August 10, 2023 - Comments Off on Creative Freedom vs. Societal Sensitivities: The Balancing Act in Entertainment Censorship
Rameen Durrani is a student majoring in Economics & Political Science and is working as a Research & Policy Intern at Digital Rights Foundation for the summer of 2023.
Censorship of entertainment frequently occupies a fragile middle ground between artistic freedom and societal sensitivities. This dynamic is especially noticeable in Pakistan, where cultural, religious, and societal norms influence the boundaries of creative expression. In the context of Pakistani entertainment censorship, this blog explores the constant difficulty of striking the correct balance between creative freedom and societal sensitivity.
While Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan guarantees the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression, it also “allows for reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the "glory of Islam" or the "integrity, security, or defense of Pakistan" or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to an offense.” This provision, amongst others, creates ambiguity as to the degree of creative freedom within a country that has, for decades, been engaged in a battle of achieving modernity while also retaining its traditional values. According to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, “the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulation Authority (PEMRA) has been established under the PEMRA Ordinance 2002 to facilitate and regulate the private electronic media. It has the mandate to improve the standards of information, education and entertainment and to enlarge the choice available to the people of Pakistan, including news, current affairs, religious knowledge, art and culture as well as science and technology.”
Owing to its largely contradictory laws, the influence of religious groups and the absence of media literacy, censorship decisions in Pakistan have often stifled artistic expression and discouraged daring storytelling. In addition to frequent film censorship, platform bans have also become quite common. Movie database IMDB was blocked on the pretext of it containing a review and link to a documentary on Balochistan. In 2021, PEMRA also directed local television channels to "stop airing caress and hug scenes" in dramas, as it was receiving several complaints against such content. It is interesting to note, however, that no such complaints are addressed regarding domestic violence as well as other forms of abuse that often serve as the main theme of various TV shows.
 Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. (MOIB), PAKISTAN. (n.d.).www.moib.gov.pk. http://www.moib.gov.pk/Pages/178/PEMRA  In Pakistan, TV channels told to stop airing “hugging scenes” in dramas. WION. https://www.wionews.com/south-asia/in-pakistan-tv-channels-told-to-stop-airing-hugging-scenes-in-dramas-423167
Saim Sadiq’s Joyland, Pakistan’s first-ever competitive entry at the Cannes Film Festival won the Jury Prize in the ‘Un Certain Regard’ category at the festival. Joyland was also shortlisted by Pakistan’s Oscars Selection Committee as the country’s submission to the 95th Academy Awards. After bagging multiple awards on international platforms and receiving a 10-minute standing ovation at Cannes, the film was stopped from release in the very country it was representing globally. The Internet appeared to be divided after the Pakistani authorities banned Joyland on the grounds that written complaints had been received that the movie contains “highly objectionable material” that does not conform with the “social values and moral standards of our society.” The film was later permitted to release after heavy censorship in all provinces except Punjab, on the grounds that they were ‘receiving complaints’ against the content.
Actions like these raise questions about the apparent hypocrisy that is embedded in entertainment censorship in Pakistan as films like The Legend of Maula Jutt that portray extreme forms of violence and brutality are conveniently passed by the Censor Board while films like Joyland that highlight important and sensitive social issues are restricted. In fact, according to an Al-Jazeera article, when an objection over graphic violence in The Legend of Maula Jutt was raised before the release of the film, the Censor Board chairperson threatened: ‘If anyone cuts anything in this film, I’ll resign.”
Similarly, in 2023, the film Javed Iqbal: The Untold Story Of A Serial Killer was banned two days before it was scheduled to be released. It was later allowed to be released under a different name and again after heavy censorship. Most recently, the film Zindagi Tamasha directed by Sarmad Khoosat faced a challenging journey due to censorship in Pakistan. Despite critical acclaim, the movie was banned by the government, leading to financial losses and limited audience reach. The ban on theatrical release denied the filmmakers the opportunity to earn revenue from box office collections, pushing them to release the film on YouTube for free. This unfortunate outcome underscores the adverse consequences of entertainment censorship in Pakistan, as it poses obstacles for filmmakers in pursuing their artistic vision.
