating their views in order to cancel political parties and individuals is a disingenuous strategy. Moreover, while the state can attempt to silence the media, taming social media is next to impossible, unless it resorts to the ham-fisted tactic of shutting down the internet. Pemra needs to revisit this decision and not abuse its authority to silence political opposition. Moreover, it is strange how the ruling PDM parties have become accessories in this move to enforce censorship. Many of them — particularly the PPP and PML-N — have been at the receiving end of official and unofficial bans and blackouts previously. It is sad that these supposed votaries of democracy and the sanctity of the vote have today acquiesced as a political rival is silenced.
Published in Dawn, June 3rd, 2023