The earliest form of censorship that I encountered was in my home.
Every month, copies of Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ and Cosmopolitan would be delivered to our house in Karachi, Pakistan, for my mother, and once she was done with the magazines, I would sneak them into the bathroom and pore over everything from advice on dealing with boyfriends who just wouldn’t propose to suggestions on sexual positions that might secure said proposal to guides to the best haircut to suit the shape of my face. And all this reading material was accompanied by images of models that had been scribbled over with black marker. A hint of cleavage, the curve of a breast, a skirt that ended too soon – the offending bits had been coloured over.
Over a decade later, I worked on a story about this form of censorship for the cover story for Herald (read it here) and I spoke with the director of distributor Liberty Books’ magazine division, Jamil Hussain. Liberty Books has been bringing foreign magazines into Pakistan since 1975, and has an estimated 95% of the foreign magazine market here. It 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. The company refers to the black marker censorship as ‘defacing’, and Hussain explained to me that Liberty has a “standing order” from the Pakistani government’s Press Information Department (PID) and the Customs department to ensure that “nothing sexually explicit and anti-Islamic” makes its way into the local market.
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. 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 ‘deface’ or restore the modesty of the scantily clad models in these magazines.
Liberty Books set up shop at Karachi’s Intercontinental Hotel in 1966, and started a magazine division in 1975. Hussain started working for the family company at the age of 17, when former military ruler Ziaul Haq had taken over Pakistan and “different rules were in place”. Hussain recalled 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.”
The censorship isn’t limited to magazines, however, and isn’t only carried out on the orders of the government. The global edition of The New York Times has been distributed in Pakistan by The Express Media Group since April 2010, and The Express Tribune, like many of the INYT’s other publishing partners around the world, often removes entire articles, author bylines, illustrations, cartoons and photographs, or blurs and blackens text and images that could be deemed ‘offensive’ to readers. The paper’s censorship policy has made headlines around the world, most notably in 2014 when a front page story, ‘What Pakistan Knew About Bin Laden’, was removed from the copies of the NYT that subscribers in Pakistan received. You can read more about the fuss that censorship caused here.
For the past few years, I have been informally cataloguing instances of censorship on my social media pages for two reasons: seeing what you’re not allowed to look at or write about is an excellent indicator of often imperceptible shifts in how we think and what we decide is “offensive” (an op-ed on Pakistan’s nuclear safety, for example), and sometimes, its just ridiculous to the point of being funny (when ads for breast cancer are scribbled over, for instance).