So the question remains: who decides what is acceptable? PEMRA has been criticized for being overly sensitive to religious and cultural issues, leading to the banning or editing of content that may not be objectively offensive but merely challenges conservative norms. This approach is seen as stifling creative freedom and hindering the growth of a diverse and inclusive media landscape. Moreover, it has led to a drastic increase in self-censorship as content creators self-censor to avoid offending or hurting the sentiments of certain groups, as they fear facing public outrage or even threats. In an interview with Samaa News, Javed Iqbal’s director Abu Aleeha stated, “My cinema is not commercial. I can’t show characters singing and dancing. I try not to show abuse and nudity, but if I am making a film on Javed Iqbal, who killed 100 children, then portraying him to be someone other than what he was would be unconvincing to the audience. I have to show reality.” 
 “Joyland” is Pakistan’s entry for Oscars 2023. (2022, September 30). The Express Tribune. https://tribune.com.pk/story/2379352/joyland-is-pakistans-entry-for-oscars-2023  Saifi, T. S. (2022, November 16). Pakistan blocks national release of “Joyland,” a story of sexual liberation. CNN.  Joyland film: notices issued to Punjab govt, censor board against ban. (2022, November 30). Bol News. https://www.bolnews.com/pakistan/2022/11/joyland-film-notices-issued-to-punjab-censor-board-against-ban/  Sharma, S. (2022, October 22). Pakistani film The Legend of Maula Jatt sets a new benchmark. Www.aljazeera.com. Retrieved August 7, 2023, from https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2022/10/22/the-return-of-maula-jatt  Khan, A. (2023, March 27). Name of Pakistani film “Javed Iqbal” changed, resubmitted to censor board for approval. FactFile. https://factfile.pk/2023/03/27/name-of-pakistani-film-javed-iqbal-changed-resubmitted-to-censor-board-for-approval  https://tribune.com.pk/author/328. (2023, August 3). “Zindagi Tamasha” to release on YouTube, Vimeo. The Express Tribune. https://tribune.com.pk/story/2429079/sarmad-khoosats-passion-project-zindagi-tamasha-to-release-on-youtube-vimeo
While it is true that petitions to ban certain entertainment content in Pakistan often come from the public, it is important to understand that the majority's viewpoint is not always indicative of what is best for a constitutional democratic society. The public's concerns should not be disregarded outright, but decisions regarding entertainment censorship must be made through a careful and balanced process that considers various factors, such as the right to information and freedom of expression as well as the consequences of violating them. By taking certain considerations into account, Pakistan can navigate the complexities of entertainment censorship while upholding its socio-cultural and religious values. Like many other institutions, PEMRA also suffers from politicization and a lack of independence. Therefore, the need of the hour is to establish an independent and impartial body to oversee censorship decisions that target censorship efforts towards areas of genuine concern, such as hate speech, incitement to violence, and sexual abuse, rather than imposing outright bans on content that might stifle creative expression unnecessarily. In fact, the authorities need to define these categories in a way that there is a clear distinction between content that serves an educational purpose and content that propagates harmful ideals. PEMRA's inability to differentiate between the two raises concerns about the potential hindrance to fostering informed discussions and societal awareness.
With the world moving towards creating more inclusive and accepting societies, Pakistan appears to be heading in the opposite direction, as excessive censorship decelerates social progress and points towards an unaware and ignorant society. This restriction on information access can lead to uninformed decision-making by citizens, undermining the essence of democracy. Moreover, censorship's potential for abuse of power, coupled with media self-censorship, threatens media independence, minimizing the public's ability to hold those in power accountable. Additionally, it denies citizens the right to make their own choices about the content they consume by disregarding individual autonomy. To foster a vibrant and inclusive society, it is essential for Pakistan to strike a balance between the legitimate concerns of censorship and the preservation of freedom of expression and cultural diversity. Balancing creative freedom and societal sensitivities in a fairly traditional society like Pakistan requires a thoughtful and nuanced approach. Creating a space for dialogue between artists, filmmakers, religious leaders, policymakers, and the general public can help bridge the gap between creative expression and societal sensitivities, leading to better mutual understanding.
 Shahid, U. (2021, November 28). An uncensored history of film censorship in Pakistan. Samaa. https://www.samaaenglish.tv/news/2464853