PEMRA: What’s vulgar to you is decent to me

Published: August 28, 2012
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Viewers should be able to report channels that are in breach of the rating system for appropriate action to be taken against the particular channel. DESIGN: JAHANZAIB HAQUE

Most recently, the apex court has taken notice of the petitions filed by Justice (retd) Wajihuddin Ahmed and former Chief of Jamaat-e-Islami against obscenity and vulgarity being broadcast on the electronic media. They requested the regulatory body to make policy guidelines barring TV channels from broadcasting vulgarity.

To follow this order PEMRA has taken its first step by defining the word obscenity.  A lot of people have been lashing out at the court but the truth is this wasn’t a suo moto action.

There has been a lot of debate over the court’s decision and the new definition. Liberals proclaim that the word ‘obscene’ is subject to different perceptions. What is ‘appropriate’ to watch should be decided by the person himself, after all, the people have a mind of their own and are capable enough to decide for themselves what should and should not be seen. For children, their parents have the liberty to decide for them, the government or Pemra need not act as designated babysitters.

According to the new definition “any content which is unacceptable while viewing with the family transpires obscenity”.

Although this may seem reasonable to every household individually, the real matter of concern is, whose family exactly is going to be taken as a benchmark here?

Other people argue that Pakistan being an Islamic republic cannot allow such programs to run on television and they quote phrases form religious textbooks, which if you argue against you run the risk of being labelled a secular liberal extremist.

Obscenity, violence and gore are harmful for the society when they are viewed by the fatal minded and minors. It is the job of the parents to see what their children are up to but they are not always and cannot be always there. So children need to be protected. The truth is, there are families which have problems with obscenity and if not the program, it’s the advertisements. Freedom of expression and speech does not mean that one part of the society has to sacrifice everything and nor does it mean that the more religious section be permitted to dictate their beliefs upon others.

Realistically speaking, everyone is right.

So what now?

What should Pemra and the government do now? Satisfy the demands of one part of society or try to fulfil all demands?

A middle ground for this is not only possible but happens all over the world.

What Pemra should do is introduce a rating system for television channels and individual programs. Firstly every channel will get a license to broadcast only programmes with a certain rating on public broadcast. Channels that want to show programmes with a higher rating will not be allowed to broadcast publicly but can broadcast via a private telecast such as pay-per-views and on-demand.

Secondly, channels on public broadcast should be asked to display the rating for individual programs so that families can decide whether or not they would be comfortable viewing the content of that particular program. Furthermore, advertisements should also have a rating system whereby, higher rated advertisements should not be allowed to broadcast at prime time. The same can be done for programs; shows that target a specific audience and may be inappropriate for smaller children, should not be allowed to broadcast at prime time either. These can be a part of the late night television shows.

Pemra should set a criterion for the ratings, apply those ratings to channels and on the basis of those criteria manage the rating system for individual programs as well. Every channel should be held accountable for applying the rating system as prescribed above and those in acting in disregard should be slapped a fine on by Pemra upon notice. Viewers should be able to report channels that are in breach of the rating system for appropriate action to be taken against the particular channel.

Lastly, cable operators should provide their customers with an option to ‘lock’, ‘password protect’ or ‘unsubscribe’ from channels they do not deem fit to be viewed in their households.

In this way, every viewer has the liberty to choose and in essence everyone gets what they want. People who don’t have problems with obscenity and vulgarity can view their favourite programs in the comfort of their own homes and children will not be exposed to such programs and channels. Families will know what to view and parents can have a better control over what their children watch.

A question that should have been debated upon whence framing the definition of obscenity is; why should sexually explicit content only be termed as obscenity? Aren’t acts of violence, gore, the type of language, scenes showing the consumption of cigarettes and alcohol just as harmful as vulgarity, if not more?

In conclusion, this rating system should not be curtailed to sexual references or vulgarity but should also encompass other aspects which may be damaging to the audience.

In your opinion, will a rating system to filter vulgarity on TV work in Pakistan?

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Hassam Tahir

Hassam Tahir

A chartered accountant in training, working at PricewaterhouseCoopers, who has recently discovered his love for blogging. He tweets @hassamt (twitter.com/hassamt )

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.