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May 16, 2017

Balancing freedoms


May 16, 2017

“I am not a pornographer but a story writer” – Manto

Manto is famously remembered for saying the following in defense of his story, Thanda Gosht: “My stories are for healthy people, normal beings, not for minds who dig up carnal meanings in innocent and pure things”. Manto shunned hypocrisy, daring to show society its reflection in the mirror.

There are some who believe that entertainment of any kind is evil and must be stopped. To them, any kind of enjoyment is a sin. They believe films and dramas which show men and women together are pornographic and songs are the work of the devil. These people do not want our media to highlight social evils because that would allegedly destroy society’s ‘morals’. They would have us believe that in Pakistan, people are not murdered for greed, women are not slaughtered in the name of ‘honour’ and children are not abused.

For them, revealing the reality will incite nefarious activities. This ‘morality police’ think it has the right to control what people see and hear and the public is too foolish to know what is good for them. The worst example of censorship is that of Ziaul Haq, who had the gun to enforce his will, destroy our culture and our ability to tolerate.

In the age of the Internet, fanatics and extremists do not have the authority or mandate to impose their will on Pakistan’s entertainment world. But their desire to do so remains intact. The only way they can do so is through the use of the ‘obscenity’ solution. This is what happened to Manto. Those who issued fatwas against him could not refute the truth of his stories. The only way to silence him was to try to censor his books.

It is by labelling almost everything immoral that they want to bring literature, drama, cinema and even social media under censorship. Entertainment exists simply for the sake of entertainment – something to be enjoyed, a source of laughter, reason to cry and an escape from the harsh realities. Everyone desires to be entranced by the beautiful melodies of Noor Jehan and Mehdi Hassan. Art is universal and belongs to mankind as a whole.

This is not to say that anything and everything can be projected on television and cinema. Entertainment does not mean the freedom to be obscene. There must be balance. Certain things are unacceptable such as sexually explicit or pornographic material.

Even Articles 19 and 19A of the constitution – which guarantee all citizens of Pakistan the fundamental right to freedom of expression and access to information – subject these rights to reasonable restrictions imposed by the law. In a deeply conservative society like Pakistan, the challenge of balancing these rights and limitations becomes all the more difficult, but not altogether impossible. How can society undertake this balancing act?

First, no group of people can impose their own interpretations of morality on the rest. The interpretation of terms such as ‘indecency’ varies drastically among groups. As society evolves, it advances through various forms of art and its views are subject to change. Some people may believe that singing or dancing on television is immoral. Others may even believe that even a discussion on women’s health issues is indecent.

Ultimately, the decision on what restrictions are reasonable lies with the people as a whole, not just a particular group. It is the legislature alone – and not any other organ, or a limited segment of the population – that can determine what can or cannot be seen. This is why Article 19 specifies that reasonable restrictions can only be imposed by law. Even parliament, while enacting such laws, must ensure that the restrictions on entertainment are reasonable and proportionate to the significance of the legitimate objective. Second, in order to avoid censorship, it is the duty of the media to determine what content should be broadcast. It is only when self-regulation fails that a regulatory authority can take action on a case to case basis.

In Pakistan, parliament has designated Pemra as the sole regulatory authority to monitor media content. Pemra and the Pakistan Broadcasters Association have agreed on the Electronic Media Code of Conduct 2015. These regulations provide the correct balance. To ensure nothing ‘obscene’ is broadcast, media content is monitored by in-house monitoring committees of the respective channels, leaving enough leeway for channels to produce entertainment according to the wishes of the people. As a watchdog – but not a censor, it is Pemra’s mandate to examine public complaints on a case-to-case basis and take action accordingly.

For 13 months since the passing of this code, 762,120 hours of transmission have been broadcast by TV channels and only three times have fines been imposed by Pemra. This clearly demonstrates that the Pakistani media has acted responsibly in this balancing act. Unfortunately, now it appears that Pemra has begun to issue prohibitions that remind one of Ziaul Haq’s censorship era. These prohibitions include guidelines on how women are to dress and specific rules not to air programmes where couples are in “close proximity” with each other. These directions may be a result of the case which has come up before the Islamabad High Court in which the concept of “entertainment in Pakistan” has been challenged. Without commenting on the case’s merits, we may ask: what is the role of the court in regulating entertainment? Should the courts be troubled with the purpose of regulating entertainment to conform to someone’s own subjective notions?     

Rumi beautifully stated: “To be joyous is to be grateful to the maker”. Coming from a Sufi, these words enlightens the soul. We must resist attempts to stifle entertainment because, ultimately, we will kill the stimulus for progress and the free flow of ideas.


The writer is a practising advocate of the Supreme Court and a former
president of the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan.


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