Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Of Pakistan's New Media and Old Firebrands

It is a brand new world here in Pakistan. Under the new democratic government, the media seems freer than it ever was before. The play Chicago was up at the Pakistan Arts Council for eleven nights and was sold-out all eleven times. I went to watch it on Saturday and came out thrilled that such a risqué piece of theater was actually allowed here. Bold dances, sexy clothes, and unabashed references to sex! The audience, laughing and clapping through the entire play, absolutely loved it. And I, with more than a little wonder, thought that this would never have been possible five years back.

I also went to see the latest Pakistani movie Ramchand Pakistani over the weekend and was once again pleasantly surprised at how unconstipated its attitude towards sex and sexuality was.

The same is the case with the new TV channels and radio stations that have been flourishing over the past couple of years. Najam Shiraz’s new song Khwabon Ke Rishtey is a case in point. His music video deals with the problems teenage girls face from unwanted pregnancies and cheating boyfriends to sexual harassment and parental neglect. I won’t go so far as to say that his video deals with these things in a meaningful way but just that these taboo topics can be touched upon is something remarkable to me.

But really, underneath the face of an apparently free press, there is actually rampant self-censorship. While governmental interference is no longer something of huge concern to the media, the specter of an irrational mullah mob chanting Allah-u-Akbar and waving pitchforks and torches does send shivers down its spine.

I tell you this with such authority because I have been working at Dawn TV for the past month and have witnessed the self-censorship firsthand. There is an old man at Dawn TV, who looks like a relic from PTV of the fifties, called Censor Uncle. He watches all the shows before they air and checks to see whether the content will ruffle any fundo feathers or not. One talk show was forbidden from discussing abortion and another from mentioning that alcohol was legal before Bhutto went fundo in the 70s.

It is deplorable that the media feels compelled to censor itself when talking about simple historical facts or important social issues. So perhaps these new franker conversations about gender, sex and sexuality have to be put in the context of crazy Taliban burning down girls schools in Swat and vigilante groups of burqa clad women kidnapping Chinese masseuses. The mullah mob is able to bully the new freer media into self-censorhsip because of the government’s ambivalent attitude towards religion-motivated vigilantism. The media would naturally protect itself rather than offend the crazies and find itself facing their wrath without any government protection.

Some may ask why it is so important to protect the media’s right to talk about sex anyways, especially since it makes most older Pakistanis extremely uncomfortable. Well first off, on the matter of principle, because freedom of speech means letting people talk about things that you do not like or agree with. Secondly because this traditional taboo on sex and sexuality prevents us as a society from having an honest debate and spreading awareness about women’s rights, sexual abuse, STDs, AIDS, unwanted pregnancies, abortions, family planning, rape, LGBT rights, sexual harassment and so many other issues. The new media can help us overcome our national prudishness but the government has to help it too by protecting it from the vigilante violence of the mullah brigade.

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