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To Release or Not to Release

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Glorifying Violent Histories in South Asian Film

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Theatrical Release Poster

On October 31, 1984, two of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s bodyguards assassinated her. The political killing came four months after the Prime Minister ordered the raid and siege of a shrine in the Punjabi city of Amritsar’s Golden Temple complex. Sikh separatists controlled the temple and Gandhi sent the Indian Army to oust them from the holy site. Hundreds died; an Indian Army general called it a “killing ground” (Raj & Najar, 2014). The two bodyguards and a third co-conspirator were Sikhs who sought revenge by killing the Prime Minister. Following their ambush of Gandhi, one was shot dead by police in the immediate aftermath of the assassination, and the second was hanged in 1989 for the crime alongside the third. The assassination provoked nationwide violence, with the communal retaliation resulting in the deaths of over 3,000 Sikhs.

Thirty years later, a film titled “Kaum De Heere”—which translates to “Diamonds of the Community”—was on the verge of opening in India. It would not be the first film to deal with Prime Minister Gandhi’s life, legacy, or death, but it would be the first to center on her assassins. In 2014, days before it was slated to be released the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) reversed its clearance of the movie and blocked it from distribution after Home Ministry objections that it could create religious tensions. Leela Samson, the CBFC chairperson, said “the problem lies in the fact that [the film] eulogizes things it shouldn’t … like taking the law into your own hands” (Raj & Najar, 2014). Religious tensions were particularly high when discussing the film, furthering Samson’s concern that it “puts a community or religious group above the interests of the nation” (Raj & Najar, 2014). Citing similar tensions, intelligence agencies warned the film could spark violence among religious communities within India. Youth in the Indian National Congress Party lobbied the current Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, to ban the film because it allegedly glorified the assassins.

One of the producers, Pardeep Bansal, countered these criticisms, stating that “it is a completely balanced film wherein no religion or sect has been belittled” (Raj & Najar, 2014). Another producer, Ravinder Ravi, claimed to have spent time with the families of the two assassins—Satwant and Beant Singh. He argued, “films have been made about political assassinations all over the world, so why can’t a film be made” about Prime Minister Gandhi’s (Biswas, 2014)? What’s more, the Revising Committee screened the film multiple times before originally granting clearance adding to speculation that the Congress Party and Bharatiya Janata Party called for the reversal. By October 2014, the producers had filed an appeal of the decision.

Fast forward to 2019 and the film is finally slated for release. Justice Vibhu Bakhru of the Delhi High Court, which overturned the CBFC ban, argued once the body clears a film, they cannot use law and order as an excuse to halt its release. Bakhru also stated that the board improperly used the unconstitutional Section 6(1) of the Cinematograph Act to justify their decision. The now illegitimate section “enable[d] the Central Government to exercise revisional powers in respect to decisions rendered by CBFC,” and in this case, the procedure dictated by the now defunct policy was not even followed properly, per the high court (Press Trust of India, 2019). The court’s finding supports the producers’ appeal, which argued there was “no factual or legal basis for withdrawal of certificate” to release the film (Press Trust of India, 2019), dismissing concerns of renewed violence as either immaterial or improbable. None of the speculated violence behind the CBFC decision has come to pass since the court cleared the film for release at the end of August and the Congress Party and Bharatiya Janata Party have not mounted significant protests, yet religious tensions are still simmering.

Meanwhile, a new web series on Prime Minister Gandhi is under production. Actress Vidya Balan, who will play Gandhi, claims the series “is not about any political party, [it] is about an individual who goes beyond the party” (Indo-Asian News Service, 2019). Perhaps it too will run into trouble clearing the CBFC; after all, Balan’s argument could just as easily be applied to the Sikh bodyguards as the Prime Minister she’s slated to portray. How can the values of free speech, artistic freedom, and communal safety be balanced in the turbulent media environment of India?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What issues are at stake in dramatized retellings of contentious history, such as the events of Gandhi’s administration or her assassination?
  2. What consideration, if any, should the CBFC—or similar bodies elsewhere—give to political and cultural climate when making censorship decisions?
  3. When making a movie about historical events, is there an ethical responsibility to condemn—or at least not to encourage or valorize—violence and its perpetrators?
  4. More broadly, how do ethics relate to artistic products? Are there subjects that are simply not suitable for art?

Further Information:

Soutik Biswas, “Indira Gandhi assassination: Controversial film blocked.” BBC News, August 22, 2014. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-28892001

Indo-Asian News Service, “Vidya Balan on why she decided to make web series on Indira Gandhi.” India Today, August 28, 2019. Available at: https://www.indiatoday.in/television/web-series/story/vidya-balan-on-why-she-decided-to-make-web-series-on-indira-gandhi-1592657-2019-08-28

Press Trust of India, “Delhi HC clears release of Punjabi movie ‘Kaum De Heere.’” Business Standard, August 29, 2019. Available at: https://www.business-standard.com/article/pti-stories/delhi-hc-clears-release-of-punjabi-movie-kaum-de-heere-119082900771_1.html

Suhasini Raj and Nida Najar, “Film about Indira Gandhi’s assassination is barred from Indian Theaters.” The New York Times, August 22, 2014. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/23/world/asia/film-about-indira-gandhis-assassination-is-barred-from-indian-theaters.html

Authors:

Dakota Park-Ozee & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
January 22, 2020


This case is supported with funding from the South Asia Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Censorship in Pakistan

CASE STUDY: Are Journalists Obligated to Speak Up?

