ISLAMABAD: Pakistan, once again, is caught in the debate on “obscenity” and “indecency” on television channels and role of regulators, amid the formation of a committee to monitor ‘indecency’ on tv shows, advertisements; channels, hosts and guests and take action.

The issue came in the spotlight following a sudden move by a judge of Islamabad High Court (IHC) Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui who set up a committee comprising of representatives of officials bodies and one senior journalist with strong religious views to monitor “obscenity” on television channels and suggest recommendations to the surprise of many from media who consider this step as “strange” and “bizarre.”

The IHC judge, on March 17, constituted a committee to “examine the contents of TV programs and identify obscene material.” Justice Siddiqui formed this committee during simultaneous hearing of two different petitions involving PEMRA and the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting. The hearings were about blasphemous content on social media and obscenity. During the hearing on the blasphemous content on social media, the court decided to take up petition of a private citizen against obscenity which was filed in 2013 and was subsequently brushed under the carpet. The petition was against the obscene contents on TV channels.

“Obscene content – regardless of whether it comes from Saudi Arabia, Turkey or India… we don’t need it,” the judge reportedly said in one hearing, adding, “There is a well-thought agenda in practice to ruin the youth of this country, which non-governmental organisations are attempting to encourage sexual proclivity in Pakistan.”

The committee comprises of secretary of Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Department; Chairman and Director General (Technical) of Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA); an Additional Attorney General of Pakistan and; senior journalist Ansar Abbasi.

“PEMRA has taken some significant steps (to regulate electronic media) but most alarming issues of obscenity and pornography require immediate actions as these menaces are ruining the entire society, especially, youth of the country,” the notification of the committee, available with Truth Tracker, read. It further stated, “The PEMRA has already witnessed content in a morning show on a tv channel against the set code of conduct so the court finds it appropriate to constitute the committee to examine the content of different (tv) shows (particularly morning shows), dramas and advertisements in order to submit report as whether contents being shown are within the limits of Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in particular Article 19; code of conduct of television channels and conditions to give them license.” The committee will compile a report highlighting the violations with proposed actions against the responsible channels, hosts and guests etc. The court further directed that the committee report must contain number of violations made by different channels and reasons of inaction on the part of PEMRA.

Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan (1973) reads “Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, [commission of] or incitement to an offence.”

In some recent developments, a petition has also been moved in a provincial Lahore High Court to make dupatta (scarf) compulsory for female news anchors and hosts to cover their heads. The court has directed PEMRA to listen to the demand of this private petitioner, accordingly. Earlier, during a military dictator Ziaul Haq’s rule in 1980s, Dupatta scarf was made compulsory for PTV’s female newscasters, talk show hosts and actresses during its programs.

In another development, the PEMRA issued a notice to a private music television channel for airing a “vulgar” and “unethical” video song taken as “highly objectionable.  The television channel aired that almost nude song on April 2 which was PEMRA, later, in its official statement considered against social and cultural values of the society. Later, following a column by Ansar Abbasi, member of the IHC formed committee, Supreme Court of Pakistan also took notice of this video and directed PEMRA to seriously look into this issue. The channel has been issued a show cause notice.

“We see actions against hate-speech on political matters in different talk shows but there are least actions against obscenity and indecency being shown on tv channels through dramas and advertisements. Still limits are being crossed and this is a big cause of concern of society,” senior journalist Ansar Abbasi told Truth Tracker, adding, “There are direct attacks on our social and religious norms in tv channels content and PEMRA seems failed in taking action.” He said the committee should not be considered a supra body to take the matter. “We will only submit a report with suggestions to control this situation.” He also feels though initial orders of the court call for monitoring but it is almost impossible to monitor more than 100 channels by this small committee. Legally, it is responsibility of PEMRA.

Talking about obscenity, Abbasi said other than receiving complaints from public he himself has many complaints against television channels’ content.  “I believe obscenity and indecency is what vast majority of our society is not comfortable to watch what is shown on television channels, he said. “There are objectionable dramas, advertisements and videos of songs. Just ask people in general whether they are comfortable watching such things at home with families, which I feel should be a standard to check the content,” he said. While citing airing of an almost complete nude song on a music channel; a recent drama with two lesbian characters; a recent mobile phone ad with a half-naked dancing girl; and a recent ad where boys and girls play cricket together and a batting girl hits ball dropping at sensitive part of the fielding boy.  He said Pakistani laws and rules of such regulatory bodies are very clear about obscenity and parliament is the supreme forum to further define it and this forum should play a role. There is no implementation of law, he bemoaned. He also said that there is no editorial check in electronic media and the condition of having ombudsman and to oversee the content and complaints is not being practiced at all. He said if you start defining obscenity you cannot resolve this matter so just take the set rules and laws.

“I don’t say that taking off dupatta is obscenity. The obscenity is what you are uncomfortable to watch mainly sitting with family,” he opined, adding, “We need to set some limits in any case because this is our society and these our children. Even there are limits of liberalism and secularism in societies too. And we have different values than the West.” “We should highlight taboos but with some positive messages rather encouraging negativity. If nobody takes up this use I alone will continue to fight,” he concluded. He called for focusing on Article 31 of the constitution that addresses “Islamic way of life” with steps “to enable the Muslims of Pakistan, individually and collectively, to order their lives in accordance with the fundamental principles and basic concepts of Islam.”

On the other side of this debate, the critics of this ‘obscenity’ campaign term it “moral policing” and call for sensible approaches viewing that obscenity is a subjective matter.

“To define obscenity is more than 300 years old issue of societies. In my view, obscenity has no definition because it is a subjective matter. Some things are obscene for some but not for others,” Dr Mehdi Hasan, academic, media historian and chairman of PEMRA’s complaint cell in the largest province of Punjab viewed. “The laws and code have considered this issue but actually this is the issue of editorial boards and role of gatekeeper in media houses which seriously lacks.” Hasan, who has recently been elected as chairman of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, added. He expressed this is responsibility of television channels to enforce the role of gatekeeper and editorial board rather becoming victims of any moral policing. He argued for giving authorities to PEMRA and making the regulatory bodies control television channels and instituting punitive measures and fines for the violaters. In his view, the heads of editorial boards and gatekeepers need to be held responsible for reviewing objectionable content. Hasan stressed that consideration of what should be aired varies according to education level of society. He argued that highlighting lesbian issue in a play is not about obscenity but education level of society, he concluded.

“The constitution of committee to monitor and report obscene content without any clear definition of ‘obscenity’ by the legislature is an unprecedented move. The committee includes private citizens’, who are known for their (rigid) views about women and their appearance,” Marvi Sirmed, activist and columnist viewed in her recent column. She feels the committee, therefore, will work on subjectively without taking into consideration the universally acceptable definitions and strictures of obscenity and immorality.

Moreover, she considered if the newly constituted committee overlaps the mandate and function of PEMRA, which is the primary institution for such oversight.

Code of Conduct for Media Broadcasters or Cable Television Operators of 2010 and 2015 is very clear in not airing any advertisement “designed in such a manner that it conforms to the laws of the country and is not offensive to morality, decency and religious sects of the people of Pakistan.”

The codes for television channels content further bar dramas and shows which contains anything pornographic, obscene or indecent or is likely to deprave, corrupt or injure the public morality; and stops airing the content that is against ideology of Pakistan or Islamic values. The first such code for private television channels came in 2002.

In August 2012, PEMRA started deliberations to define “obscenity” on the directions of Supreme Court of Pakistan. The move was considered compelling millions to abide by a controversial code and authoritarianism.

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