Viewers, speak up Zirgham Afridi Thursday, March 31, 2011

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The feeling of one’s being forced to view the plethora of advertisements has reached a point where one begins to wonder: is there any control over what we watch on TV? Do we have the choice of watching our favourite shows without all these advertisements? Especially, is there anything we could do about it?

Then there is the dissatisfaction with some of the content being aired on our screens. Our television adverts always become a topic of discussion whenever the TV is on at home, or at the office, say, during the World Cup. A recent survey conducted by Gallup Pakistan revealed that 56 percent of Pakistanis from across the country feel that indecency on TV has increased, up from 41 percent ten years ago. You feel that our social fabric is slowly being moulded by a tiny group of powerful businesses. And we, the viewers, have little choice but to adapt ourselves to the new trends, regardless of whether we like them or find them acceptable.

A friend, who is a lawyer by training, recently decided to take a stand. He sought to move the authorities to get them to regulate the content on our television screens in accordance with “accepted cultural norms.” So he appeared before the Council of Complaints. The council is a body set up by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) comprising six “eminent citizens” to judge the merits of complaints.

There are many interesting aspects to his story which are worth sharing.

First of all, there are a lot of people out there who are unhappy with the content of some of the TV advertisements. In the case of films, dramas and comedy shows one at least has the option of simply switching off the channel. Advertising, on the other hand, is virtually unavoidable, no matter what type of programme one is watching. Due to this, my friend focussed his complaint on a single advertisement, so that whatever decisions was taken by the authority concerned would establish a yardstick for similar advertisements in future.

It is not worthwhile specifying or describing the advertisement itself, so I will just mention the key points of the complaint he lodged.

There exists a legal code which caters to the subjective, seemingly unimportant, opinions of individuals regarding the nature of TV programmes in Pakistan. The legal code is detailed, and is not based on any other principles but those of basic Islamic edicts.

The complaint begins with some everyday language expressing the sentiments which many people increasingly share with regard to the “overwhelming majority of Pakistanis, particularly our young, [who] spend several hours a day” watching television programmes, whose content would be considered by many as “vulgar, indecent and likely to deprave, corrupt and injure public morality.”

It then cited the Pemra Ordinance of 2002, which mentions “the preservation of the national, cultural, social and religious values and the principles of public policy as enshrined in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan” and tries to make sure that “programmes and advertisements do not contain or encourage violence, terrorism..., obscenity, vulgarity or other material offensive to commonly accepted standards of decency.”

A Code of Conduct for media broadcasters and cable TV operators formulated by Pemra itself goes further. It prohibits broadcasters from airing any programme which is “obscene or indecent, or is likely to deprave, corrupt or injure the public morality.” It states that “no advertisement shall be permitted which...glorifies adultery, lustful passion or non-Islamic values; contains indecent, vulgar, or offensive themes; [and] contains material which is repugnant to...Islamic values.” But who is to judge what constitutes “Islamic moral standards”? And what our “cultural, social and religious values” are?

Someone needs to clarify the limits that TV content may not cross. There is also the increasing need for regulation of the times at which certain programmes can be aired. The same applies to advertising. There must be a regulation on the themes that can be used to attract customers. It may ultimately be for the judiciary to make these decisions, but someone has to begin active regulation of the content of what is aired on our TV screens.

My friend’s action is a reminder of the need for active vigilance on the part of ordinary citizens; in this case, television viewers. Viewers must have a choice in whether or not they are to be exposed to one kind or another of advertisements, which are placed by those who wish to make profit out of them. The Council of Complaints, he notes, is entitled to entertain the complaint of “any person aggrieved by any aspect of a programme or advertisement.”

Contrary to our negative expectations, the council, particularly its chairperson, the poet Kishwar Naheed, was supportive. In fact, as she said, the council had been waiting for “raushan khayal” (enlightened) young people to bring such issues before it.

The complaints cell is eager to forward the views of the complainants and wants citizens to come forward. You too have a voice and your active participation will make the job easier for the council. Pemra and other such government bodies must make it easy for an individual to register his or her complaint. And the common man must actively use such outlets in the interest of Pakistani society.

The writer is an Imperial College London graduate and an alumnus of the BHSS Pakistan. Email:

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