No laughing matter: Pakistan’s media regulator moves to bar satire from airwaves

Employees work at the news room of Geo News television channel in Karachi, Pakistan April 11, 2018. (REUTERS)
Updated 16 June 2019

No laughing matter: Pakistan’s media regulator moves to bar satire from airwaves

  • PEMRA notice advises TV channels to refrain from poking fun at political figures and law enforcement agencies
  • Comedians and critics say have faced similar censure in the past but this week’s advisory felt more severe

ISLAMABAD: Embattled comedians have decried a notice by the Pakistani media regulator ‘advising’ TV channels not to broadcast satire, calling it an attack on freedom of speech and a sign of growing censorship in an industry already in disarray because of state pressure.

Pakistan’s media was widely seen as among the region’s most vibrant after military rule ended in 2008, but newspaper and TV journalists now widely say a crackdown that began in the run-up to last year’s general election has widened into widespread censorship and self-censorship by journalists fearful of the repercussions of criticizing the government, the military or the courts.

In a new blow to media freedom, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) issued a notice this week advising TV channels to refrain from using “caricatures, animated characters, photo-shopped images and funny memes” that poked fun at political figures or law enforcement agencies.

“Public sentiments are agonized by the trend of demeaning leadership of the country,” the PEMRA notice said.

Pakistani comedians say they have faced similar censure in the past but this week’s advisory felt more severe.

“It has happened to media and comedians before us and it will happen after us, but this time it’s very intense because there is an atmosphere that no comedy or satire will be tolerated,” Shafaat Ali, a comedian who rose to fame in 2016 for his impressions of then cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan.

“A society that cannot make fun of itself can’t be a healthy society,” he added, saying comedy offered a light-hearted way of creating awareness about difficult political and social issues.

In October 2018, Ali said an advertisement he had made for an online shopping brand and in which he mimicked PM Khan had been ordered to be taken off air by PEMRA. 

With no shows listed and examples of problematic satire specified in the PEMRA memo, Junaid Saleem, host of the wildly popular satirical news show Hasb-e-Haal, said the regulator was being purposely vague to mount pressure on TV channels.

“PEMRA might have genuine complaints and it would be easy to address those concerns if PEMRA had shared or pinpointed those events, but this notification reflects (PEMRA) is trying to pressurize media,” he said. “These kind of notices are a continuity of the government policing free speech.”

The government has repeatedly denied it is censoring journalists, as the country's media crisis has recently seen closures of news channels and newspapers, with leading organizations cutting staff and salaries by up to 40 percent. Satirical TV content and social media videos have thus offered new space to journalists. 

In this context, penalizing humor was a "worrying sign," pop culture writer Ahmer Naqvi said.

“It suggests that those in charge believe their stature and work is so important and necessary that it can't be taken lightly, and doing so must be punished,” he said. “Such an inflated sense of self would see the slightest deviation from its approach, even a joke, to be unacceptable.” 

“I have drawn caricatures of politicians across political parties for years, and never has there been a peep from a political party -- until now,” political cartoonist Saadia Gardezi told Arab News. “To me, that means something has changed in this new era, and not for the better.”

Pakistani skin and haircare brands bet on organic ingredients and traditional recipes

Updated 14 July 2020

Pakistani skin and haircare brands bet on organic ingredients and traditional recipes

  • A growing number of companies are addressing hair and skin concerns using products available in the average South Asian pantry
  • Notable companies include Zo’Nanos, Calm & Balm, Aura and Conatural

RAWALPINDI: When Zoha Naqvi was living in the United Kingdom as a university student, she said she was consistently bothered by the ‘Asian-ification’ of Western skin and haircare brands.
In 2017, just months after returning to Pakistan, Naqvi launched Zo’Nanos, a Karachi-based haircare company whose unique selling point is creating oils using recipes passed down in Naqvi’s mother’s family over generations.

The name Zo’Nano combines founder Zoha Naqvi’s first name with ‘nano,’ the Urdu word for grandmother. In this photo, Zoha Naqvi poses with bottles of her grandmother’s hair oil in Karachi, Pakistan on May, 16 2020. (Zonanos)

“It would bother me that our recipes ... were being Westernized and sold at places like Lush,” Naqvi told Arab News over the phone, referring to the UK cosmetics maker and retailer. “They were capitalizing on desi totkas by giving them palatable repackaging.”
“Totkas” are concocted at-home methods or recipes for addressing hair, skin, and sometimes even health problems using products available in the average South Asian pantry, explained Naqvi, who launched Zo’Nanos “to find a way to celebrate the culture and the knowledge that we hold as South Asians.” 
“Our totkas with a modern twist,” is how she described her company, adding: “We were able to communicate with our audience that we are a modern brand but one that is rooted in being Pakistani, recognizable and familiar.”
Indeed, Zo’Nanos is just one among a growing number of Pakistani brands who are betting on locally produced ingredients and traditional techniques to make their mark. 
“It is the backbone of any company these days,” said Rema Taseer, the co-founder of organic beauty and wellness brand Conatural, talking about the use of traditional methods and organic ingredients in skin and haircare. “We use it to interact and start a relationship with our customers.”
“There was a lack of trust in local products,” Taseer said. “There weren’t proper, natural, and all-certified organic companies in Pakistan providing beauty solutions; they were all chemical-based. It felt important to create one ourselves.” 
Taseer, and her partner Myra Qureshi Jahangir, say they also wanted to use their brand to fight the obsession South Asians, and Pakistanis in particular, have with fair skin. 
Skin lightening cosmetics have a huge market in South Asia, but their promotion is being questioned, especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. 
“The beauty business here is full of whitening creams. I felt someone actually had to voice against that and state that there is beauty beyond color ... we wanted to be the first ones to step up,” Taseer said. 
According to a study conducted by Zion Market Research, the whitening cream industry was valued at over $4 billion in 2017 and estimated to cross $9 billion by 2024.
“I highly discourage fairness products and will never make anything related to fairness,” said Bakhtawar Rehman, who co-founded Calm & Balm, a sustainable and organic beauty line, with her husband in 2019.
Since she was a child, Rehman said she had been mixing oils and creating ‘do it yourself’ beauty treatments using organic ingredients, which had led her to perfect the recipes she now uses for Calm & Balm products, which are certified organic and promote environmental sustainability.
But in a market like Pakistan, maintaining global standards for nature beauty products has proved difficult. 
“Local vendors have certain working methodologies that are not easy to change so you have to work and communicate with them the way they want while meeting your demand,” Rehman said. 
Fatima Khan, founder and owner of natural skin company Aura, concurred. 

In 2012, Aura founder Fatima Khan’s parents began experimenting with homemade beauty and skim remedies, leading to the birth of Aura the brand. Khan restocks shelves of Aura products in Lahore, Pakistan on February, 12, 2018. (Aura)

“There are no standards on quality for materials in place, there’s a lack of facilities and certifications, it is close to impossible to do all things here in Pakistan, though we strive to do so in every avenue we can,” Khan told Arab News via email. “We need to work extra hard to support and develop our own industry.”
But despite the challenges, the industry is still growing, she said. 
“When we first entered the natural skincare industry, we barely had competition,” Khan said. “Now there’s a new organic skincare brand launching every month.”