Right-wing leaders want Islamic body to set up TV guidelines
Islamabad: Right-wing political leaders and columnists have suggested that Pakistan's Council of Islamic Ideology should define the standards for obscenity in television programming, sparking concern among liberals who believe the move could affect freedom of expression.
The suggestion was made at a consultative meeting convened yesterday by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority to discuss parameters of obscenity for TV channels.
On August 13, the Supreme Court gave PEMRA four weeks to submit a report on "obscene and vulgar" TV shows.
Jamaat-e-Islami leaders Qazi Hussain Ahmed and Muhammad Hussain Mehanti, right wing columnist Ansar Abbasi and Lt Gen (retired) Abdul Qayyum were among those who suggested that the Council of Islamic Ideology and parliament should define "obscenity and vulgarity".
They said Pakistan was created in the name of Islam and its Constitution clearly envisages that there can be nothing against the Quran and Shariah or Islamic law.
They criticized news channels for "spreading vulgarity in the guise of entertainment and news". They also objected to the showing of "vulgar mujra, dances and songs" in the headlines of TV channels.
Javed Jabbar, a well-known writer and former minister, and Mehdi Hasan, a leading media commentator, defended the media, which they said is not all about vulgarity.
Ten per cent of the total content may be objectionable but the rest of the content is fine, they said.
Jabbar opposed involving the Council of Islamic Ideology in defining obscenity, saying it would be difficult to evolve consensus on such a complex issue.
Hasan said, "If something is undesirable to watch, you have the option of switching the channel or completely switching off your TV."
Omar R Quraishi, the editorial pages editor of The Express Tribune, said it was "troubling" that an attempt was being made to rope in the Council of Islamic Ideology to set the standards for television programming.
"A suggestion to ask the Council of Islamic Ideology to define vulgarity is troubling, indeed asking any state or non- state body to define it is, because the term is relative. It changes over cultures, and even within countries and classes, and over time," Quraishi told a news agency.
He said that over the years, Pakistan's state and establishment had "more or less brainwashed most ordinary people into thinking a certain way" and that much of this was driven by religion-based indoctrination.
"In such an environment, a definition of vulgarity will always help the orthodox and conservative elements and they will try as they usually do to impose it on all of Pakistani society," he said.
The Supreme Court asked PEMRA to submit a report on obscene and vulgar TV programmes after a petition on the issue was filed by retired judge Wajihuddin Ahmed and former Jamaat-e-Islami chief Qazi Hussain Ahmed.
However, the move was ridiculed by rights activists and advocates of free speech, who have noted that obscenity is not even properly defined.
During yesterday's meeting, PEMRA Chairman Abdul Jabbar briefed participants about "terminologies, connotations and expressions" used to define obscenity in various countries.
Former Jamaat-e-Islami chief Qazi Hussain Ahmed said obscenity could be defined by using verses of the Quran and some clauses of the Indecent Advertisement Act of 1963 that interpret vulgarity.
Hussain and other hardliners who attended the meeting claimed any content "which is unacceptable while viewing with the family" was tantamount to obscenity.
They recommended the forming of a committee to screen out unwanted content from TV advertisements.
However, media commentator Mehdi Hasan said obscenity cannot be confined only to "ill-dressed models on TV channels" but should also include child labour, injustice to minorities, social imbalance, poverty, hunger and disloyal politicians.
TV producer Sameena Ahmed of the United Producers Association and Aly Mustansir from Pakistan Advertisers Society said vulgarity was a relative term and cannot be invoked by a select group of people.
PEMRA officials said another meeting would be held in mid-September so that owners of TV channels and cable operators could be involved in the consultations.