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Who’s afraid of satire?

Updated June 24, 2019

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The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

THOUGH hardly the first time Pemra has sought to define what constitutes acceptable humour on our airwaves, many have read the tea leaves in its latest advisory as more sinister than predictably po-faced. According to the June 12 notification, “Public sentiments are agonised by the trend of demeaning leadership of the country,” and thus all TV channels are “advised to refrain from airing any content which is demeaning, creates hatred against any individual or mocks any personality associated with any political party or law enforcement agency”.

There’s plenty that’s silly in this notification (note Pemra qualifying memes as ‘funny’, which to a comedian is as good as calling them true). It’s also instructive to dissect which issues merit the authority’s notice and which don’t in order to gauge the interests it seeks to protect (not the apparently ‘agonised’ public that, judging by consumption patterns, has a voracious appetite for lampooning public figures).

Laughter as communal catharsis is a huge part of what animates our humanity.

But far more insidious is the conflation of healthy scepticism of those who hold power — and how they wield it — with a corrosive, borderline criminal portrayal of playful critique as demeaning and hateful, without citing any examples of what that constitutes in order to have a reasonable debate on appropriate limits. To be clear, only the most intolerant free speech absolutists would argue that there aren’t limits, however complex, contextual and contentious such a rubric might be. But that’s not what’s being discussed here.

The kind of content currently under scrutiny must also be inferred, for the advisory uses terms like ‘irony’, ‘satire’ and ‘caricature’ interchangeably. So let’s just assume based on the information at hand that the content Pemra seeks to scrub from our screens can broadly be defined as political humour.

Officialdom’s tendency to interpret rather than describe ‘undesirable’ speech and expression is hardly accidental. Given the state’s legacy of imposing media restrictions via executive authority and a resultant lack of robust jurisprudence articulating the boundaries of ‘reasonable restrictions’ mentioned in the Constitution on such freedoms, the lack of specificity might easily be viewed as intentionally designed to manufacture a form of open-ended prior restraint.

That it seeks to prohibit political humour is also not incidental, as it falls neatly within the ambit of a decades-long project of depoliticising the populace, beginning with arresting the decolonial movement on campuses soon after the penultimate goal of transfer of powers was achieved in a newly independent Pakistan. In such a project, the nation’s patricians have always equated responsible media (journalism, entertainment and art) with public relations.

Cloaking these motivations in circular logic and innuendo also conveniently circumvents public accountability. No one can be accused of imposing overt censorship if there’s only an invisible hand behind embargos on certain news and blockades on certain news providers; if information black holes are justified for the sake of security and stability; if habitual petitioners, coordinated trolls and lynch mobs get to decide what’s offensive to the public’s sensibilities; and if, after all of this, it’s the policeman inside our own heads who now draws the red line.

Earlier this year, Pakistani women — ever the proverbial canary in the coal mine — were given a stern reminder of the consequences of reclaiming the right to mockery. The authors of the Aurat March placards ridiculing patriarchal constraints were told in no uncertain terms — threatened in our legislatures, on TV and on social media — that if they chose to protest their oppression, they at least needed to play the role of the victim straight, or else they’d be made to.

The powerful find it discombobulating when the weak rejoice in their defiance, expressing high spiritedness in the face of a far more powerful adversary. Serious complaints can be dismissed, but a sideways jibe? Even a glimmer of recognition means the barb has hit its intended target.

Given its ability to poke and prod our leaders for signs of hubris or sophistry, to take the wind somewhat out of the self-serious sails of unbridled power and populism, it is hardly surprising that some might seek to restrict privileges on the right to the last laugh. And this is why, in a climate of ever-worsening press conditions, internet clampdowns and intensified moral policing, Pemra’s notification is so jarring: it seeks to eradicate the last refuge of the conscientious objector, the freedom-loving citizen.

But laughter as communal catharsis is a huge part of what animates our humanity.

For if we are subjected to the production of truth through power, and cannot exercise power except through the production of truth, if the means of production are fair play to the few and inimical to the many, then allowing us the ability to at least laugh at the misfortune of having to live through a tableau vivant of Saturn Devouring His Son is perhaps our only recourse to maintaining sanity. Especially for an entire generation that has cut its teeth on the irreverence of the internet. This is how we can preserve, if not the truth, then at least an axiomatic approximation of it for the next generation — we are nothing if not eternally optimistic. This is why the gadfly stings.

So who’s afraid of this modest display of people’s power and why? Look no further than which topics are off limits. You cannot debate what you cannot joke about. Discussion, debate, dissent: the beating heart of democracy.

Tailpiece: Last week, in a live broadcast announcing the death of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president (a fact left out of virtually all local coverage that carried the same 42-word news item), an anchor on a TV station owned by the Mukhabarat concluded her brief report with the words: “Sent from a Samsung device.” There’s an oblique punchline: you can suppress speech, even silence satire, but it doesn’t solve the problem of the farce it’s based on.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @ReemKhurshid

Published in Dawn, June 24th, 2019