Defining obscenity -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

Defining obscenity

By: Mazhar Abbas

The writer is director current affairs Express News and has previously worked with ARY News. He is a former secretary-general of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists

By the end of next week, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) will define obscenity, as per the directives of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, when it hears the petition of a former amir of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), Qazi Hussain Ahmad, and Justice (retd) Wajihuddin Ahmed.

Pemra, in the last two months, held two major consultative sessions with cross sections of the media and society but failed to reach a consensus over the issue. Defining obscenity is not as easy as one thinks, but it is also not as difficult as one section tries to portray it.

Qazi Hussain Ahmad’s petition relates to the content of Indian channels, movies and dramas. A former judge of the Supreme Court, Justice Wajihuddin Ahmed, in a separate letter to the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, also expressed concern over the content on private television channels, though he did not fully agree with Qazi Hussain Ahmad. There was a general consensus over the formation of the committee proposed by Justice (retd) Ahmed but the JI representative opposed it and instead wanted that it should be left to the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) to define obscenity.

It is not difficult to define obscenity if we avoid going to the extreme position as the one witnessed during General Ziaul Haq’s Martial Law. It is generally believed that one of the simplest definitions of obscenity could be, “something which offends people’s sense of decency or modesty”. But the main petition wants the CII to define obscenity according to the 1973 Constitution. The counterargument is that the material which offends one section does not necessarily offend others.

We can have a consensus on which items should not be allowed such as hate and lewd material, etc. News channels should run on the pattern of quality news channels like BBC and CNN. Infotainment is acceptable but re-enactment of stories should not be converted into complete dramas. Foreign content material should be allowed as per government regulations and Pemra’s policy as agreed in 2002. As Justice (retd) Wajihuddin Ahmed said, “I have no problem if good content coming from anywhere in the world including on Indian channels is allowed,” efforts can be made over the exchange of Indian and Pakistan news channels for better competition.

Pakistan is a multicultural society and though it is an Islamic state, each province has its own culture, with its own music, dance, songs and religious values. While none of these cultures permit pornography in print, television and on the internet, Pakistan still has a large number of people who visit pornographic websites. We have obscenity laws but vague definitions of the term. Effective laws and their implementation can improve the situation. Instead of inviting the involvement of political and religious parties, separate regulatory bodies can work on a code of ethics and a mechanism for strict implementation. As mentioned before, defining obscenity has problems the world over but it is generally accepted that obscenity is something which offends people’s sense of decency and modesty.

Those who criticise the liberals for defending obscenity are not aware of the fact that it was because of the constant demands of the liberal civil society and women’s organisations that the media now protects the identities of rape victims. Above all, it is the people who must react and reject in large numbers if obscenity does appear in the media. It is not the question of what is written in the Constitution, which was abrogated three times in 40 years, but what you and I want to see on our screens.

The Express Tribune