September Issue 2003

By | Opinion | Speaker's Corner | Published 21 years ago

During a one-year tenure in General Pervez Musharraf’s cabinet from November 1999 to October 2000 as Advisor on National Affairs and Minister for Information and Media Development, I had the privilege of being closely associated with two significant cabinet decisions on electronic media policy. Both steps had the common aim of radically enlarging Pakistani audiences choice for access to news, analysis, information and entertainment. One was the introduction of laws and policies to spur and regulate cable TV distribution. The other decision was to create a regulatory authority to enable a transparent and fair process for the establishment of private radio and TV channels. Both these progressive changes are marred by the ban on Indian TV channels.

PEMRA is unfairly cast as the villain in what is really a government-written script and policy. The majority of PEMRA’s members are non-officials. This was done deliberately to balance official pressures. Hopefully, the non-official members will assert their own views on this subject. Cable operators may presently appear to be bold sentinels of cross-border friendship. But many are also guilty of atrocious quality in service delivery. And of illegal acts such as screening of pirated Indian movies on their own “channels” with inanely repetitive advertisements super-imposed.

The third villain is weak, corrupt law-enforcement. Yet the innocent heroes and heroines, our beloved viewers also make too much of what is bound to be a temporary measure. They could equally enjoyably give more attention to the ballets of birds and beasts on National Geographic until the ban goes.

But the hullabaloo is actually much ado about two important issues.

One: the universal, timeless human desire to have access without hindrance to information and entertainment.

Two: the inherent tendency of all states and governments to obstruct content from a hostile source and/or to provide support to local players against overseas competition.

Three dimensions with alliterative affinity are also seen: protectionism, paranoia and propaganda.

Many countries, including several western countries that claim pre-eminence in freedom of speech and free flow of information and operate free market economies, have used a variety of measures to restrict their domestic audiences access to the foreign media.

Located right next to the world’s largest cinema industry which contributes substantial content to Indian TV channels, Pakistan is justified in expressing concern for the overwhelming impact that the sheer scale and the relatively more liberal policy of India vis-a-vis depicting the female form can have on the Pakistani TV channels.

But expressing concern is one thing. Banning viewer access outright is quite another. We should learn from our wrong decision to ban the import of Indian cinema films after the 1965 war. While we did produce a handful of exceptional feature films in the past four decades, the ban actually distorted and twisted the growth of our own film industry.

Trying to be a pale imitation of Indian cinema, our own cinema has become a crass, crude version of our neighbour’s model. If we had been allowed to compete freely, we would have been compelled to develop our own specific cinematic identity and quality.

Authentic protectionism lies in applying a dynamic, sensitive mix of policy measures covering content incentives, taxation, finance, censorship, locational and operational aspects while permitting overseas competition with reasonable, and not arbitrary standards to restrict content considered offensive to social and religious norms.

Though it needs to be remembered that despite incentives and protective measures provided by the British, French and German governments to their own cinema industries, the onslaught of American cinema affected the growth of cinema in these three countries in recent years.

State-owned PTV has enjoyed a monopoly from the late 1960s to about 1990 when the STN channel began transmission. PTV has rendered valuable service as the first Pakistani TV channel, training hundreds of technical specialists and thousands of creative artistes articulating and personifying some of our finer features.

Notwithstanding its flaws, PTV continues to offer exclusive content in some subjects. And it has an unmatched archive! However, the monopoly instrument should be buried deep in a shaft and solidly cemented over because it is completely out of synch with a world in which freedom of media choice are now globally recognised principles, even if not yet implemented everywhere.

Protectionism hurts the very entity sought to be shielded. As it is, a couple of the new private TV channels sometimes seem like alter egos of Indian originals.

The paranoia is a phantom. Over the past two decades and more, the easy availability of Indian movies on video tape in every inhabited nook and corner of Pakistan may have wasted millions of hours of viewing time on innocuous and banal material — with some rare exceptions.

Yet Indian movies have not made an iota of difference to the simultaneous evolution of a sense of Pakistaniat, a deepening of national identity and pride at being Pakistani. If there were any gaps left, 9/11 has filled them!

Unlike the military sphere, in media propaganda we do face huge asymmetry. Whereas one Pakistani for every three Indian soldiers reflects a recognised, deterrent number, there is no equivalent ratio in TV channels. And how can there be, with the dozens of major languages (and the corresponding number of TV channels) spoken across India, compared to fewer languages in Pakistan.

There is certainly an insidious aspect to the way in which, between the song and dance, Indian media seek to undermine the rationale that validates and motivates Pakistaniat.

In creative content terms, we therefore need to develop the media equivalent of nuclear weapons so as to equalise and neutralise the Indian superiority in conventional numbers and the attempts to corrode our persona.

We also have a remarkable propaganda weapon of our own, much maligned and under-estimated. Of the several hundreds of TV channels spinning images across our planet today, PTV is the only one that provides a daily report on the brutal reality of Indian-occupied Kashmir, including the daily body count and voice-casts from leaders in Srinagar. However predictable this may be, the fact is that the truth hurts India plenty. This is why, post-13 December 2001, it was the Indians who banned PTV, obliging a Pakistani response. Previously, as well as presently, a range of coercive means are used to discourage cable operators across India from distributing PTV.

When propaganda includes cleverly concealed and malicious disinformation, the effect can be dangerous and destabilising well before it is detected by its targets.

We should remain on guard. We must give back as good — or bad — as we get.

Let viewers choose to see — or switch off Indian channels. Pakistani people, identity and media have strengths that surpass cables, dishes and dances.