This is not an op-ed entirely about Maya Khan; it is also about the inflated television culture we inhabit in Pakistan and how all-encompassing it has become. Sociologist Jean Baudrillard has famously pointed out that modern ‘reality’ is so intricately bound up in the media that it is increasingly constituted by it. Hence, the images we see on television become the lives we live. A live broadcast, of course, makes the overlap even more compelling; certainly the unedited chaos of Samaa TV’s park invasion has spilled over into viewer’s homes.
When presenters like Maya Khan are given too much power they become society’s judge and jury, with trials that are played out on television in much the same way as political talk shows practice political interventionism. The real question, of course, is how do we regulate such power while shielding the media from state pressure and simultaneously protecting society from media vigilantism? As her fall from grace illustrates so many of these issues, Maya Khan is a convenient take-off point for this discussion.
In the 10 days since she and a haranguing mob of ‘citizen-journalists’ (I use the term loosely) invaded a local Karachi park in search of dating couples Khan has been trending on both traditional and digital medias. In keeping with the unforgiving nature of a viral medium, the vitriol has been plentiful.
There is also blogger Mehreen Kasana’s eloquent open letter to the presenter where she pleads the case for young, ambushed love. I find Kasana’s dispatch particularly relevant, since it hints at how Khan seems to have taken up cudgels on behalf of her perceived viewership (housewives and mothers) without any real effort to understand why younger people need spaces in which they can interact. In response to this media backlash, Khan has recently made two public ‘apologies’, neither of which come across as particularly apologetic — at no point does she acknowledge any specific wrongdoing on her part.
As more videos from “Subha Saveray” come to light it is clear that Khan’s obsession with prodigal daughters (as opposed to wayward sons) is not new. Take for instance the “Do you know where your daughter is?” campaign (October 2011) where the presenter and her panel chastise young girls perceived as unruly. Mothers receive empathy while daughters are routinely interrogated. It is also a one-sided, castigatory format which eschews alternative perspectives. Khan’s park foray is merely an organic development of this worldview.
Yet, Maya Khan is not alone. She represents a comfort zone from which our television networks operate. Mornings throughout Pakistan are the domain of chatty, perky and often intellectually-challenged breakfast presenters with what our channels consider broad appeal. Content providers feel this sort of female presenter appeals to the housewife demographic. The issues with such shows are multifarious; either they are deliberately frivolous (which stereotypes female viewers) or, as is the case with Khan’s park run, dangerously judgemental. Khan, a former actor, plays reporter but is clearly unaware of basic journalistic ethics. Perhaps, her inspiration comes from political talk shows, which tango rather often with libel but the presumption of guilt throughout the episode is alarming. Khan and her vigil-aunties are unanimously accusatory, running after couples shouting, “Don’t deceive your parents!”
That the channel has offered an unconditional apology, disavowing the content of the show and promising this will not happen again is commendable, but for those who remember Mehr Bokhari glorifying Mumtaz Qadri on the same channel last year, it seems to not have learned lessons well.
What Pakistan urgently needs is a well-defined media standards body like Office of Communication in the UK that governs with a crystal clear code of practice and standards. Is Pemra up to the task? Certainly its ‘Code for Media Broadcasters’ is scarily vague. And it was quite happy to accuse channels of “provoking anti-national sentiments” during the PNS Mehran attack. If Pemra is to function as a fair media regulator it will have to rewrite its Code in clearer, more detailed language without potentially manipulative rules. Perhaps then our channels will make sure that their Maya Khans think before they speak.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 27th, 2012.