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"Let India open its market, we will open ours" - PEMRA chairman Absar Alam

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Pakistan’s TV watchdog - the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) - charimanAbsarAlam was in the line of Pakistan’s Geo News anchor Shahzaib Khanzada’s fire last week. In his Monday to Thrusday current affairs talk show Aaj ShahzaibKhanzada Kay Sath - the anchor grilled him time and time again on PEMRA’s one-sided decision to ban Indian content.

Alam, a former journalist, answered as best as he could, but not to Shahzaib’s satisfaction.The interview on Geo News was hard hitting and no-holds barred. Shahzaibwas clear that while he was in favour of blocking Indian content which could cause unrest in Pakistan, PEMRA’s decision to take away choice from the Pakistan consumer was unwelcome.

We, at indiantelevision.com, believe that the interview could help throw some light on what transpired from Pakistan’s viewpoint that forced the watchdog to pull the plug. Read on for the excerpts from the interview:

Why have you taken a decision to blanket ban Indian content?

Pakistan industry was being hit courtesy the Indian TV shows, films and music. But the reason is not only because all Indian dramas are popular; there are others too. Probably one or two are popular. The problem is low quality Indian dramas are made in India and are made available to Pakistani channels at low prices who then air them in prime time. The lay Pakistan viewer then watches them as he has to watch something or the other when he sits in front of the TV, especially during prime time. The thing is if cheap Indian dramas are airing during prime time, expensive Pakistani dramas and series will not  get space.

Indian dramas want to enter Pakistan, they will have to open on a reciprocal basis to Pakistani dramas. I don’t think Indian dramas are so popular that Pakistan viewers will come down to breaking windows. I am not talking about films I am talking about TV dramas.

How are you going to stop Indian DTH?

These days illegal Indian DTH is not flocking in to Pakistan.  If it is anywhere, please let me know, I will crack down on it. Indian DTH is running in rich households in Pakistan. Cantonments, DH (defence housing).

Islamabad’s E7, Karachi has Clifton, Lahore’s Gulburg are the places where Indian DTH has popped up. We will go there also. We have written to the defence ministry to stop Indian DTH in their cantonment and DH houses.  The second line we are taking is on their subscription payment methods. We will start working on their money trail of the monthly renewal from next week. I hope to block this totally so that Pakistan can have its own DTH too.

Will you raid people’s homes, which have DTH dishes?

Why would we want to do that? We will not be raiding houses, we don’t want to intrude on people’s privacy. In most societies, there are laws that prevent you from hanging your clothes on the railing, then how are they allowing illegal Indian DTH services to run? The housing societies will have to cooperate. And people will themselves cooperate with us and remove the dishes that are already installed.  

In the past, Pakistan banned Indian films. That did not help, it encouraged the parallel economy or piracy, which did not allow tax to come Pakistan’s way. Yet it also enriched the pockets of a few. Won’t this current ban result in the same what with the internetand DTH proliferating now?

We have studied and tracked that at least 36 arab rupees are going India’s way courtesy its DTH services. When we tackle this through the banking sector, you will see results. People will not swing towards Indian DTH.

In India, Zee Zindagi dropped Pakistani shows without any government interference. Almost 73 per cent of Pakistan’s revenue is coming courtesy Indian films. Ever since Indian films were shown, Pakistan films also got an audience. It is the choice of Pakistani viewers to watch what they want to watch. Aren’t you doing away with that freedom by regulating what comes on the screen. Why is the government intervening?

We have our own drama industry. It is our duty to protect their rights. We have our artistes. In India, there are some forces which are not allowing a film starring Pakistani artistes not to be released. In Pakistan, there are media houses insisting which want Indian dramas to be shown. Is it not ironical?

Be that as it may. India’s foreign minister has said he has not banned any film. There are right wing fundamentalists who are taking that stance. The Indian government is not imposing anything. Why are you?

The government there is resorting to double speak. It is saying we are not compelling anyone. But tell me: is everything happening there without the government’s consent? You have an entertainment channel, try playing your entertainment dramas there now? Try getting an entertainment licence for GEO Entertainment from India.  Can you get it? I will give Zee a licence for the landing rights. I am giving you that assurance (if a Pakistani channel gets one)

Once again, I am reiterating, it is about restricting choice. And it’s about the government being unable to reverse a legislation in future about banning Indian content.

Who told you it is going to be difficult to reverse any decisions. You have a misunderstanding that PEMRA takes its decision under someone’s pressure. It takes its own decisions.

Remember YouTube. You could not open it up after you restricted it.

YouTube has opened up.

For two and a half years it was shut.  Yes, but you were constrained from making any announcements. And are you reacting now to India’s position on Pakistan?

Comparing YouTube and this is not proper. The reason why we banned Youtube was a sensitive issue. It did not shut down because of Indian content. It is open now. Should not there be parity between India and Pakistan? Should there not be reciprocity? Let India open its market, we will open ours.

No1. Anything that is happening in Pakistan which is illegal under PEMRA’s framework, we will act on it - whether it is Pakistan’s news channels. Or entertainment channels. Or FM Radio channels. Or cable operators. Or excessive Indian contentWhoever is violating laws, we will go after them from time to time with increasing frequency.

And it was part of our campaign, our schedule to do away with Indian DTH. Which we have now done.

The third reason is that our local drama industry is getting destroyed. We have to protect their rights. Like Indian cars that cannot be sold in Pakistan though they are cheaper to make there. Or you allow free trade with India on all goods. Why should only drama come, why not others? Why should not our goods go there? This one way traffic cannot go on. We are not being reactive.

On the music front, will you allow Hindi songs sung by Pakistani singers in Indian films to be played on Pakistan FM radio?

The songs sung by Pakistani singers are our songs sung by our artistes. They are ok if they have sung the songs here. And on radio you will not come to know what is the background of the songs, whether it is a film or not. Even on TV if Rahat Fateh Ali Khan or Atif Aslam have made videos of the film songs they have sung, they can play those.

It was six per cent earlier of Indian content on FM radio. One hour 15 minutes Indian content. You mean to say that Pakistan’s stations can’t fill that up with Pakistan songs?

But you could have been firm on the six per cent rule. You could have enforced it. Why did you go for a ban?

We did. We did. We are under tremendous public pressure and we have done it in the public interest. People did not want Indian music to come on Pakistan radio. I don’t want to provoke people, there was a lot of anti-India sentiment. People were asking why are Pakistani songs playing on Indian radio?

You are becoming a victim of populist speak.  Indian right-wingers are doing the same. If someone does not like content on a Pakistan a channel, he can change it? Why do away with choice of Pakistani people?

I agree if someone does not like Pakistani content, he can switch it off.

So if someone does not want to watch Indian content, can’t he switch it off?

This will not happen. It is damaging our economy – our dramas are suffering. There was so much of Indian content being shown there was very little space for Pakistani shows.

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