With general elections approaching, the landscape is again bearing eerie resemblance to the final days of General Pervez Musharraf's reign. In November 2007 he banned selected TV channels for 88 days to stifle what he saw as "irresponsible journalism." Now, Pakistani electronic media might be chained again, this time for violating cultural and ethical values by airing satirical programming and interviewing political leaders the government does not like seeing on air.
This month, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) sent broadcasters a media advisory with the names of 40 banned organizations. The TV stations were not to give them any coverage, including conducting interviews with their leaders. It is an indicator of the strength and impact of the broadcast industry that no such message was sent to print media. At least not yet.
Pressure from PEMRA is nothing new; it was a favorite tool of the Musharraf government, as well as that of President Asif Ali Zardari. PEMRA's members are a hand-picked group approved by the government, and its chairman is appointed by the president. Not exactly a fun loving crowd, they regularly act more like a loyal court for a king, with little tolerance for court jesters. In addition to blacklisting political groups, they have also asked channels to stop airing political satires and parodies of political leaders.
On May 9, the latest edict--"Final Notice - Telecast of Derogatory Programs"--was issued by PEMRA's director general of operations, about the same time the "banned groups" directive was handed down.
The Derogatory Programs notice did not name specific channels. PEMRA was apparently angered because in October 2011 it had issued official advice to all channels asking them to be prudent when airing satirical programs. The shows should not name specific people or organizations, that notice said. It was most worried about programs that humiliated or carried out character assassination of what it called high profile dignitaries and national institutions.
Broadcasters were apparently not prudent enough for PEMRA. Political satire and parodies aimed at various leaders in both the government and the opposition are very popular among viewers. And in the past two weeks notices have been issued to at least six news channels for airing interviews of rival groups of Zardari's Pakistan People's Party (PPP). One TV anchor told me that her management would not air her recorded interview with the leader of the People's Aman Committee, Uzair Baloch. His group is pressing for a larger role in Lyari, the most impoverished section of Karachi, rife with drugs, weapons and violence, and a PPP stronghold.
As Pakistan swings into political campaign mode -- general elections are scheduled for February 18, 2013 -- political satires and parodies have become a staple for broadcasters. The Election Commission lists 97 registered parties. If the elections do come off, it would be the first time since Pakistan came into being in 1947 that there will have been a constitutionally legitimate change in government. The government still has time to learn how elections are conducted, but so far it is headed down the wrong track.