The nanny court
By: Dr Mohammad Taqi
It is this cherry picking of issues, petitioners and the amicus curiae that raise serious concerns about the ideological agenda of the Pakistani Supreme Court
The Supreme Court of Pakistan has taken the hapless acting chairperson of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulation Authority (PEMRA), Mr Abdul Jabbar to task again. Remember the grainy video of the chairperson being grilled by the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, while presiding over a full court meeting recently? At that time, he had come under fire after a ‘planted’ interview of the Bahria Town fame Malik Riaz was aired on a private television channel. It is pertinent to recall details of that episode as the august court has developed a penchant for taking up serious, yet simple issues, with an unusual populist sensationalism.
In that video the Chief Justice was seen sitting at the head of the table, which had his brother judges comfortably occupying the other seats. The PEMRA chairperson was then called to the front and made to stand next to the Chief Justice. There did not appear to be a chair for him there and neither was one offered to him. The chairperson, with a stack of files under his arm, stood there literally trembling. The spectacle was reminiscent of a harsh schoolmaster chastising his unruly student. Now the chairperson himself was not an accused in the matter and obviously not a serf of the Supreme Court to have been subjected to such humiliation.
To add insult to injury, the whole episode was being recorded and was subsequently released to the media. With whose permission the cameras were allowed in that room, we might never know. The release of the video was never probed or owned by the court. No matter what the rationale behind the court’s decision to let the poor man’s ordeal be televised, this is certainly not what is meant by the adage that justice must also be seen to have been done.
But this time around the honourable court was apparently relaying its displeasure on certain ‘objectionable’ programmes being televised on various channels in Pakistan. The court has taken upon itself, inter alia, to act as the moral police or more accurately as the nation’s nanny. It has set out to decide for the people what is, or is not, vulgar or obscene. The three-member bench of the SC was deliberating on a letter filed by the former Jamaat-e-Islami chief, Qazi Hussain Ahmed and Justice (retired) Wajihuddin of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf against what they alleged was obscenity on the television channels.
The court also quoted columns by Ansar Abbasi and Orya Maqbool Jan, apparently thanking them for their columns that pointed out the vulgarity on television. The court claimed that the television channels were spreading vulgarity and PEMRA had done nothing to stop them. It has ordered the PEMRA chairperson to submit a detailed report by August 13 about the TV programmes spreading vulgarity. According to this newspaper of record, during the proceedings, the honourable Chief Justice remarked, “We can’t watch TV with our families due to this vulgarity. He said PEMRA would be responsible if obscenity was shown on TV channels. He also said some vulgar programmes were being aired even during Iftar, which should be avoided.”
That certain programmes or advertisements on the television might be distasteful is not moot. But the way the court has gone about solving the problem is arbitrary, divisive and appears to be done in undue haste. By choosing to deliberate on the ‘sensitivities’ of four ideologically charged bearded men, the court has already stacked the deck against any open and fair discourse on the topic, at least during the course of the present proceedings. What may be obscene to these four gentlemen might not bother many others. Let’s face it, obscenity, just like beauty, lies in the eyes of the beholder. To them a woman showing leg in a hair-removal cream advertisement –allegedly discussed during the proceedings — might be offensive but to many others the television channels, especially their rabid anchors, making a mockery of the last vestiges of tolerance remaining in Pakistani society are much more obscene, nauseating and abhorrent.
So far no information has surfaced where the Chief Justice and his brother judges have taken a note of the anchors-turned-televangelists literally calling for murder of minority religious sects on primetime television. The court remained mum when one anchorwoman hounded a couple meeting in a public park and chased them around with her whole crew. More recently, that same anchorwoman, aided and abetted by a couple of clergymen, televised the conversion of a Hindu boy to Islam, ostensibly of his own free accord. The ignominious telecast caused outrage, but apparently, it was not disconcerting enough for the honourable judges to take note. And lest we forget, the death trap set by that anchorwoman with her leading questions that contributed to the brutal assassination of Governor Salmaan Taseer, did not concern the court one tiny bit.
The obscenity and pornography issues have been dealt with by the United States Supreme Court in famous cases like Roth vs United States (1957) and Jacobellis vs Ohio (1964). Programme content ratings for television, film and video games are quite developed in most civilised countries. Technological advances like V-Chip built into televisions have been there since the mid-1990s. The Pakistani Supreme Court may not need to reinvent the wheel but could serve as an enabler to help it get tweaked to local needs. Instead of bashing and belittling the PEMRA chairperson, the court could have, off the bat, co-opted help from media professionals, intellectuals and scientists were it keen to actually seek a wholesome solution to the issue. But other than merging an old petition by the media expert Mr Javed Jabbar with the current proceedings, it seems to have relied only on its own perceptions and that of the four men.
It is this cherry picking of issues, petitioners and the amicus curiae that raise serious concerns about the ideological agenda of the Pakistani Supreme Court. Some of us do remember General Ziaul Haq’s brutal Islamisation unleashed in the name of amr bil ma’roof wa nahi anil munkar (ordering for acknowledged virtues and forbidding from sin) and the Chador aur Chardiwari ka Tahaffuz (preserving the sanctity of the women’s cloak and abode) and are concerned that this is where the nanny court may be headed.