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Domestic sensitivities

Publication Date : 17-09-2012


A fair part of planet blogosphere is currently echoing with fury against an offensive, mischief-making film, the production of which seems to be even shadier than its content.

And rightly so. While for most people it is a matter of deeply held beliefs and religion, it must be pointed out that even leaving that aside, what’s offensive, derogatory and improper remains exactly that — no matter who it is about. What’s in bad taste remains so, and remains distasteful no matter what the subject or who the target.

Had the character in the film been "Mr A.N. Other" it would still have been very disturbing, though sadly it would probably not have given rise to the storm of outcry that this particular product has.

Yet the violence it has sparked in several parts of the world is equally worthy of condemnation, given that the right to protest does not include the right to resort to criminally disruptive behaviour or murder, and it is directed at institutions representing governments that had no role in the making of the film.

But meanwhile, as an undercurrent, also on the Internet are some voices ironically lamenting how technology has meant that something like this could make its way across territorial and linguistic borders at such speed. These voices are mainly to be found in the comment sections at the end of articles written by saner and more clear-thinking persons.

Why are people confusing the medium with the message? Technology is a tool like any other, used for good or bad by people according to their intentions. Before computer technology that allowed people to dub what had not been originally recorded, as was done in this film, other techniques could produce similar results. Books have been called mischief-making and caused havoc at various points in history, while the radio (Algeria) and cassette tapes (Iran) have played an important part in revolutions.

That said, what this episode has shown in unequivocal terms is that the age of globalisation brings with it the globalisation of information. Hardly a decade ago, before the era of YouTube and social media, it would not have been possible for such a film to reach such a vast audience, or for the handful of people involved in making it to cause such widespread unrest.

In terms of information, the world’s borders have eroded. This puts added pressure on the media and those who work in the field. The media everywhere have always had to keep in mind the suitability of their content in terms of the audience — domestic sensibilities, as many refer to it.

This episode carried with it a lesson for those who are responsible users of the media: domestic sensibilities in the modern age refer to other, distant parts of the world too. Not only must you be aware of how your piece of writing or digital editing will be received in your own country or community, you must also consider how it would appear to those on the outside.

Many would argue that this awareness would necessitate self-censorship. Leaving the matter of this film aside, there are many societies in the world where it is alright to raise questions about and debate topics that are taboo in more conservative countries, such as belief systems, sexuality, gender rights and so on. Wouldn’t that mean, many would ask, that a journalist writing for a European audience would be unable to discuss gay marriage because people in the numerous countries where it is criminalised find it offensive? Equally, can those in countries where marriages between first cousins are routine not discuss resultant issues, such as thalassaemia, because in many parts of the Western world the practice is frowned upon?

Not really. For responsible users of the media, being aware that one’s audience is global would have to translate not to the suppression of information — that must never be the case — but refinement in the manner in which that information is presented as an informed discussion, not as mischief-making salaciousness or derogatory commentary.

Under any circumstance, I would argue, the right to free speech or the right to be who one wants to be does not include the right to lose sense of aesthetics and suitability.

Here in Pakistan, though, journalists and media organisations have to negotiate a terrain rendered more treacherous by the immediacy of the "domestic sensibilities" concern.

Before we have the luxury of thinking of how someone in other parts of the world might receive a media product, we must consider how a range of elements within our own society will view them, and how they might react. No organisation wishes to be either the cause of civil unrest, or to find men with Molotov cocktails outside their building.

The Pakistani landscape is such that it goes beyond concerns of good taste and in some cases, has reached the point of self-censorship at the personal level for individual journalists. There are subjects that cannot be touched, and there are certain lines of arguments that — however rational — cannot be taken. And you all know what they are.

The other side of the coin is that, given Pakistan’s peculiarities, media organisations have to constantly remain on the watch that they are not ending up as mouthpieces for violent or extremist groups and individuals. Reporting information is one thing; feeding a frenzy quite another. And in the current instance, sadly, too many organisations have ended up catering to domestic concerns to the level where they appear to be not commentators, but players.

For all media organisations or the people who work in the field, what should remain a crucial concern is the need for constant introspection and a stringent watch over standards and balance.

The writer is a member of Dawn staff.


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