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Who defines obscenity?


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PEMRA’S ongoing quest, initiated at the Supreme Court’s behest, to define ‘obscenity’ for the purposes of media monitoring is ludicrous. The electronic media regulatory authority had initially demonstrated great sagacity in barring television channels from broadcasting ‘obscene material’ without specifying what that might constitute.

However, its current quest — particularly the suggestion of deferring the job of defining obscenity to the Council of Islamic Ideology — is a reminder that wisdom has little place in a country revelling as deeply in its religiosity and moral righteousness as Pakistan.

Defining obscenity is an obscene idea for various reasons. Most importantly, the parameters of what counts as obscene vary across socioeconomic classes, ethno-linguistic groups, political parties, the urban-rural divide, and even an extended family.

By asking one institution to define obscenity, the powers that be are compelling millions to abide by a code that might not reflect their values. Such authoritarianism is particularly out of place in a country as ideologically and culturally diverse as Pakistan (and where the inability to reconcile differences is often expressed through violence).

It also doesn’t help that a definition enshrined in media law or regulation is static, while social perceptions of obscenity necessarily evolve with the times. Pakistanis should be well aware by now that laws penned at the spur of the moment with little thoughtfulness about future ramifications can lead to social ruin (think of how ineradicable the Hudood Ordinances and blasphemy laws have proved to be, despite their horrific impact on society). That which is written down is inevitably more permanent and binding than that which endures through practice and consent.

Moreover, in Pakistan’s lawless and corrupt society, a concrete definition of obscenity will quickly become a tool of censorship, widely hurled at channels that criticise, investigate or expose. At present, media regulators or the courts must investigate charges of media obscenity on a case-by-case basis; this due diligence prevents abuse of the Pemra clause and fosters press freedom.

Pemra’s perseverance in defining obscenity will also give more credence to the narrative that the mainstream media is ‘obscene’. This is a narrative routinely trotted out by extremist groups and others on the fringes of society who are seeking to exert power through violent control of discourse and the flow of information.

If recent news reports about a Karachi-based journalist being beaten in his own home for watching television are true, this narrative is fast gaining traction. Defining obscenity is exactly the kind of prohibitive and regressive action that will encourage such narratives and restrain the pluralistic media landscape, which is now needed more than ever as Pakistani society struggles with basic tolerance and productive debate.

These reasons for leaving obscenity undefined have been much discussed, but there have been few suggestions as to what Pemra might do instead to discourage further petitions against media obscenity. In a perfect world, Pemra would agree to check the proliferation of illegal and pirated material but refuse to define obscenity, thereby highlighting the privilege a diverse media landscape offers viewers to change the channel if on-air content seems obscene. But we do not live in a perfect world. And having been traumatised by decades of authoritarianism, we believe that any action against obscene content must be legislated from the top down.

But what if this issue were addressed from the bottom up?

We have already seen that Pakistan’s growing community of digital activists is at its most powerful when monitoring the mainstream media: the online uproar that followed Maya Khan’s on-air moral policing in Karachi’s parks that led to her being fired; widespread criticism of the conversion of a Hindu boy to Islam on Khan’s Ramazan show; and shocked tweets and online petitions protesting Veena Malik’s suitability to host a Ramazan show that led (albeit temporarily) to the show being cancelled. With this track record, why can’t the Pakistani public be trusted to monitor media obscenity?

Pemra could formalise such citizen monitoring efforts by dedicating space on its website for citizens to raise concerns, debate the appropriateness of content, organise campaigns directed at television channels, and suggest penalties for transgressing channels. This public discussion can then form the basis of Pemra action against television channels accused of obscenity.

To ensure that the authority is not deluged with cases, and to ascertain that the public is genuinely offended by certain content, Pemra could dictate that an online discussion on obscenity has to involve a minimum number of participants before the authority investigates the charge (this model has worked well in other contexts; for example, any e-petition that secures more than 100,000 signatures can expect to be debated in the UK House of Commons).

The obvious critique of such a system is that values expressed in the media will be shaped by a liberal, net-connected elite while the masses are subjected to content they consider obscene. But this critique is flawed.

There are currently 38 million cable television viewers in Pakistan, and more than 29 million net-connected Pakistanis (undoubtedly, there is significant overlap between these groups). That means the number of television viewers who could not participate in an online citizen media monitoring initiative is smaller than believed.

