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Pakistan: Regulatory Authority Bans Two Ramadan Programs

(June 29, 2016) On June 17, 2016, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), an independent television and radio regulator, banned the transmission of two Ramadan TV specials, as one news report notes, for violating PEMRA’s Electronic Media Code of Conduct rules by “promoting controversial and sectarian views.” (Following Threats, PEMRA Puts a Lid on Hamza Ali Abbasi’s Ramazan Transmission, EXPRESS TRIBUNE (June 17, 2016).)

The controversy arose when a co-host of a Ramadan special on a Pakistani private TV channel, TV and film actor Hamza Ali Abbasi, questioned the persecution of Ahmadis, asking why they were not guaranteed their fundamental rights in Pakistan and whether the state has a right to declare whether a particular community is or is not Kafir [non-Muslims or nonbelievers]. He added that he would be discussing the Ahmadi community and Pakistan’s blasphemy laws on his program in more detail at the end of Ramadan. (Hamza Ali Abbasi Goes Where No One Dares to on National TV, EXPRESS TRIBUNE (June 12, 2016); Asif Nawaz, Is Hamza Ali Abbasi the Only One Brave Enough to Broach the ‘Ahmadi Question’ on TV? EXPRESS TRIBUNE BLOGS (June 14, 2016); Hamza Ali Abbasi Speaks Up for Ahmadis on Live Show, AAJ TV YOUTUBE CHANNEL (June 12, 2016).)

In response, in another Ramadan program on a different private TV channel, a hardline cleric, Allama Kokab Noorani, who was a guest on the program, was reported to have incited violence against Abbasi and to have threatened him. Noorani is reported to have said, “how can Abbasi have the audacity to even raise the issue?” and “if the law doesn’t make a decision on this then Muslims will have to make their own decision.” Noorani also implied in his comments that raising this issue is akin to military treason, referring to a supposed rule that soldiers who reveal military secrets can be shot on the spot. (Pemra Bans Hamza Ali Abbasi’s Ramazan Show, DUNYA NEWS.TV (June 18, 2016); Ali Warsi, Banning Both Shabbir Abu Talib, Hamza Abbasi Doesn’t Mean Justice (June 17, 2016), DUNYA NEWS.TV BLOGS; Cleric Threatens Pak Actor Hamza Ali Abbasi with Death on National Television, INDIA TODAY (June 19, 2016) (video clip of show accessible in article).)

In response to the two programs and what it deemed “provocative” content, PEMRA banned both hosts and the cleric from appearing on the programs, citing in its statement that it had received 1,133 complaints through Whatsapp, Twitter, and telephone calls in regard to the programs. (Pemra Bans Hamza Ali Abbasi from Hosting Ramazan Show, DAWN (updated June 17, 2016).) On June 20, PEMRA directed the two TV channels to issue an apology; only then would the ban on the respective individuals be lifted. (Pemra Asks TV Channels to Apologise over Hamza, Talib Controversy, DAWN (updated June 17, 2016).)

Human rights groups criticize the fact that PEMRA’s underlying legislation and rules grant the authority powers to revoke licenses and suspend broadcasts on grounds that are framed in fairly broad terms. (Sana Saleem, The Upcoming PEMRA Amendment: A Step Back for Media Freedom, BOLO BHI (last visited June 28, 2016).)

Background on the Ahmadi Community

According to human rights groups, the Ahmadi Muslim community faces severe institutional and societal persecution in Pakistan. (Stephanie Da Gama & Ryan Moreira, Policy Brief to Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom (ORF) at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada (DFATD) on Ahmadis in Pakistan (June 12, 2014), Country Indicators for Foreign Policy Project, Carleton University website.) The Second Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan, which was passed in 1974, declared the Ahmadi Muslim minority to be non-Muslim. (The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan (Apr. 12, 1973), art. 260(3), as last amended by the Constitution (Third Amdt.) Order, 1985.)

In 1984, the military regime of General Zia-ul-Haq promulgated Ordinance XX, which amended Pakistan’s Penal Code to restrict the ability of Ahmadis, who consider themselves Muslims, to practice their faith openly. The restrictions include prohibitions applied to Ahmadis on the use of Islamic epithets and honorific titles. Members of the community are also barred from “posing” as Muslims or referring to their own faith as Islam. (Pakistan: Ordinance No. XX of 1984, Anti-Islamic Activities of the Quadiani Group, Lahori Group and Ahmadis (Prohibition and Punishment) Ordinance (Apr. 26, 1984), REFWORLD.)

Applicable Laws

Section 27(a) of PEMRA’s authorizing legislation, the PEMRA Ordinance, 2002, grants PEMRA the power to issue orders in writing, giving reasons therein, which prohibit any broadcast media or distribution service operator from:

(a) broadcasting or re-broadcasting or distributing any programme or advertisement if it is of the opinion that such particular programme or advertisement is against the ideology of Pakistan or is likely to create hatred among the people or is prejudicial to the maintenance of law and order or is likely to disturb public peace and tranquility or endangers national security or is pornographic, obscene or vulgar or is offensive to the commonly accepted standards of decency. (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority Ordinance, 2002 (as amended in 2007), 27(a), PEMRA website.)

Section 20 of the Ordinance stipulates terms and conditions of the license, which include ensuring “that all programmes and advertisements do not contain or encourage violence, terrorism, racial, ethnic or religious discrimination, sectarianism, extremism, militancy, hatred, pornography, obscenity, vulgarity or other material offensive to commonly accepted standards of decency. ”(Id. § 20(c).) The section also requires licensees to comply with a code of conduct for programs. (Id. § 20(f).) PEMRA has the power to suspend or revoke a license due to lack of compliance with any condition for that license. (Id. § 30(c).)

The Subordinate Rules under this Ordinance also stipulate that the content of programs “shall conform to the provisions of section 20 of the Ordinance, these rules, the code set out in the Schedule- A and terms and conditions of the licence.” (PEMRA Rules – 2009, § 15(1), PEMRA website.)

PEMRA Code of Conduct

In 2015, PEMRA issued new code of conduct rules that include fundamental principles that licensees must follow in order to ensure that no program content will include anything that:

  • is against the Islamic values [or the]ideology of Pakistan … ;
  • passes derogatory remarks about any religion, sect, community or uses visuals or words contemptuous of religious sects and ethnic groups or which promote communal and sectarian attitude or disharmony;
  • contains abusive comment that incites hatred and contempt against any individual or group of persons, on the basis of race, caste, nationality, ethnic or linguistic origin, color, religion, sect, gender, age, mental or physical disability;
  • is likely to incite, aid, abet, glamorize or justify violence, commission of any crime, terror or leads to serious public disorder; … (Electronic Media (Programmes and Advertisements) Code of Conduct, 2015, 3, PEMRA website.)

The Code also has a section on ensuring religious tolerance and harmony, which prohibits derogatory statements that are likely to lead to bias or hate towards any religion or sect and any program that incites violence or encourages violation of the law in the name of a religion or sect. (Id. § 10.)  In addition, the Code has a section against hate speech, including calling someone a traitor or anti-Islam, and “where hate speech is resorted to by any guest, the channel and its representative must stop the participant and remind him and the audience that no one has the authority to declare any other citizen as a Kafir or enemy of Pakistan, Islam or any other religion.” (Id. § 23(3).)