Dear PEMRA, what is indecent, anti-state, anti-national?

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The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) is really stepping up its efforts to, at least superficially, hold the media accountable. First they made their public complaints archive publicly accessible online – good job, although a glance at the complaints does highlight the issue of their complaint centre being hijacked by propaganda-laden trolling.

Secondly, and more critically, they have uploaded a draft of the upcoming PEMRA Content Regulations 2012 – the code of conduct that local broadcasters will be bound to. The regulatory body has also called on the public to email their feedback before May 07, 2012, after which the code will presumably be finalized.

I’ll say it again (especially now, given the appalling coverage of the Bhoja Air crash) – good step, but, if PEMRA hopes for this code of conduct to come into play (without an uproar and a major battle) they need to address some of its problematic guidelines which I have listed below.

Defining indecent

This is the working definition of ‘indecent’ PEMRA cites in their draft:

(f) “indecent” includes whatsoever may amount to any incentive, sensuality and excitement of impure thoughts in the mind of an ordinary man of normal temperament or whatsoever may be deemed to be detrimental to public morals

Additionally, PEMRA adds:

Ethical & social values.- Licensee shall show deference to the ethical and social values of the country and ensure that:

c) content is not obscene or indecent

Explanation: For the purposes of these regulations content shall be deemed to be obscene if its effect is such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it.

Dear PEMRA, do you realize how vague and open to exploitation this definition is? What is an ‘impure thought’? Who is this ‘ordinary man’ by whom you will be (quantitatively or qualitatively?) measuring indecency, depravity and corruption? What about the views of an ‘ordinary woman’? Where is the list of ‘public moral’ standards? Do you see how you will be called out here for being sexist, preaching morality, using purposely vague terms to censor content, not to mention leaving yourself vulnerable to threats by right-wing nut jobs who will toss this definition in your face every time they deem something as causing ‘impure thoughts’? Are you ready to tell Mathira her show must be cancelled because she’s too sexy for TV? This needs to be removed entirely, or reworked by someone who is both gender sensitive and a legal expert who can drill down a usable, measurable definition of ‘indecent’ for you.

Defining offensive

This is the working definition of ‘offensive’ PEMRA cites:

(i) “offensive” means anything that hurts any person or group on the basis of such person’s or group’s personal likes or dislikes

Personal likes or dislikes as a means of defining offensive in this context is a terrible idea. Personal likes and dislikes are subjective and can vary greatly – you need to define offensive in terms of actual laws and statutes, not individual whims. Do you really think no one is going to search the rest of your code and note that the only usage of the word ‘offensive’ is when you state:

d) offensive or derogatory jokes, words, gestures, dialogues and subtitles are not broadcast or distributed

a) no content is aired that is offensive to commonly accepted standards of decency or is defamatory

So basically an individual, oh, politician perhaps can have a personal dislike for a joke and that is therefore offensive and cannot be broadcast? Or if say the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) feel an entertainment channel is “offensive to commonly accepted standards of decency” that means the channel should go? Why did you bother drawing up a code if this is a free-for-all based on personal likes and dislikes? This is a very poor definition open to exploitation. It should be dropped as other parts of the code already provide ample accountability for what can really be deemed offensive i.e. content which discriminates and spreads “hatred or contempt on the basis of race or caste, national, ethnic or linguistic origin, colour or religion or sect, sex, sexual orientation, age or mental or physical disability.”

Dangerous nationalism overtures

This was expected, but appalling nonetheless. In what can only be seen as a move to appease the aforementioned trolls, the establishment, government et al, PEMRA’s code states:

 (6) Licensee shall ensure that no content is aired that:

a) 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;

g) contains aspersions against or ridicules the organs of the State

Dear PEMRA, such vague, abstract rhetorical language may be well suited and impressive for a public speech, but is frankly embarrassing to see in a document which aims to set policy. Even a child can see how the above lines will be exploited and abused to censor any/all criticism of the government and the military. What is the definition of “contempt” here? Can I have an example of what content does and does not qualify as contempt for Pakistan and its people? What is “anti-national” or “anti-state” exactly? How do you plan to qualify/quantify these words to take action against the media?

According to the code of conduct as it stands right now: anyone with enough clout can approach PEMRA, and, according to their personal likes and dislikes, lodge a complaint against the media for pretty much anything, which PEMRA will then judge using immeasurable standards to deliver a verdict. The problematic sections above make all the reasonable, fairly balanced and intelligent parts of the code a wasted effort.

Even if PEMRA manages to fix the above issues in their draft (which seems unlikely as the draft suggests they plan to teach the media [their version of] morality and nationalism), there will still be uproar, and in all likelihood no one will follow these rules.

Please seek help from all stakeholders, and if they don’t respond, find ways to get them on board before proceeding. Please refer to codes of conduct set in countries ranking high for press freedom (which does not translate to press anarchy, much as has been drilled into all of us).

Please fix this.

Published in Tribune Blogs.

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