Outrageous vigil-auntyism

Beena Sarwar

I am fuming about the moral vigilantism of television shows in Pakistan. One in particular recently got my hackles up. Titled Khufia (Secret) on a new channel, AbbTakk, it features the host, one UzmaTahir, accosting khwajasiras (transgenders, commonly known as hijras) on the streets of Karachi and haranguing them with morality lectures about their shameful lifestyles. “Tum gay ho? Mujhebatao, tum gay ho?” (Are you gay? Tell me, are you gay?) she barks, flinging back her long, straight, blow-dried hair and shoving a microphone in the face of a khwajasira. Excuse me? Is she for real? Apparently, this brash, holier-than-thou young woman was an actress once, who is now paid to do these ‘real-life dramas’ on TV and boost ratings and revenue. Journalistic ethics? Rule of law? Forget it.

The camera zooms into the khwajasiras faces spot-lighted in the darkness like hunted rabbits as Ms Tahir forces them to admit to their immoral behaviour and involvement in the flesh trade. But ‘exposing’ khwajasiras on the streets is obviously not enough for this crusader. She actually barges into private homes – private homes – accompanied by police. She accuses residents of being gay and tries to bully them into admitting that they are transgender or gay. On top of that, she lets the police beat and arrest these people – although the police have no right or authority to conduct or accompany anyone on such raids. This is not the first time we’ve seen TV channels conduct such ‘chaapa mar’ shows that violate the rule of law, individual rights, right to privacy, media ethics and responsibility. Some time back, one Maya Khan chased dating couples in parks and lectured them about morality. In a victory for outraged media consumers who registered their protest in droves, the channel fired Maya Khan after she failed to apologize. Although another channel snapped her up, she is reportedly being more cautious now.

 

Then there was another TV show host, one Maria Zulfiqar Khan, who barged into a Chinese clinic, accompanied by police, accusing the owner of running a prostitution den. Such shows violate the basic rights guaranteed under the Constitution of Pakistan as well as the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority’s code of conduct for TV Broadcasters/Cable TV Operators. All these cases also have something else in common: those that they target are vulnerable in some way or other, poor, marginalized, and without the protection of powerful contacts or armed security guards. The Maya Khan parks episode provoked far more widespread outrage than Maria Zulfiqar  Khan or UzmaTahir’s shenanigans.

Practically everyone can relate to the tribulations of young couples trying to meet. There just isn’t the same sympathy for a dubious Chinese clinic owner, and even less for homosexuals. Those who unleash these vigil-aunties feel confident that they will get away with it because they hypocritically invoke religion, morality and ‘social responsibility’. Those who challenge them, they allege, are promoting immorality, homosexuality and prostitution. But this is not about gay rights. This is about citizens’ right to privacy in their own homes and in public spaces. No one – repeat, no one – has the legal or moral authority to harangue an ordinary citizen, even in a public place, with personal questions and forcibly reveal their faces on camera, or barge into a private home and violate its residents’ privacy. Some time back, a Facebook friend in India sent me the link to an online petition addressed to Justice  MarkandeyKatju,

Chairperson, Press Council of India, and others, pleading for “Stringent action against media houses participating in voyeuristic reporting”. “The media in our country (India) has engaged in relentless sensationalism, resorting to cheap and lowly tactics to raise TRPs and viewership. This includes airing concocted stories, violating people’s privacy by taking video footage, morphing images and airing them against completely fabricated and sensationalistic stories; secretly taking videos of people in private parties and clubs and extorting them, and engaging in harassing and abusive conduct.” I don’t know whether Justice Katju has seen the petition or if any action has been taken in India, but this exactly describes the scene in Pakistan too. Activism against such violations has begun in both countries. Let’s see where it takes us.

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JANUARY 2014