On January 17, 2012, a morning show was broadcast on Pakistani news network Samaa TV where its female host, Maya Khan, and a group of middle aged women were seen scouring the parks of Karachi. Their sole objective was to hold accountable couples visiting the parks in order to be on a date together without their guardians’ knowledge.
During this show the group was seen chasing the couples around the park, forcing many of them to flee, cornering one and then recording them without their consent. As they repeatedly asked for the camera to be switched off, they were told it was, but the Samaa Team continued to film discreetly with sound.
During this episode couples were also asked to prove they were married to one another and produce their marriage certificates for the host Maya Khan.
This episode prompted strong protests from social media users in Pakistan, and many reacted like Mehreen Kasana, who said:
See, girls fall in love pretty much every single day of the week and so do boys. Sometimes they make the right decision, sometimes they make mistakes. It’s called being human. But trust me, they don’t need a team of middle aged women hounding them down public places to enlighten them about their decisions. And trust me, their mothers will handle whatever happens. No one asked you or anyone else to take the responsibility of scrutinizing them.
Time and again the ethics of our media have been called into question, as channels embrace sensationalism in order to achieve the highest ratings. The television channel in question will find themselves open to legal action by victims of their harassment who are being portrayed on television without their consent. Airing this segment also appeals to the worst instincts in our hypocritical society by passing moral judgment in the name of family values upon two innocent people, which makes for some of the most irresponsible broadcast journalism found in Pakistan today.
A loosely knit group of civic society activists at this juncture uploaded and started an online petition against this show called ‘STOP “Subah Saverey Maya kay Sath” vigilantism like Lal Masjid‘. Dozens of people also complained to PEMRA (Pakistan’s electronic media regulatory authority) via this online feedback form.
On January 22, lawyer Osama Siddique drafted a brief letter expressing outrage at the highly intrusive, invasive and potentially irresponsible behavior on the part of the host. This letter and a followup letter were sent by a group of citizens to Zafar Siddiqi (President CNBC Pakistan, with which Samaa TV is affiliated).
Beena Sarwar, a civil society activist deeply involved in this protest remarked on her post ‘No to vigil aunties‘:
The first time I saw a link to this show was on Jan 22, shared on a Facebook group, on Jan 21, 2012. I, and many others, began sharing the Youtube links on Facebook and Twitter. As it spread, the outrage grew.
People were shocked at the level of intrusion and vigilantism on display. From India, came comments on twitter about the Saffron vigilante brigade that has been known to drag couples into temples and force them into instant marriage. Which reminded me that the mentality we are protesting is not limited to Pakistan.
By 23 January the online petition mentioned earlier had 4,800 signatures on it, and several articles were being written on what was wrong with this kind of broadcast journalism; this combined pressure resulted in the removal of the Maya Khan Facebook page and subsequently the taking down of YouTube links to this show.
In her show on the 23 January, Maya Khan apologized for this episode and mentioned time and again that this was not meant to hurt people. However by this time civil society activists were asking for a public and unconditional apology and the removal of this show from the airwaves. Efforts had also started to contact the sponsors of this network and more specifically this show.
Samaa TV responded to the letter sent to them by asking Maya Khan for an unconditional apology, which she refused, upon which on January 28, Zafar Siddiqi wrote back to inform that Maya Khan and her team have been terminated and her show will not longer air from the 30 January.
So today is the first day the show is off air. This is a watershed moment in Pakistan’s broadcast media history and social media as it comes to the realization that although it is allowed to push the limits set upon it, there are limits and they must be observed. In any case it is a good precedent for civil society to gear up and enforce rights like privacy and freewill to interact without public harassment in Pakistan.