British GQ magazine’s September 2011 issue features a portfolio of images by photographer Mario Testino, including a portrait of supermodel Gisele Bündchen. In Pakistan, you are denied an innocuous glimpse of the curve of Bündchen’s breast — it has been scribbled over with black marker. The director of distributor Liberty Books’ magazine division, Jamil Hussain, explains that this process, which the company refers to as “defacing”, is carried out by buyers in the US and UK. Liberty Books, which supplies an estimated 95 per cent of the foreign magazine market in Pakistan, is responsible for the purchase and distribution of 250 titles ranging from GQ, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Men’s Health and Esquire to Harvard Business Review, Time, Newsweek, Reader’s Digest and The Economist across Pakistan. With magazines such as Maxim, which promises “scantily clad cover models and plenty of revealing photo layouts”, Liberty has what Hussain refers to as a “standing order” from the Press Information Department (PID) and the Customs department to ensure that “nothing sexually explicit and anti-Islamic” makes its way into the local market. International buyers approach publishers such as Condé Nast on behalf of Liberty Books, acquiring magazines that are subsequently checked for images that would not pass the litmus test of the market’s sensibilities — in Pakistan or the Middle East, for instance. In warehouses in London and New York, black marker-wielding employees restore the modesty of the scantily clad models.
Publications such as The Economist, Newsweek, Time or Reader’s Digest arrive at Karachi’s airport directly through publishers in Asia without the intermediary assistance of a buyer. Liberty Books’ team is then tasked with defacing or censoring offensive images in these publications, if any are found by Customs. Take the case of a cover of The Economist in December 2009, featuring an illustration of Adam and Eve. “The Economist was totally in the loop when the magazine was held by Customs and we informed them that the magazine had been passed on to the PID for their decision,” says Hussain. Ultimately, it was decided that as long as Adam and Eve’s faces were blacked out, the magazine would be allowed to pass. “The deputy collector of the Customs sends to PID any magazines which they feel they should look at,” Hussain adds.
The operation underlying the process to bring the latest issue of Vogue or Vanity Fair to local bookshops functions in a grey area within the legal system. Pakistan, as former information minister Javed Jabbar sees it, represents “a remarkable mixture of liberalism and openness with some laws that have been either inherited from the time of the British occupation or were formulated and enforced during democracies and dictatorships.” He feels that this kind of “legal baggage,” combined with the fact that “large parts of our society have not yet benefited from education and knowledge about how many parts of the world are now living,” does not make the practice of blacking out printed material a surprising (or even unique) one. He sees the process of defacing as “a de facto rationalisation of situations which are not covered specifically by the law.” When it comes to the actual application of law, the most relevant one in this case is the Customs Act, which empowers the Customs department to examine and withhold or allow any goods imported into Pakistan. Section 15 of the Customs Act 1969 prohibits any goods deemed “obscene”, while Section 16 grants the federal government the power to “prohibit or restrict the bringing into or taking out of Pakistan” of such goods as well.
Hussain explains that all Liberty Books’ consignments are given a “cursory check” (at Customs) and not all the magazines are checked. If Customs officials find a questionable image, they just say, “Iss ko dekh lein (Look into this),” says Hussain. “Very rarely have we covered things up ourselves, our buyers inNew York and London pretty well know what has to be done.” In the event that an offending image is missed, there has never been a repercussion. “Sometimes you do get a warning that, ‘This has gone out and be careful next time,’” Hussain explains. He attributes this to Liberty Books’ relationship of “mutual understanding and respect” with the authorities.
While the company abides by the somewhat mercurial “brief” supplied by the PID, Hussain adds that, “it’s all about context … what is your society like? You have to be a judge to yourself and know that this is how far I can go.” The boundaries of societal acceptance, however, are constantly shifting and this year alone has shown that the definitions of publicly acceptable material have changed in Pakistan. Set up in 1948 as a kiosk near Karachi’s Capital Cinema by Hussain’s father, Abdul Hussain, Liberty Books has learned to calibrate public sentiment over the years. The company set up shop at Intercontinental Hotel in 1966, starting a magazine division in 1975. Hussain says he started working for the family company at the age of 17, when Ziaul Haq had just taken over and “different rules were in place”. He recalls that “politically motivated articles were not allowed” in news magazines and text was often defaced. “They (government officials) were strict and would tell us to deface material at Customs in their presence.”
