Mass Culture

AInsult to Imagery

Instead of being custodians of religion or morality, censor boards can better serve the entertainment industry by certifying content to be suitable for a particular age group.

By Nikhat Sattar | February 2023

Pakistan has banned yet another film, the latest in a long list that started in the 50s. Although the ban was partially lifted at federal level and in Sind, in that it could be screened only in some areas, the government of Punjab has retained the restriction, claiming its content to be against Islamic teachings.

Over the past many centuries, authorities have attempted to control lives of people. Lands conquered were governed by victors not only through regulating resources, but also by rulings on what and how people may think, discuss and write. Perhaps the most important areas of such control have been religious and scientific thought that was deemed to threaten the status quo desired by government officials. Many great minds were punished by death or exile, although what they wrote and said has managed to reach us, thankfully.

Rule of people, by the people, i.e., democratic rule has been around for ages, stated to have been initiated first by Greeks. Organised democratic governments with the power of people enshrined in constitutions are only a few centuries old. One of the key elements of democracy is the right of the individual and this was given shape as the convention on fundamental human rights as late as 1948 through the United Nations. One such human right is freedom of speech.

State authorities still continue to make efforts to mould minds of citizens according to their wish. They ban speeches, books, art, music, whatever expressions that they, at a specific time, find contrary to their idea of what the public should consume. In the West, often, claims of “freedom of expression”, a human right globally acknowledged, are given short shrift where political and financial concerns are paramount, e.g., any criticism of Israel or any mention of the Holocaust that is against the common narrative. They do, however, desist from banning material of a political or religious nature. Over the years, many such governments have learned that their role is not to be custodians of beliefs and morals of their people.

The inherent insecurity and confusion of identity of authoritarian and theocratic states necessitates that they try their utmost to control what people think, say and do. Hence the taking over of setting school curricula, determining dress codes and monitoring behaviour in terms of morality as defined by them. As someone said: “censorship reflects society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.” Indeed, such bans lead inevitably to a tyrannical and repressive system.

Pakistan has a history almost as long as its age, of banning- from censoring a book written by Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah about her brother in 1954, to a film that the leader of the country felt ridiculed his populist style, to social media platforms, to airing of a politician’s speeches, tweets, social media content and so on. Reasons cited are many but almost all can be grouped under political sensitivity, security concerns, religious sensibilities and moral values.

With readership levels abysmally low, over recent years, films and social media have faced the most wrath. Multiple censor boards, ministries, regulatory authorities, even intelligence agencies bring their weight down upon what the population can see and hear. All that is necessary is for someone to whisper a negative comment about a film or media content in a politician’s ear and the wheels of banning begin to churn. Many who are at the forefront of the banning brigade do not even watch the content.

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