Moralising the nation

October 11, 2020

The recent PEMRA and PTA bans aim to exercise control over free speech, not just speech strictly considered ‘political’, but any expression that deviates from the dominant norms of society


Discourse in the media regarding women’s bodies, autonomy and safety often vacillates from objectification to protectionism, both ends of the same spectrum of patriarchy. Representation of women in the media is fraught with misogynist tropes, harmful stereotypes and sexualisation. These representations on screen are filmed and viewed through the male gaze, often resulting in objectification of women’s bodies. Whilst these feminist critiques centre the harm caused to “feminine bodies” – and because they translate into real-world discrimination – the approach adopted by the state often places harm to the status quo and control of women’s bodies when addressing these harms at the centre.

The recent ‘advisory’ notification by Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) regarding the content of advertisements is symptomatic of a state assuming the role of moral police, and broad laws which allow for arbitrary determinations of ‘decency’ and ‘morality’.

Morality and decency have long been a cudgel used by society and the state to police marginalised communities, particularly those deemed as ‘deviant’. Morality and decency have been notoriously difficult to define, given the highly subjective nature of these determinations, judges often rely on standards of the ‘reasonable man’ or whether a particular speech or image would incite disorder in society. The subjectivity can be seen in an infamous concurring opinion by US Supreme Court Justice Stewart in the case of Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184, 197 (1964) regarding obscenity where he defined “obscene content” as “I know it when I see it”. These approaches are inherently conservative as they seek to preserve the status quo. A part of the status quo includes the systemic oppression of women and institutionalised biases.

The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority Ordinance 2002 states that programmes and advertisements aired by licencees should not contain “obscenity, vulgarity or other material offensive to commonly accepted standards of decency”. Such vague provisions vest Pemra with wide powers to determine the standards of ‘decency’, resulting in the latest notification which stated that advertisements such as that for biscuits were “causing/promoting unrest and behavioural disturbance among viewers”. Basing its determinations on non-specific social media posts, flimsy correlations were drawn between the advertisements and perceived ‘harms’ to society and no specific provisions from the Electronic Media (Programmes and Advertisements) Code of Conduct 2015 were cited.

The inability of the law to define decency is exemplified in the definition offered in the Indecent Advertisements Prohibition Act 1963: “whatsoever may amount to any incentive to sensuality and excitement of impure thoughts in the mind of an ordinary man of normal temperament, and has the tendency to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influence, and which is deemed to be detrimental to public morals and calculated to produce pernicious effect, in depraving and debauching the minds of persons.” In this definition, the ‘ordinary man’ is centred, rather than the bodies which are usually sexualised, objectified and stereotyped in society. Similarly, Section 294 of the Pakistan Penal Code defines ‘obscene acts and songs’ as “Whoever, to the annoyance of others, (a) does any obscene act in any public place, or (b) sings, recites or utters any obscene songs, ballad or words, in or near any public place.” A simple reading of these sections does not give the reader any objective standard by which to determine what content is decent or indecent.

Earlier this year, the Aurat Marches across Pakistan were challenged in various courts in petitions which used the same criteria of decency to regulate the placards and slogans raised at the March. The contention was that while women might have the constitutional right to assembly and expression, that right needs to be palatable to the sensibilities of Pakistani society. Ahead of March 8, Pemra issued notifications directing TV channels to refrain from airing content “against commonly accepted standards of decency as well as religious, social and cultural norms and sentiments of public” in ‘observing’ International Working Women’s Day.[1] Outrage was directed at the tone and words used by the Marchers, not the systems, oppressions and crimes the marchers were protesting against. Since then decency and morality have been used by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) to ban or threaten to ban apps like Bigo Live and TikTok, applications which have spaces for expression and creativity among the youth and various socio-economic sectors of society.

The underlying theme of these moves has been to exercise control over the freedom of expression, not just speech strictly considered ‘political’, but any expression that deviates from the patriarchal and dominant norms of society. It is no coincidence that alongside controls over journalistic freedoms, women’s bodies are also the site of contestation and control. This will continue to be the case as long as legal structures and the political leadership continue to parrot patriarchal values.

The writer is a programme manager at Digital Rights Foundation

Moralising the nation: PEMRA and PTA bans aim to exercise control over free speech