Pak TV anchors turn moral police, spark outrage

Pak anchor
Late last month, a dentist-turned-anchorperson of Pakistani news TV channel Express News gatecrashed a massage parlour in Lahore with her cameraman and two policemen and "uncovered" an alleged brothel.

She is believed to have ransacked the parlour, ordered the police around, threatened arrests, and the policemen seemed to have obeyed dutifully. Express News telecast the incident on February 1.

It wasn't the first incident of its kind, but the latest in a growing trend of Pakistan's aggressive news TV channels taking to moral policing and vigilantism in a battle for popularity and ratings. The phenomenon has offended viewers and media observers and the two sides often confront each other in the social media.

Kamran Shahid, a former college lecturer and now anchor on Dunya TV's show 'On the front with Kamran Shahid', about a month ago suggested doing away with co-education in Pakistan's universities as a measure to curb sexual harassment of female students.

In the Lahore incident, Dr Maria Zulfiqar, a little known Express News anchor who hosts a show called Baat se Baat, allegedly forced open the doors of a massage parlour run by Chinese and Russian women and threatened a Pakistani employee that she would get her arrested if she didn't admit the place was a brothel.

Among the more infamous incidents that marked the early days of this trend involved anchor Maya Khan "raiding" parks in Karachi in January last year to "catch" dating couples for her breakfast show Subah sawere Maya Khan ke saath on CNBC Samaa TV. Cameras were shoved in the faces of couples in total disregard of their privacy. They were bullied and questioned if they were married and if their parents knew what they were up to.

Not surprisingly, the phenomena has sparked outrage among Pakistani rights activists and ordinary TV viewers, some of whom have taken to Twitter and Facebook to brand this as moral policing.

Pakistan has a regulatory body called the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) which has framed a code of conduct for broadcasters to follow. However, PEMRA's record is patchy and its role itself has been the subject of controversies in the past. The PEMRA chairman did not respond to requests from The Indian Express for a comment for this report.

A letter complaining against Khan was written by a viewer to CNBC Samaa's CEO, who replied saying Khan was asked to tender an unconditional apology and she and her team were sacked as she refused to apologise.

Khan went on to join ARY channel, and on one show there in July 2012, helped an Islamic cleric convert a Hindu Dalit boy named Sunil to Islam on live TV. The audiences called in to cheer, congratulate and welcome "Mohammad Abdullah" into the faith. But former human rights minister Ansar Burney threatened to sue Khan saying Sunil was his employee and called the entire incident a "drama".

Last month, prominent rights activist Marvi Sirmed took on Shahid on Twitter. "I told him that the law enforcement agencies have to deal with sexual harassment as a crime. Creating separate universities for men and women will not ensure crimes against women are not committed," she said. "He called me a bigot."

Identifying what lies beneath this recent phenomena of vigilante anchorpersons, she said: "They are not trained journalists, so they don't have a news sense. They can't identify issue from non-issue. The lure of making a quick buck and easy fame drives them to rake up issues which do not warrant any discussion. You will not find a single reputed TV journalist dealing with such frivolous issues as there is no dearth of real issues in Pakistan."

Raza Rumi, a well-known columnist and rights activist based in Lahore, says this trend took root around the time of the Lal Masjid operation in 2007. "Chinese massage parlours in Islamabad and surrounding areas were raided and depicted as brothels. Thus began the 'moral cleansing' of Pakistan when the clerics of Lal Masjid took the law into their hands, raided these parlours and got the employees arrested. They vowed Shariah would be imposed and this helped the smuggling of arms into the mosque, which ended in a bloody encounter ordered by Pervez Musharraf," Rumi said.

"Well-turned out TV anchors with no background in journalism are being fed with right-wing scripts to cash in on the the populist religious-moral sentiment in Pakistan. They have no way of justifying their action in the name of journalism," added Sirmed.

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