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Moral policing

August 08, 2012


NOW it is the realm of television programming and advertising that has attracted the Supreme Court’s attention. Summoning the chief of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority in response to petitions moved by two conservative figures, the former amir of the Jamaat-i-Islami Qazi Hussain Ahmed and a retired Supreme Court justice, Wajihuddin Ahmed, the court on Monday demanded action within a week against ‘obscene’ and ‘vulgar’ programming and advertisements on private TV channels aired in Pakistan. Pause for a moment and consider the various problems that afflict this country and that the court is embroiled in. That obscenity and vulgarity on television — and this before the debate about whether the impugned content is at all obscene or vulgar — figures in the scheme of things to fix at the highest levels at the moment is somewhat worrying.

Two points need to be made here. First, the excesses that do frequently occur on television — from content that foments religious intolerance to coverage of terrorist attacks that are insensitive to victims’ families and badly handled, and from opinion-laden shows that are divorced from fact to invasion of privacy and worse in intrusive programming — do need serious redressal. However, government regulation is not the way to go. The Musharraf era epitomised the problem: even the most ardent supporters of a free and independent media in power cannot be trusted to not use government regulation to stifle media freedom. Where self-regulation thus far has failed, perhaps what the government can do is act as a facilitator for the creation of a regulatory body that is truly independent, professionally run along non-ideological lines and responsive to both the media’s and consumers’ concerns. But to trust the government with a direct and hands-on role in regulating media content is an unwelcome idea:  today it is obscenity and vulgarity, tomorrow it will be the ‘national interest’ and ‘national security’ that will demand certain lines be drawn.

Second, the outmoded idea of what content is vulgar or obscene needs to be discarded. Strangely, violence on television — domestic, criminal, extrajudicial — rarely attracts the same kind of censure as does content in which women are attired in a certain way or filmed interacting with men in a certain way. The same goes for intolerance, xenophobia, bigotry and hate spewed on TV: it doesn’t attract the same kind of censure as does a woman dancing or singing lustily. The collective ownership that society wants to impose on its women is a problem itself. In the name of moral policing, Pakistan has ended up with deeply skewed priorities: keep the women covered up; let the monsters run loose.