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The ban saga

The now-banned drama serial ‘Hadsa’ caused a lot of stir during its short run on a private entertainment TV channel, for similarities with the terrifying rape incident which occurred in September 2020 on the Lahore-Sialkot motorway.

Complaints against the drama were filed by activists with Pemra, the regulator of electronic media in Pakistan, which soon sprang into action and passed a prohibition order while also referring the matter to the Council of Complaints, a semi-independent body formed under Pemra to adjudicate private complaints related to content.

There are both legal and theoretical challenges to Pemra’s ban. While it is true that the drama may have caused resentment and be triggering to the victim, her family and audience in general, the prohibition order was given without affording any opportunity to the show producers of being heard.

Even more so, complaints against broadcasting are to be made firstly to the Council of Complaints, who as per law is obligated to issue a show cause and provide opportunity of being heard to the party accused. The superior courts have consistently ruled that blatant prohibitions by Pemra without affording such an opportunity is tantamount to abuse of power.

Such blatant prohibitions are unfavorable towards promoting the entertainment industry. Content creators’ creative hunger knows no boundaries. Writers and creators have a great desire to address societal and cultural issues through powerful scripts, motion pictures, art and songs.

Be it Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’ or Junoon’s ‘Ihtesab’, the lyrics of these songs have inspired people towards causes of civil rights, accountability and justice. Visual art also has a profound impact on creating awareness and reflecting the problems of society. Any visual content touching on serious issues or aiming to highlight any horrible event ought to be accepted with an open mind and should prompt introspection.

One question also arises: what limits should regulators impose while regulating content on the touchstone of morality, ethics, culture, and society? This question has become more pertinent since the regulators’ powers to check content have diminished with the advent of digital mediums of broadcasting.

For instance, Sarmad Khoosat’s film, ‘Zindagi Tamasha’ failed to get approval from the censor board. Sarmad released the film on YouTube, and it gained widespread popularity; it had already premiered at international film festivals and won awards before its release in Pakistan. Within such a context, does a ban on television even fulfil the purpose? Or does it only add more curiosity to the whole issue and eventually give more weightage to the content?

Pemra prohibiting content is problematic for the very reason that it is not a suitable body to adjudicate content related issues. While films in Pakistan are reviewed by the censor board composed of experts in the field, dramas by virtue of Pemra laws are regulated by government employees with little or no knowledge of societal and cultural nuances. Pemra’s main job is to regulate the business and operational aspects of electronic media such as licensing, mergers and acquisitions, competition, collection of fees and taxes and resolve technical aspects related to broadcasting.

While blatant violations of law, morality, and ethics such as airing of nudity, pornography, defamation, blasphemous and anti-state content can be checked even by a layperson, it is the cultural and societal nuances that requires review by a body composed of people with viewpoints representing a mixture of society.

Employees of regulators advised by lawyers and consultants by virtue of their jobs would often take recourse to rigid interpretation of laws destroying the very purpose of creating a free media. The preamble of the Pemra Ordinance states that its purpose is to “enlarge the choice available to the people of Pakistan.” Prohibitions, and that too based on ill-informed opinion, restrict enlarging choices for people.

A censor board established for reviewing television content can resolve some of the major ongoing problems associated with the regulation of electronic media by Pemra. Contrary to Pemra’s powers of banning a drama when it has aired the majority of its episodes, censor boards have a much more streamlined process for regulating content.

Broadcasters can submit their content to the censor board, which after reviewing the content can provide recommendations to the producers after giving them the opportunity to amend, replace and delete any content. This will give a sense of guarantee to investors and producers to keep the machine rolling.

Pemra in its order of prohibition has stated that the drama ‘Hadsa’ did not depict the true picture of Pakistani society. This leads to the most fundamental question: what is the true picture of Pakistani society and who gets to decide the same? The perceptive image of Pakistan is a subjective matter.

A content maker highlighting acid attacks, rape incidents or sexual and gender identity matters may be as much patriotic as any other Pakistani and may even have the good intent of highlighting social causes. Why should regulators, devoid of any creative capacity, decide on questions of what truly depicts Pakistan? The audience should determine it and must have ample choices to decide.

Mohammad Yahya Farid & Abdul Rafay Siddiqui, "The ban saga," The News. 2023-09-18.
Keywords: Media sciences , Electronic media , Private entertainment , PEMRA , Broadcasting , Sarmad Khoosat , Pakistan