By Declan Walsh for The New York Times
One morning last week, television viewers in Pakistan were treated to a darkly comic sight: a posse of middle-class women roaming through a public park in Karachi, on the hunt for dating couples engaged in “immoral” behavior.
Panting breathlessly and trailed by a cameraman, the group of about 15 women chased after — sometimes at jogging pace — girls and boys sitting quietly on benches overlooking the Arabian Sea or strolling under the trees. The women peppered them with questions: What were they doing? Did their parents know? Were they engaged?
Some couples reacted with alarm, and tried to scuttle away. A few gave awkward answers. One couple claimed to be married. The show’s host, Maya Khan, 31, demanded to see proof. “So where is your marriage certificate?” she asked sternly.
This hourlong spectacle, broadcast live on Samaa TV on Jan. 17, set off a furious reaction in parts of Pakistan. Outrage sprang from the Internet and percolated into the national newspapers, where writers slammed Ms. Khan’s tactics as a “witch hunt.”
“Vigil-aunties,” read one headline, referring to the South Asian term “aunty” for older, bossy and often judgmental women.
Now, the protests are headed to court. On Friday, four local nongovernment organizations will file a civil suit against Samaa TV in Pakistan’s Supreme Court, hoping to galvanize the country’s top judges into action.
“Journalists don’t have the right to become moral police,” said Adnan Rehmat of Intermedia, a media development organization that is among the petitioners. “We need to draw a line.”
Images of moral vigilantes prowling the streets have an ominous resonance in Pakistan, where many still recall the dark days of the Islamist dictator Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s, when the police could demand to see a couple’s nikkahnama — wedding papers — under threat of imprisonment.
But the strong reaction is also drawn from a pressing contemporary worry: that the budding television media, seen as a force for democracy and greater social freedom for much of the past decade, have lost their way as part of a cutthroat battle for ratings.
“It really aggravates me that the media is using their power to intrude and invade our privacy, often with no good reason,” said Mehreen Kasana, a 22-year-old American-educated blogger from Lahore, who wrote a widely circulated protest against the Samaa TV show.
The controversy has rekindled a debate about the direction of Pakistan’s TV industry. Since liberalization in 2000, the sector has exploded from one channel — the state-controlled one — to more than 80 today, 37 of which carry national or local current affairs.
The media revolution has transformed social and political boundaries: in 2007, feisty coverage played a central role in pushing Pervez Musharraf toward the exit; in recent weeks it helped guard against a possible military coup.
But television is also a lucrative business controlled by powerful, largely unaccountable tycoons. Last year Pakistan’s television stations had advertising revenues of more than $200 million, according to Aurora, an industry journal — 28 percent more than the previous year.
Amid stiff competition for viewers, channels have relied on populist measures — rowdy political talks shows and, in recent times, vigilante-style “investigative” shows modeled on programs in neighboring India.
Some have a noble objective: holding to account crooked public servants, police officers and even fellow journalists. But others have veered into territory that could be described as Pakistan’s answer to Jerry Springer — voyeuristic, mawkish and intrusive.
In recent months, one reporter screamed at a man accused of child rape as he awaited trial outside a courthouse; another hectored a man said to be a self-confessed necrophile inside a jail cell; and a TV reporter “raided” a gathering of whisky drinkers, even though alcohol flows freely at many media parties.
Abbas Nasir, a former head of Dawn News television, said he was “nauseated” by some coverage.
“Hosts are under pressure to bring in ratings, and there is carte blanche to do the most bizarre things,” he said.
Another critic derided such reporters as “pussycat vigilantes” because they avoided challenging rich or powerful Pakistanis, whose Western-style lifestyles go unexamined.
“They only go after the people they know will not bite back,” said Nadeem Farooq Paracha, a culture writer.
Ms. Khan’s show touched a raw nerve because it combined simmering concern over media ethics with wider fears about society’s conservative tilt. Even General Zia’s son was appalled. In answer to a question on Twitter, Ijaz ul-Haq, a politician from Punjab Province, said he was “still in shock by what I’ve heard about her show.”
In a telephone interview on Tuesday, Ms. Khan rejected her critics, calling them “an elite class that don’t even watch my show,” and said the show merely intended to highlight the dangers that unaccompanied youths face in Karachi.
She also denied that there was anything unusual about asking couples for their wedding certificate — even though she does not carry one. All of “Pakistan knows me and my wedding pictures,” she said. “So I don’t have to.”
But on Wednesday, Samaa TV issued a formal apology for her show, followed by a short clip of Ms. Khan, sitting on a bed, offering an apology of sorts. “I never intended to make you teary-eyed or hurt you,” she said.
The furor has renewed long-standing demands for media regulation. With the state-run Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority seen as ineffective, the organizations approaching the Supreme Court on Friday hope the judiciary can help. “We need to hold the media to account,” Mr. Rehmat said.
But others argue that involving the courts, with their history of heavy-handed interventions, could open the door to state licensing of free speech. “It could backfire,” said Beena Sarwar, a journalist who helped rally protests against Ms. Khan’s show. “The media needs to do this themselves.”
Amid the polemic, there is one bright spot: the use of Twitter and Facebook to stoke debate has shown how, even as social space contracts in a turbulent society, the virtual space is opening up new possibilities.
But so far, the use of social media has been largely confined to the country’s English-speaking minority. It was striking how little attention Ms. Khan’s show received in the Urdu media, which is read or watched by the vast majority of Pakistanis.
“My real worry is that Pakistan is moving rightwards, and this time the face won’t have a beard,” said Mr. Nasir, the former head of Dawn News television. “And before people know it, they won’t know what’s hit them.”
Pakistanis for Peace Editor’s Note- Samaa Tv and host Maya Khan ought to be ashamed of themselves for calling this program journalism. Vulture reporting is more appropriate. Highly intrusive and showing a complete disregard for private citizens who are meeting in a public place is no place for a TV channel. This certainly strengthens the religious extremists in Pakistan, shoving their brand of austere Wahaabi Islam down the throats of the majority Barelvi/Sufi population of Pakistan.
Meanwhile the Pakistani Telecom Authority is curtailing freedom of speech by mandating mobile phone operators to ban certain ‘dirty’ words, as the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority lacks the moral and legal mindset to stop a television channel on trampling citizen’s privacy and freedoms. They should shut this show immediately and get this so called ‘reporter’ off the air.