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No to vigil-aunties: thousands protest media’s moral policing in Pakistan

by Beena Sarwar, 24 February 2012

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A morning show broadcast in Pakistan on Jan 17, 2012, on Samaa, a Pakistani television channel, has catalysed what could well be the beginning of a media consumer rights movement.

In the show, Subah Saverey Maya kay Sath (Early Morning with Maya), the host Maya Khan, charges through a public park looking for dating couples to interrogate. With her is a battalion of other women, who join her in self-righteously lecturing the couples they come across – does your family know you are here, why don’t you meet at home if you are engaged, and, most outrageously, if you are married, where is your nikahnama (marriage certificate)?

When the harassed couples asked for the camera to be turned off, the Samaa team pretended to acquiesce but carried on filming with the sound turned on. As several people have pointed out, this intrusive behaviour could result in putting those couples in life-threatening situations in a country where forced marriages and `honour killings’ continue to be the norm.

As Youtube links to the show were shared on facebook and twitter, the out the outrage grew. People were shocked at the level of intrusion and vigilantism on display. From India, came comments on twitter about the Saffron vigilante brigade that has been known to drag couples into temples and force them into instant marriage. Which reminded me that the mentality we are protesting is not limited to Pakistan – see my article ’Peaceful Pink Panties to Tame Right-Wing Goons’ about the RSS in India, 2009 http://bit.ly/ggWNSb where I hear they’re gearing up again against Valentines Day...

Maya Khan’s antics on Samaa TV triggered off several articles and reports – starting with blogger Mehreen Kasana letting rip in her post (with doodles) An Open Letter to Maya Khan, Jan 22, 2012 http://bit.ly/zRR4Gz.

But most importantly, the outrage was channelized into a loosely organised protest. On Jan 22, lawyer Osama Siddique drafted a brief letter expressing outrage at the : highly intrusive, invasive and potentially irresponsible behavior on the part of the host - a kind of vigilantism no different than the Lal Masjid variety" (referring to the black-robed women armed with sticks called the Hafza Brigade, associated with the Red Mosque in Islamabad, who went around beating up and terrorizing women whose behaviour or looks they deemed ’immoral’ or ’unIslamic’).

The letter protested this moral policing, and pointed out that "this kind of programming is likely to also lead to legal action for violation of dignity of man under the Constitution - which legal action we as signatories will support, propagate and promote." It demanded an end to "this irresponsible programming".

A group of citizens emailed the letter to the Samaa head Zafar Siddiqi (President CNBC Pakistan, with which Samaa is affiliated), and an expatriate Pakistani in California, Ali Abbas Taj, uploaded it to Change.org as an petition titled STOP "Subah Saverey Maya kay Sath" vigilantism like Lal Masjid http://bit.ly/zRmPNZ. In about 24 hours, there were over 2000 signatures, and by the following day 4,800 people, in Pakistan and around the world, had endorsed it.

Quite unexpectedly, within 24 hours, the online activism had the following effects:

  • Samaa TV pulled off the Youtube links, but some people have managed to download and save parts as evidence in case it is needed for future action (http://dai.ly/xyU1c6).
  • Maya Khan’s facebook page was closed, probably in response to the number of comments being made on it. Some of those comments were highly abusive and threatening, which we condemn and have nothing to do with.
  • Maya Khan on the show of Jan 23, 2012 http://youtu.be/ZzbFP7sv_K8 acknowledged that what she did could have hurt people and said that was not her intention - but she has not apologised, and appears completely unrepentant and unaware of the dangers of her actions.
  • CEO Samaa TV Zafar Siddiqi wrote back to the people who had emailed him saying: "I have travelled to Khi to look at this matter and yesterday Maya apologised in her program for this. I can assure this will never happen again. Samaa is a progressive channel. "There are certain other directives that have been put into place as of yesterday. "I thank everyone concerned in bringing this matter to my attention. It’s really appreciated."

