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The censor's dilemma
Monitoring 1700 objectionable words? The Pakistan Telecom Authority’s ill-advised decision to ban certain words from mobile text messages highlights the predicament of the would-be censor, says SAJAN VENNIYOOR
Posted/Updated Thursday, Nov 24 15:52:35, 2011
Much hilarity and irreverent comment has rippled through the media after Pakistan’s telecom regulator shot off a letter to mobile operators asking them block some 1700 objectionable words from text messages, or else[i]. Unconfirmed lists of over one thousand words and phrases in English[ii], and about half that number in Urdu[iii], were soon going viral on the net, accompanied by mystification and mirth over the outlawing of words like bakwaas, devil, athlete’s foot, phrase, flatulence and Jesus Christ.
 
All this was duly picked up by the Indian media and social networks which never lose an opportunity – like its Pakistani counterparts – to point out how incredibly infantile its neighbour is. The ban on ‘Jesus Christ’, in particular, came in for much finger-wagging as a symbol of Pakistan’s slide into Islamic fundamentalism.
 
Appalled by all this public mockery, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) quickly reversed its decision. Well, almost. A PTA spokesperson confirmed that “it would carry out more consultations before producing a much shorter list of banned words”, about a dozen[iv]. Given the extraordinary range and inventiveness of cuss words in English and in the many languages spoken in Pakistan, that’s pretty funny in itself.
 
“What many people want to know,” asked the BBC rhetorically, “is who the creative genius behind this list of words is? What anonymous bureaucrat has toiled over this list of more than 500 Urdu and 1,000 English expletives and other words for the love of decency in telecommunications?”[v]
 
Let’s get this right. The list of ‘more than 500 Urdu and 1,000 English expletives and other words’ was not drawn up by a Pakistani bureaucrat toiling through the steamy night. Given the onerous duty compiling a definitive list of swear-words, the anonymous bureaucrat – whose personal vocabulary of Urdu gaalis probably wasn’t up to the task – did what the rest of us do under similar circumstances: he searched the net. (I assume it’s a ‘he’).
 
Sure enough, he found the fairly notorious list of words the National Football League (NFL), USA once banned from use on personalized jerseys[vi]. That explains ‘Rae Carruth’ and ‘Neon Deon’ which, as one observer noted, “would be strange to text in a casual conversation in Pakistan” but perfectly relevant in the context of NFL. That would also explain the ban on ‘Jesus Christ’, for reasons too tedious to explain here but which assuredly have nothing to do with Pakistan’s supposedly inexorable descent into religious fundamentalism.
 
The ‘Urdu’ words are mostly not Urdu. Here again, the diligent bureaucrat trawled the net for naughty words not just in Urdu but in Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati, Sindhi, Kashmiri and Pushto as well, from lists of international swear words and phrases compiled by a particular website that I decline to name here[vii]. Among other mysteries, this explains why the word ‘Phrase’ appears in the non-English list (No: 55): it’s not an exotic north-west frontier swear word, as I first thought; whoever did a copy-paste from the site copied the column header as well.
 
A very large number of the Hindi profanities are, surprisingly, taken from a rather sober website named HindiLearner.com (“Helping real people learn Hindi language”). The long list of obscenities on the site is followed by a pious injunction to “avoid these profane words in your Hindi conversation.”[viii]
 
In a very self-evident way, this highlights the dilemma of those who would ban obscenity from public spaces. How do you ban words and ideas without naming them and in a manner that’s not self-defeating? Or without making a fool of yourself?
 
George Carlin, the late American stand-up comic, had a monologue called ‘Filthy Words’, or Seven Words You Can Never Say on American Television.[ix] The US communications regulator, FCC, of course has the sense not to make lists of expletives, sensibly basing its decisions on broad guidelines as to what constitutes obscenity, indecency and profanity.[x] In FCC vs. Pacifica Foundation, which went into the First Amendment right of a broadcaster to air Carlin’s colourful monologue during daytime, FCC won the case for ensuring that nothing indecent is broadcast during the ‘safe haven’ of 6am to 10pm.
 
Exhibiting the kind of common sense sadly lacking in the Pakistan Telecom Authority, not to mention India’s Information & Broadcasting ministry, FCC has clarified that certain words are not always unlawful. Context is everything. The legality of broadcast language can be judged only on a case-by-case basis.
 
The sensible regulator tries not to censor communications except upon probable cause. While the media may be monitored routinely for a variety of reasons, violations of programme and advertising codes are best addressed in response to complaints, not suo motu by govt. appointed censors crouched over television screens. This, unfortunately, is what happens at the Electronic Media Monitoring Center (EMMC) of the government of India, where some 100 TV channels are currently monitored by a bunch of inexperienced young people, scanning the networks hopefully for the odd indecency here, some political incorrectness there.[xi]
 
In reality, most violations of the broadcast code cannot be caught on the fly, and the Ministry takes action only when the complaints pile up.
 
The Code – by which all electronic media in India is governed – does not explicitly spell out what constitutes obscenity[xii]. Nor does the IT Act 2000, which simply proscribes the transmission of ‘any material which is lascivious or appeals to the prurient interest or if its affect is such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons’ who see or read or hear it.[xiii] These are phrases taken directly from Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code, the law on sale of obscene and pornographic books.[xiv]
 
Unwilling to leave well enough alone, the government has made determined – and generally fruitless – efforts to spell out the very truth and nature of obscenity, as it were, the latest being the 2008 ‘Self Regulation Guidelines for the Broadcasting Sector’, the vade mecum of EMMC censors.[xv]
 
With a kind of macabre determination, and the utter humourlessness of the officiously moral, the Code spells out exactly how, when and where one may ‘encourage, justify or glorify’ such practices as incest and paedophilia and where one may not. There are other lingering excurses through ‘kissing on the lips’, ‘fondling of female b***sts’ and ‘animal sexual organs’ (so much for Nat Geo), which could well be nominated for a Bad Sex in Fiction award but sit poorly on a regulatory document.
 
To come back to the hapless Pakistan Telecom Authority and its 1700 dirty words, they later explained that they used the list only as a means of testing whether it was possible to filter certain words and phrases. Now, here’s a thought: there’s almost no reason why dirty words or ideas cannot be censored even during transmission. A ‘profanity delay’ is now standard practice during the live coverage of certain events on western networks[xvi] (and for pretty much all TV broadcasts in illiberal regimes).
 
Even as broadcasters and mobile users grow more resourceful, so do the censor’s computers and software, and this cat and mouse game can go on forever. Until, that is, one side stops insulting the sensibilities of the public and the other its intelligence.


[i]Implementation – Content Filtering through SMS’ – PTA letter dated 14 Nov 2011
[vii] Sorry, I decline to name it here, too.
[ix]Filthy Words– transcript of George Carlin monologue
[xii]Programme & Advertising Codes under Cable TV Network Rules, 1994 (Rule 6 & 7)
[xvi]Tape delay draws ire of Oscars president’ – The Guardian, 11 Feb 2004
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