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Bill Kerr / CC BY-SA 2.0

For many, there is little debate needed to reach the conclusion that Pakistan’s state sanctioned press intimidation is too harsh. One of the most pressing challenges to journalism ethics in Pakistan focuses on what the press is or is not obligated to do in response. Contemporary Pakistani laws combined with military and administrative aggression toward journalists have created a climate of self-censorship where journalists no longer act as watchdogs and informants for fear of reprisal. Self-censorship “is the worst kind of censorship, because it is done out of fear” said longtime Pakistani journalist, Ghazi Salauddin (Gannon, 2018). In response to the hostile media environment, journalists might persevere, seek greater independence, move online, or adapt to regulation, but each option is not without its own ethical considerations.

 

Cyril Almeida—assistant editor and columnist for Dawn—was recently named the International Press Institute’s 2019 World Press Freedom Hero for “his tenacious coverage” in reporting of the relationship between the state and militant groups and “tremendous resolve in tackling—at great risk to himself—deeply contentious issues that are nevertheless of central importance to Pakistan’s democracy” (Hashim, 2019). Almeida wrote a weekly column—discontinued in January—and interviewed an exiled former Prime Minister. As punishment for his coverage and refusal to back down from criticizing the government and military, Almeida faces treason charges, restrictions on his movement, and intimidation. Perseverance provided the citizenry with much needed information but cost Almeida much of his freedom.

On the other hand, press organizations may seek greater independence through financial divestment. Steven Butler from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) argues Pakistan’s pressure on journalists comes in part “though the owners of media properties” (Gannon, 2018). Mohammad Ziauddin of the Pakistan Press Foundation explains that many of the business people running Pakistani media are there “not to make money, not to serve the public, but to have clout” (Gannon, 2018). In the last year, there have been layoffs and programming cuts associated with “the worst financial crisis the media industry has seen since it was liberalized,” according to Afzal Butt of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (Ali, 2018). The crunch was caused by a drastic cut in government spending on media advertising because, as Saroop Ijaz of Human Rights Watch Pakistan explains, Pakistani news organizations “still rely heavily on government advertisements and subsidies” (Ali, 2018). The huge step back by the administration at once makes TV stations less beholden to government funds and thus government wishes but also makes them cash poor. As Butler asserts, “while reliance on government revenues is not a healthy model for press freedom, the sudden cutbacks have imposed extreme hardship on the media, which has had basically no time to adjust business models” (Gannon, 2018).

A third option for Pakistani journalists is to move online to less regulated and less capitally driven venues. Unfortunately, the government is cracking down on social media use by citizens but especially by journalists. They repeatedly ask companies like Twitter and Facebook to remove posts and pages and to suspend accounts. Journalist Taha Siddiqui moved to France after he was attacked but still cannot escape censorship from the Pakistani government. Reportedly, Twitter suspended his account twice in just three days because of “objectionable content that was in violation of Pakistani law” (Gannon, 2018). Several other journalists still in Pakistan, like Murtaza Solangi, have received similar notifications from Twitter that the government reported their tweets for violating the law. The problem of digital censorship is exacerbated by commonly-held impressions because, as highlighted by Asad Beyg of Media Matters for Democracy, “most accredited journalists bodies don’t recognize digital journalism as ‘real’ journalism” (Chaudry, 2018).

The CPJ advises news media owners and editors to strengthen security protocols and training, enhance self-regulation to instill confidence in accuracy and fairness, and universally condemn attacks, threats, and intimidation, potentially via professional guidelines. Almeida himself says the line of what is acceptable is drawn in terms of specificity; conflict between press and state occurs “if granular detail and specifics are reported on or commented on” (Hashim, 2019). Perhaps a solution then is to provide citizens with broad overviews of the issues and trust them to find more information for themselves, allowing journalists to serve as informants, generally, without risking censure or worse. But, if the press cannot provide details, who will? Yet, when, according to the CPJ, Pakistan’s military “restricts reporting by barring access, encouraging self-censorship through direct and indirect acts of intimidation, and even allegedly instigating violence against reporters” (Hashim, 2019), how much can we ask journalists to do?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Are journalists obligated to be the public watchdogs of governmental institutions even when it puts them at risk?
  2. Should social media companies participate in state censorship of journalism in adherence with national laws, or should they refuse such government control of information?
  3. What is the best way for journalists to fight state censorship of the press?
  4. Is there an ethical obligation for non-journalist citizens to intervene on behalf of the press? Put another way, is the reading public compelled to defend the freedoms of those institutions from which we benefit?
  5. What concerns might be raised by approaches that protect journalists by relying upon readers to gather more information outside of a vaguely-reported story?

Further Information:

Umer Ali, “The Pakistan government’s financial squeeze on journalism.” Columbia Journalism Review, December 20, 2018. Available at: https://www.cjr.org/analysis/journalism-pakistan.php

Suddaf Chaudry, “Pakistan: Censorship by stealth.” New Internationalist, November 15, 2018. Available at: https://newint.org/features/2018/11/15/pakistan-censorship-stealth

Kathy Gannon, “Pakistan’s journalists complain of increasing censorship.” Associated Press, December 26, 2018. Available at: https://www.apnews.com/09e9a7466e9c4c6f878e424833e5f03c

Asad Hashim, “Pakistan’s Cyril Almeida named IPI’s World Press Freedom Hero.” Al Jazeera, April 24, 2019. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/04/pakistan-cyril-almeida-named-ipi-world-press-freedom-hero-190424094705064.html

Authors:

Dakota Park-Ozee & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
October 15, 2019


This case is supported with funding from the South Asia Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

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