Pakistan: Artists and singers need safety, not a Censorship Act


The local government of Pakistan’s northwest province wants to impose a Censorship Board Act to silence singers’ voices and curb artists’ activities, reports Sher Alam Shinwari from Peshawar

By Sher Alam Shinwari

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) coalition government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the northwest province of Pakistan, has recently tabled a bill in the provincial assembly with clear intentions to axe singers’ and artists’ activities in the militancy-plagued province. Fears of militants, insecurity and philistinism of KP culture department have mumbled the voice of singers and musicians.

Jamaat-e-Islami, the ultra-conservative Islamist party, now being powerful ally of the ruling PTI, wants to revive Gen Zia’s agenda of radicalisation Pakistani youth by curbing cultural activities. It is the same Jamaat-e-Islami, which played important role in the so-called Afghan Jihad waged by Gen Zia.

Gen Zia was a military dictator who introduced an ordinance in 1979 – the Central Films Censorship Board (Motion Pictures) – to curb all kinds of literary and cultural activities as a campaign for islamisation in Pakistan. It was imposed to curb all kinds of cultural activities as a process of radicalisation in the country.

Rising music star and university graduate Gul Panra in a recent photo shoot. Photo by writer.

Gul Panra, a popular young Pashto singer, in a recent interview to this scribe told: “I don’t prefer to perform at any musical concert outside city premises. I feel scared. I don’t understand why the KP culture ministry doesn’t ensure our security and instead introduces an Act which renders us silence our voice forever. Female singers are especially vulnerable to militants’ threats.”

Muzzafar Khan, the owner and pioneer of Musafar Videos in Nishtarabad, told Freemuse, “We have serious reservations over the bill. The number of CD stores has been dismally reduced from 700 to only 200 only. The sharp slump in the showbiz is due to non-availability of copy rights Act in the province. The KP government needs to come up with a comprehensive cultural policy to protect artists and singers’ rights.”

Similarly, young noted Pashto singer Zeek Afridi in his remarks pointed out that the KP singers would forcefully reject any censorship law without taking stakeholders into confidence. “Artists and singers need safety, not a Censorship Act. Yes, we need a policy that could ensure freedom of artists and singers, provide security and a regulation to enact copyrights Act with a vision to promote local culture to pave way for permanent peace,” Mr Afridi advised.

Ustad Glub Shir at his mud home in the village Mullazai near Peshawar. Photo by writer.

Ustad Gulab Shir, a 90-year old popular folk singer, told Freemuse that Pashtuns singers should remain stick to their traditions and should not succumb to militants. “Pashto music is matchless, young singers should continue to sing. I congratulate the music world on celebrating music freedom day today,” Mr Shir told.

The KP government introduced the controversial bill in the assembly when art and culture has already suffered a serious blow over the last years especially post 9/11. Senior Pashto folk singers, most of them in their late 70s – Zarsanga, Qamru Jan, Mashooq Sultana [female singers], Khial Mohammad, Gulab Shir, Ahmed Gul, Hidayatullah, Khan Tehsil and Akbar Hussain – are suffering from serious multiple health complications. They are looking up to the KP culture directorate for financial assistance.

Most young female singers cannot dare to perform in open air or to attend a wedding ceremony in and around Peshawar –the provincial metropolis owing to fear of militant’s attack. Male artists are continuously receiving threat calls. Artists and singers in KP and Fata continue to live under constant threats from militants.

Historic Taj Mahal cinema house in Abbottabad, February 2015. Photo by writer.

A young female dancer and stage performer, Gulnar alias Muskan was brutally murdered on 18 June 2014 outside her home in Peshawar Gulberg, Cantt area. On 28 February 2015, Zianab Bibi, a tv artist, staged a protest in front of Peshawar press club and also threatened to commit suicide if the KP government failed to provide medical assistance to her ailing husband.

500 CD stores in Nishtarabad – once the thriving CD and DVD business hub in Peshawar – have been shut down as the investors including filmmakers, producers, directors and exhibitors incurred huge financial losses due to non-availability of copyrights Act in the province. Around 300 artists, playback singers and stage performers have opted for other professions.

Shafeeq Gigyani, president of the civil society organisation Poha Foundation, told Freemuse that they had strong reservations over the Act. “The cut and paste of martial law-era text of the Act is not acceptable to anyone. We are going to invite experts on the issue next week,” he said.

