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Regulatory contortions

September 23, 2012

THAT old subject, decency in the media, is back in the news.

Last month, a constitutional petition was filed in the Supreme Court complaining about the ‘obscenity’ and ‘vulgarity’ that Pakistan’s media are apparently replete with.

As a result, while the streets echoed with outcry over the ‘obscenity’ of a certain video production, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) was scratching its head over how to define the term.

It’s halfway through the two-week deadline given to it by the SC to come up with a comprehensive concept according to which media products can be categorised as clear or not.

So far, Pemra officials have held two meetings on the issue, taking on board the opinions of the people who wrote the letters that led to the petition being filed — Qazi Hussain Ahmed, formerly chief of the Jamaat-i-Islami, and Justice (retd) Wajihuddin Ahmed. Also involved in the consultative process are people who work in and with the media: newsmen, actors, human rights campaigners etc.

It’s curious how Pakistan can remain unconcerned with obscenity that takes forms that do not necessarily have anything to do with the human body, but everything to do with the commonly accepted standards of decency that the court wants defined.

Is it decent to drive a car that costs more than a house in a country awash with poverty? Is it decent for the state to make a move that is bound to result in street violence, as was the announcement of a public holiday on Friday, in order to cover its own bases? I’d say that such practices go beyond the standards of common decency.

But in any case, what Pemra is trying to bring about a decision on is what sort of dress, behaviour and practices are sufficiently outside the pale of societal mores here to be declared improper. The underlying aim, no doubt, would be to eventually come up with regulations that the media is required to abide by.

This is far from the first time that the issue of ‘obscenity’ in the media has come up. From time to time, the Lahore High Court issues an edict against what it considers ‘vulgar’ dance being performed on the stages of Lahore’s commercial theatre. Bans have been attempted, and all that they result in is the harassment of performers and theatre owners.

In terms of television, Pemra took up the issue in May this year, when, while taking to task cable operators that were broadcasting foreign channels that did not have landing rights in Pakistan, it also took issue with content that was “not worthy of watching with the family”.

Terms such as ‘obscenity’ and ‘indecency’ are easily bandied about but are almost impossible to totally pin down in a manner that can be accepted across the board.

In much of the world, certain practices are considered to cross the line and have been the subject of regulation. Most would agree that pornography, full nudity or gross violence should not be appearing on the television screens indiscriminately.

Countries have resolved the issue by creating rating systems for media products according to suitability for age groups. They have ensured that content unsuitable for a young audience cannot be aired during prime viewing hours, but have also provided the option of ‘pay TV’ channels. This much is easily settled. No one is arguing that such grossly inappropriate material is being aired, printed or performed on the country’s stages.

In Pakistan’s context, then, where do we go from there? Where do the SC and Pemra expect to be able to draw the lines? Uncovered female heads? If so, at what age? The distance between a hemline and an ankle? And would that apply to women or men too? There are men in Bermuda shorts on television and in the magazines. A certain dance move? An exercise move?

The contortions that the developers of such guidelines would have to go through and what their discussions would have to be about paint quite an interesting picture.

This is not to say that there aren’t any precedents here and elsewhere. Iran has a law on the hijab, as of course does Saudi Arabia. Zia banned women from appearing on television with their heads uncovered while Nawaz Sharif, during the ‘amirul momineen’ days, cleansed our television screens of men with long hair.

Do we want to go there again? A more sensible route would be to consider why, after a certain point, commonly accepted standards of decency are better left vague. Regulation is a good thing, but too much of it can be counterproductive. The margins are where space is created for creativity and inventiveness, and overregulation can mean that the common ground also becomes the lowest common denominator.

If this country’s entertainment media industry is to rise beyond the mediocre, then space has to be left for writers, directors and actors to explore the boundaries and take the less-travelled road.

As members of society — and above all as professionals that need to sell their product if they are to achieve any measure of success — they too are aware of what’s unlikely to go down well with local audiences. And should there be any transgressions, there are plenty of already available avenues of censure and reprimand.

If the powers that be absolutely have to obsess about ‘indecency’, perhaps they’d be better off bending their minds towards the other dimension of the word: violence. Despite no doubt the best efforts of the channels, coverage of the protests on Friday ended up containing scenes that ought not to have been on the news: a boy being violently beaten up by a group of men, someone swearing and so on.

The news is bad, and news organisations must report it. But can they also be asked to institute that time-delay mechanism during live broadcasts that is considered necessary by most large electronic news organisations around the world?

The writer is a member of staff.