Shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre - Hajrah Mumtaz - Monday 2nd May 2011

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THIS is country that enjoys slapping down bans. More often than not, such moves expose themselves to criticism on the basis of either the freedom-of-expression logic, or consumers` right to decide for themselves what is or is not acceptable.
In earlier decades, the press experienced extensive censorship by state authorities, particularly during the Zia years. One can argue that press censorship to a certain degree is still the norm.
Think of the potential consequences for individuals and organisations, for example, if in the Pakistan of the here and now — particularly in the wake of the murders of Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti — a journalist argued vehemently and with no caveats that the blasphemy law ought to be repealed.
Apart from press censorship, there are a large number of cases where the state, in the hands of various administrations, conservative and otherwise, has dictated what can and cannot be said in the public sphere.
All films and theatrical performances must be passed by the censor board, for example. There are number of laws (and Pakistan is of course not alone in this) that seek to prevent hate speech and criminalise material that may give rise to sectarian, ethnic or religiously motivated violence. Defamation and slander are recognised as such.
In recent years, the state has stepped in to control Internet traffic because of some incendiary content; it has prevented access to certain films and attempted to control foreign programming on our television screens.
At a forum of no less significance than parliament, it has been argued that Indian films be banned in Pakistan because, apparently, they corrupt the minds of the young and subvert Pakistani culture — as though such a recognisable, unitary entity existed.
Whether bans are effective and ethical or not can be debated. On numerous occasions I have argued that many cases where the state has put bans or censorship codes into effect, it has overstepped its authority. Today, though, I have a different question. The bans Pakistan has seen tend to fall at root into three categories: 1) what is perceived as `vulgarity` or `obscenity` (foreign films, television shows, staged dances etc); 2) defamation of Islam or instances where it has been held up to ridicule (Facebook, the Danish cartoons, etc); or 3) political dissent. Clearly, successive administrations have been willing and able to pull the plug on certain forms of expression and observations.
So my question is, why is it that despite this long history of controlling debate in the public sphere, the state has rarely, if ever, stepped in to control the truly divisive and potentially anarchic material that is regularly fed to the public?
If the authorities can step in to prevent perceived vulgarities, why can they not intervene to prevent hate speech, misrepresentation, the vilification of certain quarters and so on? Why do I continue to find pamphlets that demonise this or that segment of society? Why can I hear incitements to violence against this or that community over the loudspeakers at rallies or other forums?
Consider the media which is, as I pointed out earlier, no stranger to being the target of censorship. If the sensibilities of the people are cited as an excuse, then statements of defamation, misrepresentation and incitement are equally damaging to young and/or impressionable minds.
Yet in the glittering, hard-as-diamonds landscape of Pakistan`s modern media industry, it seems that anyone can become an instant expert through the ability to garner higher ratings, which seems to depend on the ability to cause a furore.
To media organisations with their obscene hunger for high, higher, highest ratings, no unsubstantiated comment counts as going too far; no question, no matter how leading, crosses any boundaries; no distorted, deliberately stripped-of-context account constitutes cause for a moment`s pause. The truth, professional ethics, an even-handed or aiming-for-objective approach? There they fly, out of the window, whatever the cost to the victim, whosoever that may happen to be.
In recent years, a fair number of blogs have cropped up that keep an eye on the Pakistani media, print and electronic. The same issues keep cropping up again and again, mostly in terms of the ethical considerations (or lack thereof) of news anchors.
Regularly on Pakistan`s free and independent media, we find opinion being palmed off as fact, guests that have been carefully picked with a view to engender `debate` that more closely resembles a furore, controversy being generated for merely its own sake, and never mind the facts, and the routine and near-ritual humiliation of low-power groups such as religious minorities or women.
Most recently, consider the language and offensively superior attitude that was evident on our television screens when the topic of discussion was the recent Supreme Court verdict in Mukhtar Mai`s case — a litmus test that the justice system failed.
There have been cases where, under the euphemism of discussion, violence has been incited against various groups, communities or people who hold certain points of view. Statements and ideological moorings have not just been twisted or taken out of context, there are numerous examples where they have been entirely misrepresented.
How much effect this can have in the real world is demonstrated by the fate suffered by Mr Taseer. Would things have been different had he not been hounded in the manner that he was by the media, his views vilified and misrepresented, his character and bona fides torn apart? It was Malik Mumtaz Qadri who shot him, but do the media not share a portion of the blame? What can the state do? It can enforce the law to prevent irresponsible and incendiary hate speech. Instead of debating the effect Indian films have on the average Pakistani mind, we ought to be focusing on methods to clean up the `free` speech in public discourse.
Freedom of speech is all very well, but it brings with it the responsibility to be ethical, balanced and rooted in the facts. In 1919, in a case setting limits on the freedom of speech guaranteed by the US`s First Amendment to the constitution, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr observed: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting `fire` in a crowded theatre and causing a panic.” The writer is a member of staff.

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