Why embark on a lost war?
HOW would you react to an advertisement offering employment to ‘an ordinary man of normal temperament’? Would you apply for the job? It may sound dull but it could be exciting.
Why? Well, the advertiser may be the Pakistan Electronic Media Authority (Pemra) whose proposed rules for the electronic media include a paragraph which offers a unique and brand new definition/interpretation of the word ‘indecent’.
“…[W]hatsoever may amount to any incentive, sensuality and excitement of impure thoughts in the mind of an ordinary man of normal temperament, and has the tendency to deprave or corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influence, and which are deemed to be to such immoral influence, and which are deemed to be detrimental to public morals and calculated to produce a pernicious effect, in depraving and debauching the mind o[f] persons …”
So, to judge whether a media organisation is guilty of carrying indecent content, wouldn’t Pemra have to employ an ordinary man (what about ordinary women?) of normal temperament who’d have to watch TV and in turn experience some of the listed emotions for a case to be made?
This isn’t an attempt to be facetious about a serious issue but just to give you a flavour of what may be on the regulator’s mind as media owners and professionals have so far failed to agree to a code of conduct/rules to cover the content of their 24/7 channels.
Have the channel owners not done so because quite a few of them are preoccupied with trying to avoid, if not evade, the taxman? A statement in parliament this week suggests that even those seen as the most successful in revenue terms owe more than a billion-and-a-half rupees in taxes.
Whatever the case, nobody argues against sensible regulations. An editorial in this newspaper on Thursday also agreed with the need to have a regulatory framework for the electronic media (TV channels) that has exploded now with more channels than we would care to count or remember.
The editorial was fair in pointing out that the proposed legislation which Pemra’s Council of Complaints approved last month has some positive features such as the one that seeks to ensure religious programming does not lead to religious/sectarian
The draft content regulation also calls for balanced and objective news and current affairs programming that sees all points of view on an issue given a fair hearing and also seeks programming for children which isn’t “disturbing or distressing” and “may affect their general well-being”.
No one can quarrel with what is being proposed so that no programme is aired “that is offensive to commonly accepted standards of decency or is defamatory” but the proposals also reflect a certain frame of mind that is troubling to say the least.
Given the freedom the media enjoys today it may seem out of place to use the ‘c’ word, but some proposed clauses give a hint about the authors’ desire to censor any criticism of the military, intelligence agencies, even satirical content.
Isn’t it ominous that such clauses exist? No programme is aired that … “contains aspersions against or ridicules the organs of the state; or contains material which may be detrimental to Pakistan’s relations with foreign countries …”
There has been clearly a clever attempt to reintroduce the military’s favourite defence against any criticism of its policies as one of the articles rechristens ‘national security’ to read programmes relating to ‘public security’.
The article proposes to ban content that “brings into contempt Pakistan or its people or tends to undermine its integrity or solidarity as an independent and sovereign country; (b) undermines public security or contains anything against maintenance
of law and order or which promotes anti-national or anti-state attitudes …”
There have been innumerable examples of Pemra’s arm-twisting by the powerful public affairs directorate of the military or the media wing of the ISI and if the above clause is interpreted in line with their thinking and media freedom curtailed imagine what could happen.
Like erstwhile East Pakistan, there would be no issues in Balochistan, there would be no missing people and no mention of the tortured bodies that are found dumped each day in the province and dissenting voices would also banished from the airwaves.
Would we have any discussion on the military’s cosy relationship with the militants, most bigoted zealots or even talk about the merits of the policy of strategic depth? No, because sooner than later we’ll be charged with ‘ridiculing’ an organ of the state.
Ironical, there isn’t any clause in defence of democracy. I’d argue the best defence of a sovereign, independent Pakistan where all organs of the state respect the constitution and are respected (not ridiculed) by the nation in return is a democratic
dispensation. This alone can serve as a damper in ‘anti-state attitudes’.
The Pemra chief has already argued that these are mere proposals (of course he didn’t say if some of them have been included at the behest of the security state) and will only be enforced once all stakeholders are on board.
Now it is up to the ‘stakeholders’ to address this as a priority issue and offer their own proposals. The current government’s record on media freedom appears fairly solid even in the face of a barrage of seemingly defamatory content it has faced but it
seems its hand is being forced on this issue.
I say this because more or less simultaneous with Pemra’s proposed rules for TV channels, there has also been an attempt to acquire a capacity to monitor and block millions of websites. All this as the government nears the end of its term.
By proposing measures targeting free speech and access to information it may not only be shredding its manifesto but also handing over one more reason to the Supreme Court to humiliate it and rub its nose in the dirt ahead of the next election. n
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.