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 ask for the camera to be turned off, the Samaa team pretends to acquiesce but carries on filming with sound. 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.
The first time I saw a link to this show was on Jan 22, shared on a facebook group, on Jan 21, 2012. I, and many others, began sharing the Youtube links on facebook and twitter. As it spread, 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 Sri Ram Sene goons in India. This was in 2009 but I hear they’re gearing up again against Valentines Day… Of course it’s always the poor, who can’t meet in secure hotels and cafes, who are always most vulnerable against this kind of moral policing.
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.
But most importantly, the outrage was channelized into a loosely organised protest. Dozens of people sent in complaints to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) at the online feedback form, shared quickly via facebook. 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.
Within 24 hours, the online activism had the following unexpected effects:
* 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.
* 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 her show of Jan 23, 2012 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.”
* We do not accept Maya Khan’s statement in her show of Jan 23 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 offensive than Maya Khan, and takes harassment to another level. 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.
A college student in Karachi, started a facebook ‘cause’ on Jan 24 demanding that Maya Khan apologise to the youth of Pakistan, especially Karachi
Some activists began an sms campaign, sharing Zafar Siddiqi’s Dubai cell number with this message: Please send this sms to Mr. Zafar Siddiqui, CEO SAMAA TV 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: Things Maya Missed (relevant to my Pink Chaddis report for IPS linked above).
Some funny graphics were created – like park signs saying “Beware of dog – and Maya Khan” (unkind, yes, but then, people are angry), posted by Arif Iqbal (@eusuphxai on twitter), who also posted this, that I especially liked: a still from the old Indian film “Bobby” with its famous song “Hum tum aik kamre mein band hon…” with the next line changed to “Aur Maya aa jaye” (the original line can be translated as: “what if we were locked up in a room… and the key got lost” – changed to: “… and Maya turned 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.
More important, the issue has catalysed some relevant, thought-provoking reports, analyses and discussions, including those listed here:
Wusatullah Khan in BBC Urdu website, Jan 22, 2012: ‘Aap tau naib khuda hain’
BBC Urdu report, Jan 23, 2012: ‘TV channel ka anti-dating squad’
BBC Urdu Radio report, Jan 24, 2012: ‘Sawerey ka chapa’ par sakht tanqeed’ in which 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) by Bina Shah, Jan 24, 2012: ‘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.’
‘Big Brother (and Sister) is watching you‘ – Nadeem F. Paracha, Jan 23, 2102, on the history of what he calls ‘pussycat vigilantism’ – “This strange phenomenon is not just about simple hypocrisy, it is also and actually about glorifying this hypocrisy through gung-ho acts in which pussycat media vigilantes prey upon soft targets to exhibit their ‘bravery’ but squeak away if ever an opportunity arises to do the same to those who can and will bite back.” He says the first reported case of moral vigilantism that he stumbled upon was reported in Dawn, 1980. Must read.
In the parks of Karachi, by Ejaz Haider, Jan 24, 2012 - “From the terrible scarcity of information we now have a nauseating excess of it.”
Media ethics and responsibility at Afia Salam and Faisal Qureshi’s online talk show Off the Cuff, discussing the need for a legal framework.
p.s. Well before this issue blew up, Hosh media, which aims to bridge the gap between online and mainstream media, sat down with veteran journalist and former Editor of Dawn, Abbas Nasir to initiate “a crash course in some of the stickiest subjects that journalism in Pakistan now faces”. Four of the six part series are online at the Hosh website, that Sahar Habib Ghazi wrote about at The great ethics debate (published Jan 23, 2012).
Updates will continue to be posted on the petition link. Watch this space.