Moreover, innumerable digital tools now allow users to interact with websites via SMS and VOIP. In a country with 67.2 per cent cellular teledensity, the majority of television audiences could use their cellphones to engage with each other, and with Pemra, to come up with consensual judgments about what media content is obscene. In a democratic set-up, such a collaborative and negotiated system is far more appropriate than a decree from above about what constitutes obscenity.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Twitter: @humayusuf

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (18) Closed

Abdul wahab. Sep 10, 2012 06:11pm
well Ms. yousuf obsenity can,t be left in your hand to make a freelance of it.
Gayatri Sep 10, 2012 11:25pm
I think that is a very intelligent approach. Those classifications are there for a reason and should be used exactly for reasons like this.
Dr. D. Prithipaul Sep 10, 2012 05:26pm
When elected Ministers in the Government told the nation and the world that the terrorists which attacked the Taj Hotel in Mumbai were non-state actors, that was obscene. It is obscene when the official institutions train terrorists to strike and take innocent lives and then to claim that evidence is lacking in order to attribute just punishment to the evil doers. To begin with it was obscene and evil, by all standards of morality, with the possible exception of Islamic norms, to pretend that the terrorists acted independently of government approval and support. It is obscene to kill innocent non-believers even if this be in conformity with Islamic orthodox teachings.
baakhlaq Sep 10, 2012 05:16pm
If you are in need of a candid definition of obscenity , please go through the details of litigation against SAADAT HUSSAN MINTO
hc Sep 11, 2012 01:58am
I wonder where you get your 38 million figure from..and who it includes and discludes..
Sandip Sep 10, 2012 04:47pm
If you are offended turn of the TV. dont watch the channel. What networks resposiblity is to properly classify the conent as per government regulation (or self regulation). It is after that left upto the network if they want to show the content or not. If I feel this content is not good for my home, I will turn off the TV or not subscribe to that channel. I don't need government to tell channels what they should or should not show. This clearly shows backwardness of thinking and inadequate technology knowledge in handling such issues that that our power brokers have.
Dr Shaaz Mahboob Sep 10, 2012 12:55pm
It should be up to individuals to decide what they want or do not want to watch. What will they do next? ban internet completely as you can access anything over the internet from debatable obscene to pornography. A Mullah or a very conservative person's interpretation of obscene differs vastly from that of a liberal minded individual and then there are millions of interpretations in between!
iagnikul Sep 10, 2012 04:35am
The holier than thou self proclaimed custodians of public morals keep scaling greater heights of oppressive arrogance. These blinkered men of limited understanding and mean spirits confuse their class prejudices with virtue. The benighted rogues in seats of power are arrogant and misguided enough to want to control the thoughts of all others. We should view this as a blatant encroachment on our freedom.
malik Sep 10, 2012 04:47am
Uhhh Ansar Abbasi.
Shafiea Sep 10, 2012 09:02am
The soul .. if one has one!
usman Sep 10, 2012 09:46am
Ever heard of Universal (U), Parental Guidance (PG), +15, +18, ADULT classification being used all over the world. In fact these classifications are also available on the internet and are used by many a country to block certain content.
amal Sep 10, 2012 10:25am
i totally disagree with the author on not setting any limits on obscenity , though i side with the view that restriction hinders creativity and social growth of the society .. To me , chalking out broad boundries is a suitable solution as morality and values cannot be ignored on the grounds of modernism.The social cost associated with projecting obsenity is way too high than the progression perceived through liberal media laws regarding obscenity .
amal Sep 10, 2012 10:26am
The American media also has laws regarding obscenity , despite being the most modern and liberal state in the world /
Ahmed Jumma Sep 10, 2012 10:30am
Obscenity is prevailing all over the country. There must be a firm policy defined by the relevant authority not only in Media but in all the pillars of the State. Now a day nobody is caring what is he doing. The language is immodest, no ettiquets, no manners, corruption is at its peak, everybody telling a lie whether he is a peon in the office or the President of the country. It seems that we are heading towards total collapse and no higher up is caring for that. Quite lawlessness as if we are living in a jungle. We are waiting for the chasetisement or a mircle only. May Allah bless us with his blessings.
aku Sep 10, 2012 11:25am
Defining and limiting obscenity is what every modern society has done. It is a very confusing and shallow thinking on part of the writer.
JPositive Sep 10, 2012 02:39pm
One correction, Usman: Not to block material but to inform general public about the suitability of material!!
Tanvir Sep 10, 2012 03:00pm
Get Lost!
Parvez Sep 11, 2012 07:16am
The CJ of SC had said that he feels shameful while watching some of TV programs and ads. What is he watching that I dont see on our channels. His family go to all sort of places in teh world on free money and he sees no obscenity there. What country are we living in.