Policing TV channels

People in our part of the world have a problem with entertainment because religion gets involved.

Editorial August 12, 2012

Justice (retd) Wajihuddin Ahmed of the Supreme Court, who has recently joined the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf, has got together with an ex-Ameer of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Qazi Hussain Ahmad, and complained to the Supreme Court about obscenity on TV channels. This has caused Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry to deliver an instant obiter dictum: “TV channels are spreading vulgarity and Pemra is doing nothing to prevent it”.

Pemra, of course, is the electronic media regulatory authority, whose acting chief was on hand and suffered the rebuke patiently, requesting the Court to give him a month in which to report the quality and quantum of vulgarity on TV channels. He apparently wanted to do some research, maybe also look into an agreed definition of vulgarity. But the Court denied him this and instead ruled that it is “not yet forming a commission”, but only granting a week’s time to Pemra.

The Chief Justice said he had watched some offensive programmes and added that “one finds it difficult to watch them with family”. To strengthen his argument, he enlisted the month of Ramazan, saying that “such programmes should be avoided during iftar”.

Pemra was asked to rate the programmes so that people may decide beforehand whether to watch the programmes or not. This is where the rub is: what is vulgar and who is saying whether something is or not vulgar? (The biggest decider is the right to switch the television off.) The Pemra acting boss fell back on the old routine saying: “Indian channels were banned in Pakistan to restrain broadcast of any improper programmes and Pakistani channels will now be screened for any such programmes”. Then he dropped a bombshell: laws related to regularity of the programmes were not well-defined and that vulgarity was relative: “Something which is vulgar to the complainants might not be vulgar to you and me”.

The Chief Justice then asked Pemra to show the Court the record of the offending programmes including “TV shows which were aired solely for the purpose of maligning the judiciary”. On this, the attorney general added his own bit: “the TV shows also run parodies of politicians and leaders”. Justice Chaudhry’s rejoinder was interesting: “such programmes are in good humour; such programmes are enjoyed”.

We are revisiting the situation that arose in September 2003 after a survey revealed that religious parties had different levels of reservations about ‘vulgarity’. One leader accused the government of double standards because Western fahashi (obscenity) was acceptable while Indian fahashi was not. After Indian movies were banned on the cables, all big cities of Pakistan switched to satellite TV and bought dish antennae. Those who watch movies will also go on record against entertainment. People in our part of the world have a problem with entertainment because religion gets involved. No one accepts the argument that entertainment works as a safety valve that lets off the steam built up by ideological oppression.

The Taliban began by blowing up cinemas and video shops before they latched onto girls’ schools as what they perceived as obscenity. Will the Court now offer us a mithridatic cure of the cruelty of the Taliban? The Taliban go further than that: they attack culture as a source of entertainment.

Swat as a microcosm of their rule showed us what we can do when looking critically at vulgarity. Already some cable unions are blocking the BBC and some other foreign channels airing programmes critical of Pakistan’s policies. Now they might chop off the bough they are perched on by cutting entertainment that Justice (retd) Wajihuddin and Qazi Hussain Ahmad think is vulgar.

Will the Court take a hardline view and gag the TV channels, shutting out some tentative criticism of ‘judicial activism’ within a generally intensely pro-judiciary community of TV anchors? Such action taken in the past had failed because entertainment was then driven underground with lethal effect.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 13th, 2012.