September 11th, 2020

By Ahmad Saeed 


LAHORE

Civil society organizations, rights activists, lawyers, and television personalities have condemned the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority’s (PEMRA) recent spree of banning re-runs of some specific drama serials and suspending 24 News HD’s broadcasting license, terming the regulatory authority’s arbitrary abuse of power repugnant to Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan (freedom of speech).

On September 10, PEMRA blocked ARY Digital’s drama serial Jalan after airing only a handful of episodes.

The premise for the ban was a slew of complaints received via the Prime Minister’s Pakistan Citizens Portal that the soap opera was contrary to religious and moral values according to a slew of complaints received via the Prime Minister’s Pakistan Citizens Portal. Prior to this, the authority had blocked re-runs of two other drama serials, Ishqiyyah and Pyaar ke Sadqay on the very complaints, which had otherwise completed their initial broadcast to much public and critical acclaim.

“In every society, there will always be an individual or a group that will disagree with something,” says Salima Hashmi artist, human rights activist, and former principal of the National College of Arts (NCA). “The onus should be on the audience – if one does not like a drama, then one can switch to a different channel. There is no dearth of programs and channels on Pakistani television, and they are easily available at the push of a button.”

Hashmi has also served as chair of the PEMRA’s Council of Complaints. “It is unfair to impose what you like and what you do not like others.”

Senior television director Safi Hassan also expressed his disappointment with PEMRA’s decision and urged the regulatory body to convene with producers and directors instead of banning programs outright without any prior inquiry.

“When something negative is being shown in a drama, it is necessary that a resolution follows: a negative character will inevitably get their comeuppance as the story progresses,” he explains. “PEMRA should at least consult with the producers or directors of “questionable” content before jumping the gun. Ironically, these banned soaps are available on YouTube! If anyone wants to, they can still watch these shows online.”

He concludes that to ban a program or soap opera that has already been aired once before is a silly and frivolous move.

In addition to drama serials, PEMRA extended its long arm to news shows, banning numerous programs broadcast by 24 News HD which had, at one point, prompted the channel’s CEO to threaten to close down the channel.

According to the channel’s director of news, Mian Tahir, the authority consulted the government as well as the relevant institutions regarding the suspension of 24 News HD.

“We have talked with the government and their information departments at length, numerous times in Islamabad. We cannot sweep the issue under the rug – if an issue or concern exists, then we have to talk about it,” he said. He alleged that the true reason behind the channel’s suspension was that 24 News HD did not shower praises upon the government and instead criticized some of its policies.

“The country is undergoing a period of inflation, so we are reporting on price hikes. Certain crimes are on the rise, so we are letting people know about this development. We run clips if the Prime Minister of the federal government does things which they opposed back when the PML-N was in power, or when promised or claimed things they have yet to fulfill or justify. Our only request is that the government point out where we may have inadvertently crossed a line.”

Regarding the entire controversy, senior advocate Salman Akram Raja pointed out that PEMRA is not empowered by any law to arbitrarily or even on the basis of a few complaints completely ban a piece of media already compliant with broadcasting rules and regulations.

“Our Constitution dictates that any decision that causes any harm or impedes the function of an entity, it is important to hear that entity’s side of the story. This clause is also included in PEMRA laws. Its Council of Complaints exists for a reason – the Council hears explanations from both the complainant and the defendant,” he noted. “PEMRA’s decision to circumvent these provisions is deeply saddening – it is illegal and there needs to be an inquiry into this.”

Usama Khilji, director of Bol Bhi, a non-profit aimed toward advocacy, policy, and research in the areas of digital rights and civic responsibility, condemned PEMRA’s move to block the drama serials and suspend 24 News HD’s license as it was beyond the purview of the law.

“PEMRA’s ban on drama serials is violative of the Constitution in multiple ways – it denies freedom of expression, specifically artistic expression. When one has utilized their effort and finances to create a drama, on what basis does PEMRA arbitrarily decide to block its broadcast?” he stated. “These dramas had already aired on TV before, I struggle to understand the logic behind banning their re-runs.”

“There was no legal recourse in this decision, and neither did PEMRA care for fundamental rights when handing out bans. There is a need to strongly condemn and oppose this decision, lest PEMRA begins to define what constitutes societal norms on its own.”

He further stated that PEMRA has no authority to dictate what an adult citizen guaranteed their fundamental rights can and cannot watch on television. As a regulatory authority, PEMRA cannot assume the role of the country’s moral brigade.

Voicepk.net had also reached out to the relevant vested persons at PEMRA but received no response as of the filing of this report.

Civil society has expressed their grave concern over PEMRA’s decision to ban soap operas and television channels and urge the government to amend the relevant laws so that the authority does not abuse its powers and allow media and news channels to flourish.

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