Regulatory activism

March 15, 2020

Ahead of the Aurat March, Pemra’s advisory to TV channels warning them against airing ‘unethical’ slogans and ‘objectionable’ placards was concerning. Our socio-political milieu is already misogynistic; we don’t need our media regulators to be agents of status quo against women

The International Women’s Day has come and gone – more spirited this year than ever – but some things in Pakistan apparently never change. Ahead of March 8, the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra), issued an advisory to television channels warning them against airing “unethical slogans, play cards (sic) with objectionable content.”

This was a quintessential Pemra measure – acting on actions that had not happened yet – essentially replicating the state reflex of asserting pre-emptive policy rather than following up on an actual violation or even a formal policy premised on inclusive ownership that would obviate the need for chaperoning the media.

The advisory alluded to a Lahore High Court approval to organisers of the Aurat March to go ahead with their plans and claimed that it was an approval conditional on remaining ‘uncontroversial’. Saying it was acting in pursuance of the high court’s order, the Pemra advisory stated that some channels had “aired controversial content with special reference to the slogan relating (sic) to Aurat March.”

It directed the channels to be “mindful of the fact that telecast of such controversial content is against the commonly accepted standards of decency as well as religious, social, cultural norms and sentiments” of public. “Furthermore, the airing of such vulgar/inappropriate content is not suitable for viewing on TV channels,” the advisory read.

There were several operative assumptions behind this advisory. Women would come up with ‘ethically unacceptable’ slogans while articulating demand for their rights, was one. Media consumers are immature and incapable of perceiving the women’s demands within the broader context of their rights movement, was another. Media would be playing in the hands of ‘manipulative’ slogan-mongering women, yet another. Women don’t have the right to just about go ahead and demand anything they please, still yet another.

The notification did not elaborate on what kind of content would qualify as “controversial” or “vulgar” nor specify any slogan it deemed objectional. And yet without specifying what content it expected not to be aired, the electronic media regulator warned that the unspecified content would be in violation of the Pemra Ordinance, 2002, as amended by the Pemra (Amendment) Act, 2007, read with different clauses of Electronic Media (Programmes and Advertisements) Code of Conduct, 2015, and court orders.

Apart from the questionable element of pre-emption in the notification, the wagging finger of Pemra’s admonishment of crimes uncommitted are functionally redundant on another level. No such warning was issued for either the radio sector – which also comes under the domain of Pemra’s regulatory jurisdiction, nor any such refrain emphasized for the print media by the Press Council of Pakistan, the print sector regulator.

Radio and print media in Pakistan also carried extensive coverage of the International Women’s Day in the local context. Women’s demands were articulated in media other than TV, including print media widely carrying pictures of the slogan ‘Mera Jism, Meri Marzi’. If this is the slogan that Pemra dreaded being articulated, the publication of pictures of placards (“play cards” in Pemra’s parlance) with this slogan in national dailies did not stir negative repercussions nor bring the heavens down. Pemra, in hindsight, acted as the proverbial nanny to the TV media on this count. Why this arbitrary policing of just one medium (television), if the emphasis (however incorrect) is censorship? No such pre-emptive censorship was slapped on print or radio media.

Putting severe restrictions on TV media from covering the Aurat March rights movement was in negation of media’s functional mandate.

The whole problem lies with the conceptual role of the media regulator as practiced by the Pemra. Pemra’s advisory explicitly said that TV channels should “realise their responsibility and play their due role in building high moral values and character among the viewers.” It is not the job of the Pemra to be the moral police of public conscience. Its job is to primarily and almost exclusively be an industry regulator, not a content regulator.

The state’s function is to enforce fundamental human rights for all its citizens. Extensive and incontrovertible evidence, both official and of independent variety, exists of women in Pakistan being grossly denied their rights. Media being the guardian of public interest is mandated to hold power to account and to be the voice and articulation of citizens and their rights. Putting severe restrictions on TV media from covering the Aurat March rights movement was in negation of media’s functional mandate.

As elsewhere in the world, contrary to Pemra’s emphasis on morality and character, the media’s mandate is guardianship of public interest, not government or state interest. Media’s job always was, and will continue to be, being the voice of Pakistani women (and other marginalized sections of society), not playing the proxy mouthpiece of the state, its regulators and its political and religious elites which are out to enforce reductive versions of rights that they think women should contend with.

There was no need for a special advisory from the Pemra for the media because there is already a code of ethics related to content in place that governs the terms of licences that the regulator issues TV channels and radio stations.

Pemra’s coercive regulatory activism is in excess of its actual mandate, which is industry regulation to facilitate market fairplay practices and enforcing citizen’s right to information and freedom of expression rather than self-assumed guardianship of citizen’s morality and self-accorded authority to censor not only the media but also the citizens including women demanding their inviolable rights.

In this instance, the movement of Pakistani women for their rights is essentially a movement for a democratic, inclusive and egalitarian Pakistan. Any actor, such as media regulators, getting in the way of this amounts to wantonly undermining citizens’ freedom of expression and right to information. We need public interest media, especially women-friendly and children-friendly media. Any regulatory measure otherwise is tantamount to muzzling their rights, especially their right to be heard. The socio-political milieu in Pakistan is already misogynistic; we don’t need our media regulators to be agents of status quo against women. This is unacceptable.


The author is a political analyst and media development specialist. He can be reached at [email protected]

Regulatory activism: PEMRA's role in Aurat March 2020