Fast forward to 2011 and flip through any fashion magazine. The nature of the brief determining what material is kosher or off-limits becomes apparent. Testino’s GQ portfolio also features a two-page portrait of Bündchen’s derriere, untouched by the black marker that marks the other portraits. Similarly, a model’s figure in an issue of Cosmopolitan magazine has been scrawled over, while the accompanying untouched article informs readers of when their partners “want sex the most (and the least).” Hussain explains that, “the (PID) brief does include text, but they’re not very keen on it, it doesn’t concern them as much.” A consumer’s socio-economic background also plays a role in the decision to deface images while turning a blind eye to text. “People at Customs know that these magazines are going to a niche market and you’re buying that magazine and taking it home if you’re allowed to take it home,” says Hussain. The immediate, incendiary power of an image in public is a greater concern than text that will ostensibly be read in private. “You have to look after the interest of the [book] store that is displaying the magazine,” says Hussain, simply because such public spaces are “frequented by different people with different mindsets”. Liberty Books thus no longer distributes magazines such as Cosmopolitan or even Libas in shops in Peshawar, for instance, choosing instead to use a website service that allows customers to place orders for deliveries across Pakistan.
The exception to the rule, however, is any material judged to be anti-Islamic. In these cases, defacing has not sufficed. In September 2001, the PID ordered Liberty Books to tear an article from the September 3 issue of Newsweek magazine, which featured an article, Talking is Dangerous, that discussed the death sentence for Younus Sheikh, accused of blasphemy for teaching his students that the Prophet Mohammad (Pbuh) was not a Muslim until the age of 40. A statement from the PID explained that, “the article’s subject matter is objectionable and may spark violence (and) the decision has been taken in the public interest … the magazine itself has not been banned.”
In July 2003, an issue of Newsweek caused a furore once more.Pakistan (and Bangladesh) banned an issue featuring an article, Challenging the Quran. Pakistan’s information minister at the time Sheikh Rashid Ahmad said Customs had been ordered to seize all copies of the July 28 issue as it was “insulting” and “could cause disturbances”. The article discussed the work of a German philologist writing under the pseudonym Christoph Luxenberg who argues that the Aramaic language had an influence on the Quran and, therefore, must be considered when interpreting and translating the holy text.
A few strokes of black marker on the image of a model’s derriere is “an irritation,” feels Jabbar, but it is “an anachronism that can be suffered … not something that prevents access to the original content.” After all, a reader can always turn to a publication’s website. However, that option was denied when 13 Internet Service Providers blocked access to the website of American magazine Rolling Stone in May this year, following the appearance of a blog post by writer Matt Taibbi, entitled Pakistan’s Insane Military Spending: Up There withAmerica’s. The Lahore High Court’s decision to block roughly 1,000 websites, including Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, Wikipedia, Google, Twitter, some parts of theBBC, and Internet access through BlackBerry mobile services in May 2010, is evidence of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority’s ability to black out large swathes of information.
The removal of text from publications distributed inPakistanis not just carried out on the orders of the government alone, however. OnJune 14, 2010, the Views page of the newspaper the International Herald Tribune (IHT), the global edition of the New York Times, included a confusing large blank space in the edition of the newspaper distributed in Pakistan by the Express Media Group. An editorial, One Myth, Many Pakistanis, by Ali Sethi, had been removed from the page. Editor of the IHT’s Pakistani partner newspaper, The Express Tribune, Kamal Siddiqi says the editorial contained material that was “not appropriate for Pakistani audiences”. Siddiqi explains that as the IHT is an American newspaper, certain content is “very risky” and has been removed on a few occasions. “When we bring an American newspaper toPakistan, people are already very suspicious… we just want to be a bit on the safe side,” he says. Siddiqi feels that anything to do with sensitive topics, such as religion, “should be in our paper, The Express Tribune,” as the treatment of a similar subject in the IHT“may not be read positively at home”. A customised edition of the IHT, created in Hong Kong for the Pakistani market, is glanced over for any content that may present a problem. “Our foreign editor and our senior editors look at it,” explains Siddiqi. “They see it for content and then we take a decision.” Just as Hussain of Liberty Books is concerned about the safety of booksellers that Liberty distributes magazines to, Siddiqi explains that, “We don’t want to jeopardise this — you’re getting an international newspaper for 20 rupees. We don’t want people to stand up and say, ‘Close this paper.’ These things can happen.”
There is no legal precedent in Pakistan of a consumer challenging the decision to deface a particular image. “The practice is accepted as fait accompli,” explains Jabbar. “In the end, it is not worth it, as you have to consider the value of the imported good versus the cost of a court case.” Importers, on the other hand, do not wish to jeopardise a working relationship with the authorities for the sake of a controversial text or image.