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Who defines obscenity?

September 10, 2012

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