V for vendetta, A for accountability

Is it free speech when you use a mask on TV?

V for vendetta, A for accountability
Guy Fawkes is perhaps not that well known in Pakistan. The ‘Catholic fanatic’ who tried to blow up the UK Parliament four hundred years ago would be amused that the avenger V for Vendetta mask that he inspired for a graphic novel is now seen on our television screens.

The mask, which has over the years become a symbol of disruptive protest, is now the face of Mr Qaum or Mr Nation on Bol TV for a character that hosts the prime time program “Aisay Nahi Chalay Ga” (This won’t do). The Bol website proclaims that Mr Qaum is a “the most patriotic voice” who “exposes negative [sic] propaganda against Pakistan” and promotes a positive image of the country.

Of late, Mr Qaum has focused on a lawyer and social justice crusader, Jibran Nasir, who he has accused of being an enemy agent and a blasphemer associated with an organisation funded by India. Jibran Nasir attracted Mr Qaum’s attention for taking up a pardon for the killers in a high-profile court case of a murder committed five years ago.
In December 2017, Shahzaib's parents submitted an affidavit in a Karachi court, announcing that they were pardoning their son's killer. Jibran Nasir decided to challenge the agreement in court

On December 24, 2012, a young man named Shahrukh Jatoi and his accomplices shot dead a university student, Shahzaib Khan, when he tried to stop them from harassing his sister. In December 2017, Shahzaib’s parents submitted an affidavit in a Karachi court, announcing that they were pardoning their son’s killer. Jibran Nasir decided to challenge the agreement in court. He and other citizens of Karachi filed an appeal in the Supreme Court against the Sindh High Court’s decision to retry Shahrukh Jatoi and his accomplices and grant them bail. Soon after this happened, the television channel started to mention Nasir, who registered a complaint with the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) that he was being maligned.

Jibran Nasir shot to fame in December 2014 when he stood up against Islamabad’s Red Mosque cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz for refusing to condemn the killers of the Army Public School children. A lawyer by profession, Nasir has been an outspoken critic of terrorism, religious and sectarian extremism. He wields his Twitter account to get the message across.

Nasir organised protests and press conferences when some bloggers went missing and were accused of blasphemy. At this point too, Nasir was the focus of unproven allegations of working against Islam and the country by Bol TV and many social media accounts. This was not the first time Jibran Nasir had been the focus of Bol. In January 2017, its host Aamir Liaquat had ridiculed and maligned him.

“This is not freedom of expression when you incite people against an individual and coax them to set his house on fire. It’s hate speech,” Nasir says. “If they have any evidence, they should prove the allegations they have leveled against me.” Nasir added that former Bol TV host Aamir Liaquat had contacted him after their first run-in. “He called me twice and requested I forget what had happened. Then he started praising my faith. I take it as apology but what is this that you insult and level false allegations against somebody on screen and then [placate] him in private.”

Nasir sees his decision to pursue the case as his constitutional right and intends to continue fighting.

PEMRA has yet to act. “We are aware of Mr Nasir’s complaints but we are in no position to take any action against the private TV channel at the moment,” a senior PEMRA official requesting anonymity told TFT. “Chairman PEMRA is the competent authority to initiate an action on such complaints, but unfortunately this post is vacant these days.”

Repeated but unsuccessful attempts were made to elicit comment from the Bol TV management. In the meantime, the case has been discussed on social media and has been written about in other media outlets such as Dunya TV and Dawn.

“Bol is being very irresponsible, hurling allegations without any evidence and calling Jibran ‘anti-Pakistan and anti-Islam’,” says Shahzad Ahmad, a rights activist and country director for Bytes for All, a group working for digital rights. “We all are well aware how this incitement to violence can [have] fatal consequences in our country. As we have seen in the past, such incitement has resulted in vigilante action, murder of individuals, vandalism focusing [on] certain minorities and disruption of civil life.” He added that when freedom of expression becomes incitement to violence then it qualifies as a crime and should be dealt with according to the law.
The mask, which has over the years become a symbol of disruptive protest, is now the face of Mr Qaum or Mr Nation on Bol TV for a character that hosts the prime time program "Aisay Nahi Chalay Ga"
(This won't do)

Worrying trend

This is not the first time that a television channel in Pakistan has used a non-human image to get its message across, but Mr Qaum’s politics is entirely new. Other characters such as a dancing Urdu letter ‘Mr Jeem’ that was also described as ‘patriotic’ and didactic, was a permutation of Geo TV’s own logo.

The Mr Qaum mask originates in the 1982 ‘V for Vendetta’ graphic novel, whose central character V hid behind a mask. The novel was adapted to film in 2006 in which the character fights a fascist regime. Later, the Anonymous movement appropriated the mask which became a symbol of anarchic protest globally. The problem with the mask here is that it purports to represent a genuinely democratic desire but the actions of its wearer are totalitarian. Of course, the original use of masks in Greek tragedy was to make the voice appear as if it comes from some mythical, magical place. It is a distortion.

The risk of using a mask on TV in particular reduces the accountability or transparency of the person behind it. If accusations are made, they just come from the voice and not a real life person such as a reporter, anchor or talk show host, who can be sued for defamation or libel. It is, in a way, the ultimate obfuscation at a time when media accountability has been high on the public, judicial and government agenda.