The citizens’ response:

  • We do not accept Maya Khan’s statement in her programme of Jan 23, 2012 http://youtu.be/ZzbFP7sv_K8 as an apology. Nor are we satisfied with Mr Siddiqi’s attempts to placate us. We want an unconditional, public apology from both Maya Khan and Samaa TV.
  • We do not hold Maya Khan solely responsible for her actions; it is the producer and channel owner who set policy and allow this kind of programming to happen. We want to know what steps are being taken and what policy directives given to ensure this doesn’t happen again.
  • Maya Khan should apologise publically not just to viewers but also to the couples she harassed in the park.
  • There’s also outrage against a 2010 moral policing show by ARY reporter Yasir Aqeel, who is if possible even more intrusive than Maya Khan, and takes harassment to another level: http://youtu.be/Uvun5FM8lpA. We protest these intrusive tactics by TV channel owners to boost ratings by harassing peaceful, law-abiding citizens.
  • We would like to know what ethical guidelines TV channel owners and producers are setting down to ensure that this doesn’t happen.
  • We are in contact with the commercial sponsors of television shows and will impress upon them the need to pull advertising from programmes and channels that violate basic media ethics.

BOTTOM LINE: Media is not a business like any other. It carries greater responsibility and we want its workings to be transparent and ethical.

In addition:

A college student in Karachi, started a facebook `cause’ on Jan 24 demanding that Maya Khan apologise to the youth of Pakistan, especially Karachi: http://bit.ly/zCPfms

Some activists began an sms campaign, sharing Zafar Siddiqi’s Dubai cell number with the following message: Please send this sms to Mr. Zafar Siddiqui, CEO SAMAA TV at his cell number <+971505529171>, if you want to raise your voice against the moral policing by Maya Khan: "Dear Mr Siddiqi, pardon the intrusion. I’m part of a citizens’ group protesting Samaa TV and its host Maya Khan’s irresponsible ’moral policing’. We expect an unconditional apology, and this show withdrawn or at least suspended until new parameters are worked out. Thank you."

It hasn’t all been about anger and outrage though. Predictably, Pakistanis have derived considerable mirth from the situation, some of it rather unkindly expressed. There’s this outrageous post by Urooj Zia: http://bit.ly/x2fcUa Things Maya Missed (relevant to my Pink Chaddis report for IPS linked above).

Graphics were created – Park signs saying "Beware of dog – and Maya Khan" (unkind, yes, but then, people are angry). http://bit.ly/yP6E3S - by arif iqbal @eusuphxai – and other one, quite funny, in which he takes a still from the old Indian film "Bobby" with the famous song "Hum tum aik kamre mein band hon…" and changes the next line to "Aur Maya aa jaye" http://bit.ly/Ajo9pw (the original line can be translated as: "what if we were locked up in a room… and the key gets lost" – changed to: "… and Maya turns up"

There have also been some really nasty shares, including videos of Maya dancing, and an animation in which she gets slapped, but let’s ignore those for now, with just this comment, that we do not condone abusive language, personal insults or threats of violence.

See these thought-provoking articles and reports about the issue:

Wusatullah Khan in BBC Urdu website, Jan 22, 2012 http://bbc.in/zgAeTO: `Aap tau naib khuda hain’

BBC Urdu report, Jan 23, 2012: `TV channel ka anti-dating squad’ http://bit.ly/w29jL0

BBC Urdu Radio report, Jan 24, 2012: `Sawerey ka chapa’ par sakht tanqeed’ http://bbc.in/xMc8sY - Samaa senior producer Sohail Zaidi rejects civil society concerns, defends show, saying, "I am not answerable to anyone".

Vigil-aunties (a term coined by Anthony Permal @anthonypermal) by Bina Shah, Jan 24, 2012 http://bit.ly/zD4ueJ: `At the very least, the channel and the anchorperson owe an apology, if not compensation, to those two individuals who had hurt nobody on that day when they were ambushed and harassed by the television anchor and her Moral Aunty Brigade. The irony is that she describes herself on her Facebook page as "very fair and honest in her dealings". I think that girl in the niqab, crying in the park, and her blameless friend, as well as any sane person with a conscience and a respect for other people’s privacy, would beg to differ.’

In the parks of Karachi, by Ejaz Haider, Jan 24, 2012
http://bit.ly/wIwvyz "From the terrible scarcity of information we now have a nauseating excess of it."

There is a legal framework, even police need permission from magistrate to conduct a raid http://bit.ly/Ad65y9 Offline must be kept offline. Media ethics, responsibility - good discussion Afia Salam and the online 247 team.

Updates will continue to be posted on the petition link http://bit.ly/zRmPNZ. Watch this space.

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