Censorship and the state
By: Hajrah Mumtaz
MANY in Pakistan appear to specialise in the bizarre. Consider the All Pakistan Cable Operators Association’s announcement last week that it would stop relaying a number of international news channels to protest against what it referred to as the “maligning [of] the country.”
The APCOA resents that international news organisations report on all that is wrong with Pakistan and how the country falls short of international expectations. It has retaliated by blocking the ‘offending’ channels. As a result, many people no longer have access to various international news networks in different areas.
The prime target named by the APCOA was BBC World News but it said that other channels were also being monitored for anti-Pakistan reportage and that CNN, Sky News and Fox News were also on the watch list for phase-wise removal from Pakistan’s airwaves. In some areas, including where I live, the only international news network available is Al Jazeera.
On the face of it, this appears a laughable move. The fact, sadly, is that the main news coming out of Pakistan is bad, and the only thing this move achieves is restricting Pakistanis’ access to international news.
The association’s move will obviously not prevent news networks from carrying on saying what they routinely say about this country. It will not force them to alter their focus in any way. By curtailing access, all it does is to force the citizenry to bury its collective head in the sand vis-Ãƒ -vis the global discourse on the country.
We don’t like what you’re saying about us, so we won’t let our people hear it. It’s akin to clapping your hands over a child’s ears to prevent him from hearing someone cussing – and most of us do not appreciate our intelligence belittled by being forced into playing child to the cable operators’ association parent.
As many people are asking, who appointed the cable operators as guardians of news and views we choose or do not choose to listen to? Seemingly laughable, but actually a very dangerous move.
First, there is the matter of cable operators’ commitment to their customers which they are breaking through such censorship. When agreeing to provide services, operators commit themselves to providing their customers access to all channels that have acquired permission from the state to broadcast in the country through applying for and receiving landing rights.
This is a process that is far from being free of cost, so in arbitrarily ceasing to relay broadcasts, operators are also rendering meaningless the investment made by the targeted channels. Furthermore, it is possible to make the case that operators are stepping into the middle of an agreement between the state and the channels.
Then, there is the matter of setting a precedent. What is to stop the same, or similar, tactics from being used against any channel of the cable operators’ choice in the future, including local news or entertainment?
What happens when the association, or even an individual operator, decides that what is being reported on Geo or Express is unpalatable, or the programming on Indus or ARY is not suited to their tastes?
Today it’s international news; tomorrow, it could be your favourite talk-show or soap. The reason why a regulatory body exists is so that when there is any regulation to be done, it can be done at the level of the state – not at the level of the individual or even a group of individuals in the APCOA’s case.
The situation should also constitute reason to reflect on the manner in which the state of Pakistan has emboldened those with a mind to censor and restrict access. The state itself has, after all, in the past made numerous such attempts itself, in the process sending out signals that it is alright to interfere with other people’s rights. The Musharraf government comes immediately to mind, but the current government’s record is far from untarnished.
When the state does this, it opens the door for others to follow suit through strong-arm tactics. Last year, for example, two major channels went off air in some parts of Sindh after cable operators were threatened and harassed by political party workers.
Representatives of state power have also tried to ‘ban’ Internet sites for varying lengths of time, such as last year’s Lahore High Court directives to the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority to block access to hundreds of websites.
In terms of television ‘censorship, let us not forget the news channels that have not been granted landing rights in Pakistan, primarily Indian ones, one assumes out of fear that they may affect the discourse here on Kashmir.
Beyond all this, there is the matter of the material which the APCOA referred to as objectionable and the reason it saw fit to take the step of taking the BBC offline. Secret Pakistan
Airing these days on BBC World News is the documentary , which the APCOA president Khalid Arain referred to in his press conference as hurtful to the country’s image and spreading “negative propaganda”.
The documentary explores connections between elements in the country’s security apparatus and the militants which it is also battling – allegations that have been raised at other fora as well.
The only points on which any journalistic work can be taken to task is that of incorrect assumptions, factual discrepancies and misrepresentation. All the challenger has to do is produce evidence in this regard and the work in question – in this case, the documentary – stands discredited and will be removed by the news organisation itself.
If the country’s cable operators, or anyone else for that matter, have any evidence in this regard, they have yet to produce it. Indeed, there have been some fears that the cable operators’ association may have been influenced in making this decision. This needs to be investigated.
Cable operators conduct their business under licence. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority must get involved in this matter and ensure not just that access to all channels that broadcast legally in Pakistan is restored everywhere, but that policy and guidelines are developed to prevent anybody from taking such unilateral action in the future.