The board, he said, needed serious brainstorming and experts’ opinion before its implementation. “The Act has technical flaws. No criterion for the chairman and members of the censorship board has been set. Time has changed a lot since Zia’s dictatorship,” Mr Gigyani said.

Noted film star Ajab Gul during his recent visit to Peshawar had told this scribe that no Censorship Board Act would work unless a comprehensive cultural policy was in place. “Razing of cinema houses in the KP was another big issue. Taj Mahal Cinema in Abbottabad city was dismantled last week by its owner which was built in 1948 with a capacity of 600 seats was a sad news this year,” he regretted.

“I have serious reservations about the government’s recent move. I want the culture minister to convene a dialogue including genuine artists, film producers and cultural experts to debate the issue in detail and arrive at a policy reflective of our true image. Pashto cinema has suffered a lot. Artists are literally crying as non-professionals have damaged our image,” Mr Gul said.

Senior Pashto folk singer Zarsanga Bibi performing at Nishtar Hall in Peshawar. Photo by writer.

Senior artist Tariq Jamal said that his organisation Awaz comprising 600 artists had welcomed the Censorship Board Act which would help to curb obscenity and violence from CDs, tele-films and Pashto movies.

Mr Jamal said that government should take artists community into account and also resolve their copyrights issue. “We welcome a censorship board in the province but it should include scholars with sound cultural background and artists. Now a comprehensive cultural policy should be enforced so as problems of artists could be addressed,” he said.

Zarsanga and Khan Tehsil the most popular folk singers of the yore days told Freemuse with their dimming eyes, “We have served our Pashto music for over five decades but unfortunately, music lovers and the KP government turned on us. No censorship could silence artists and singers once they raise and get their voice together.”

Awami National Party (ANP), opposition leader in the KP assembly, Sardar Hussain Babak said that the government seemed to be in hurry in getting serious things done. He added that their way of legislation was queer. “The government must take all stakeholders into confidence as it is a serious issue. The government should clearly define as to who will be the chairman and members of the censor board,” he said.

“What do they want to censor? If there is no clear cultural policy and no activities in the province, then what purpose will the censorship board serve?,” asked research scholar Dr Raj Wali Shah Khattak, former director Pashto Academy.

Senior Pashto folk singer Zarsanga Bibi performing at Nishtar Hall in Peshawar. Photo by writer

The bill, after getting approval next week from the lawmakers, will be immediately imposed and will be known as Censorship Board Act (Motion Pictures), 2015. The artists, singers, musicians, civil society members, cultural activists and intellectuals have rejected the proposed bill and have shown strong reservations over the intended ‘move’ of the government to silence voice of the singers.

Experts and cultural activists strongly believe that the text of the censorship board bill is a ‘cut and paste copy’ of the Gen Ziaulhaq’s martial law era presidential ordinance.

The bill reads, “a film, CD, video, stage drama, show etc. shall not be certified for public exhibition, if in the opinion of Board, the film, CD, stage drama, or show or any part thereof is prejudicial to the glory of Islam or integrity, security or defense of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign States, public order or morality or amounts to the commission of, or incitement to an offence.”

The bill further states that violators shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine which may extend to Rs100,000 ($USD 1,000) or with both and in the case of a continuing offence, a fine which may extend to Rs1,000,000 ($USD 1,0000) or with imprisonment which may extend to three years or with both.

When Freemuse contacted an official in the KP culture directorate he said, “The censorship bill has not been made into Act. It will be tabled in the assembly for debate next week. The culture directorate has already issued cheques to senior ailing folk singers – Khial Mohammad and Hidayatullah. The bill is being introduced to restrict a CD culture breeding violence and indecency. The PTI government wants to resolve issues of the artists and singer’s community and promote our own culture.


Sher Alam Shinwari is a Peshawar-based freelance journalist affiliated with the Pakistani newspaper Dawn. He is also an active member of the Culture Journalists Forum and coordinator for Fata contributing articles on Pashto literary, cultural and artistic activities.

Photo on top of this page: Young Pashto folk singer Master Rahim Gul performing at a Sufi night in Peshawar Press Club on 28 February 2015. Photo by the writer.