THE Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra), of late, appears more energised. It has stepped up surveillance to enforce its revised and reinvigorated Code of Conduct, 2015 and to rein in ‘errant’ elements in the media. Most recently, the watchdog issued an all-out, but short-lived, ban on the airing of commercials marketing contraceptive, birth control or family planning products on TV and radio channels. Earlier this month, Pemra prohibited all current affairs and entertainment channels from broadcasting re-enactments or dramatisation of crimes such as rape, murder, suicide and robberies. It has also issued a show-cause notice to Hum TV demanding an explanation for the airing of ‘unethical’ scenes in the drama serial Udaari.
Pemra was forced to roll back the advertisement ban in the face of backlash from what it termed ‘public opinion’. In a notification issued over the weekend, Pemra acknowledged the vast divergence of views on the subject and the “social, medical and population control concerns” raised by the blanket ban. The prohibition against re-enactment of crimes, however, persists. Pemra justifies its decision on the grounds of violation of ‘chadar aur char diwari’ and the right to privacy of a victim, an accused or their families, and the incitement of the youth to violence and criminal activity.
It must be noted that the Pemra code of conduct does not prohibit dramatic re-enactment of crime scenes. It, instead, only provides that productions of such genre adhere to the standards of conduct demanded of factual programmes reporting crime, including, for instance, ensuring against sensationalism and incitement to violence or the provision of fair warning before portrayal of gory scenes.Pemra’s energies need not be directed at imposing bans. True, most crime re-enactment programmes on our channels fall short of such standards. The blanket ban imposed by Pemra, however, is excessive. Constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and expression would mandate a less intrusive mode of regulation. It cannot be denied that television crime shows have a huge market across the world and, if produced responsibly, can have a positive educational and deterrent impact on society.
Pemra’s objection to Udaari is even less warranted. The drama serial is marked not only by its talented cast and the beauty of its script but also its controversial and socially relevant subject matter: child sexual abuse. Scenes depicting attempted seduction by a man of his orphaned niece and stepdaughter appear to have offended the sensibilities of Pemra; in the words of the authority, it inflicts anxiety on parents and can potentially “evoke sinful sentiments of evil minds in society”.The offending scenes were no more obscene than a bolted door, a fallen dupatta or a longing gaze. The context instead was largely explained through innuendos. Did the scenes violate Pemra’s code of conduct that demands adherence to Islamic principles, prohibits the airing of obscene, indecent or pornographic material, and warns against the glamorisation of violence? The enforcement of normative standards is always problematic. Yet a regulator tasked with such responsibility must act fairly and objectively.
Child sexual abuse is a shied-away-from reality in our society. Around 3,768 children were sexually abused in Pakistan last year. In more glaring terms 10 children under the age of 18 were subjected to sexual abuse or violence each day in 2015 (Sahil, 2015). In the majority of reported cases the perpetrators were either related or acquainted to the victim. The incidence of such crimes was much higher in rural areas. Young girls were at a higher risk of subjection to sexual violence and harassment in comparison to boys. Many of us, however, remain unaware of the wide prevalence of child sexual abuse in our society, its various manifestations or consequences. Udaari touches upon these very themes and aims to fill this awareness gap. Instead of lauding its efforts, Pemra has charged the play with violating its code of conduct.
Pemra is tasked with an onerous responsibility it must execute cautiously. Contraceptive advertisements, dramatised crime shows or TV serials dealing with uncomfortable but critical social issues may not be the most troublesome aspects of electronic media. There are more pernicious elements that have been allowed free rein. The Supreme Court has had to remind Pemra that its code of conduct also mandates that all television talk shows engage only in balanced, accurate and objective discussion, avoid sensationalism and accord due respect to its participants. Pemra should then not obsess only over what it takes to be manifestations of ‘obscenity’ on electronic media and instead direct its energies where they are most required. An uncontrolled media can no doubt be dangerous. But selective or unreasonable media regulation stymies free expression, creativity and valuable social agendas, while undermining the legitimacy of the regulatory system.