The most recent victim of religious non-state forced censorship is Sarmad Khoosat’s film, Zindagi Tamasha. Its release has been stopped by the Federal Government.

Art and Culture are beyond sects or religions. They show the reality of life. But according to the religious party Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), the Zindagi Tamasha portrays anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic sentiments and must be stopped from being released. The film’s content, TLP says, is “blasphemous”.

To resolve the matter amicably, the Central Film Censor Board decided to approach the Council of Islamic Ideology for critically reviewing the film. But the film’s director Sarmad Khoosat said that he never intended to offend anyone. He said he, his family and team had been subjected to bullying and threats. “Don’t spew hate, fear and anger in the name of religion,” he urged his detractors.

The controversy over the film has again revealed deep divisions in Pakistani society as religious groups have grown more vocal in recent years.This phenomenon is increasing the Pakistan and Governments seem to be dodging the issue and not facing it frontally.

Pakistan is a country that seems to be in constant transition with respect to the freedom of expression. In the 1980s, during General Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime, a number of writers and artists left their homeland to live in self-imposed exile to avoid persecution. Media was heavily censored; material regarded as immoral or opposed to the regime were prohibited. Then, starting from the military regime of General Parvez Musharraf, liberal media laws broke the State’s dominance of the media. The media became omnipresent and freedom of speech became the ‘right’ of every citizen.

Every citizen has the right to freedom of expression. However, this is subject to restrictions. Article 19 of the Constitution of the Islamic State of Pakistan (1974) says:

“Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, [commission of] [sic] or incitement to an offence.”

Once again, Pakistan is moving, perhaps more backwards than forwards, with space for free speech shrinking. The Supreme Court has been pressuring the media regulatory authority to define “obscenity” more narrowly to better censor offensive content. YouTube has been blocked throughout the country several times for hosting “blasphemous” content.

Here the question arises, as to whether art and culture should be displayed according to religious believes.

“Pakistan is having a rich culture, art and Music history that goes to thousands of years back, when the area was governed by Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu and other religious communities. Harappa and Mohanjo-Daro civilizations are in Pakistan with great history of art and culture. But in the modern word of communications we are unable to attract cultural and arts tourists to Pakistan,” said Jamal Shah who is running an art and culture organization called HUNAEQADA. Jamal complained that the Government is not showing off the art and culture of Pakistan and its history.

Fouzia Saeed, former head of Lok Versa and presently Director General Pakistan National Council of Arts said that sometimes she received death threats. Despite this, Saeed continues to educate the public and provide an outlet for free expression on art and culture in Pakistan, often hosting poetry and folk music nights.

Actions by non-state actors, ranging from militant extremists to peaceful community groups, against art and artists, is worrying. In some incidences, authorities censored artists based on requests or interference from civil society groups.

Amjad Sabri, one of Pakistan’s most famous singers, died in the port town of Karachi on 22 June 2016, after two gunmen on a motorbike shot the singer in his car just a kilometres away from his home. Sabri was a leading and respected Qawwali singer, a form of Sufi spiritual music, who came from a family of respected Qawwali singers.

The two suspected gunmen, both members of an anti-Shia militant group, are currently in custody and have confessed to killing the singer on sectarian grounds. He was a victim just because he refused to follow the instructions of the non-state actors.

Free Muse, the world’s leading independent international organization advocating freedom of artistic expression, has launched its annual report, The State of Artistic Freedom 2019: Whose Narratives Count? The report touches on the challenges of culture in conflict situations, citing examples from countries where artistes are targeted alongside journalists.

According to the report “counter-terrorism” measures are increasingly being used to curtail artistic and cultural output. The report describes a“misuse of anti-terrorism and anti-extremism legislation”that threatened freedom of artistic expression worldwide.