In recent years, Pakistani lawmakers’ long-standing tradition of suppressing political dissent has trickled into the digital world. The state now actively censors online content with the support of a military that refuses to accept criticism and a religious right that can’t tolerate any political narrative apart from its own.
Over time, Pakistan Telecommunications Authority has blocked thousands of URLs. It has taken down numerous Facebook pages, banned Rolling Stone’s website over an article that criticized the army, filtered a range of Baloch web pages due to ‘inappropriate’ and ‘unpatriotic’ content, and much more. PTA has become the tool through which the religious right, the politically intolerant powers that be, the military and other major players suppress freedom of expression in Pakistan.
Legally, it is an Inter-Ministerial Committee of elected representatives, members of the religious fraternity, and intelligence agencies that makes censorship recommendations. These move through the IT Ministry and then on to PTA for enforcement. But despite these procedural details, most critics agree that the state uses Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law to block whatever it chooses. This has put the country on a slippery slope that will inevitably end in a dark pit where the state controls what people hear, speak, write and how they act, all on the pretext that it wants to ‘save’ them from inappropriate content. We learned the harms of this model all too well in the days of the Taliban in Afghanistan. But the state refuses to acknowledge this argument and continues to censor and filter the web.
Yet there are some individuals launching legal challenges against the state, striving to put an end to this relentless censorship of cyberspace, despite the risks involved. Such efforts are few and far between, but as the only stumbling block in government's path to full-blown Internet censorship, they are invaluable.
One of the better-known fruits of the current censorship regime is the ban on YouTube. Rights advocates have launched a petition challenging the ban before the Lahore High Court, but the case has seen little progress thus far. The Court has summoned the Minister of IT twice this month, but she failed to appear on both occasions. IT Minister Anusha Rehman is known among activists for having hinted that blanket-blocking Google would be a viable option for protecting citizens from “objectionable” videos on YouTube. When her ridiculous ‘plan’ was met by a social media backlash, she closed her Twitter account altogether.
In the meantime, several pseudo-intellectuals and state-anointed experts have taken it upon themselves to discredit individuals who are fighting against censorship. They have called the YouTube Ban a “divine calling” and have described those striving against it as anti-Islam, anti-Pakistan, pro-porn, Ahmadis, atheists, Zionists and so on, employing the popular propaganda tactics of the religious right.
Apart from painting a heavily skewed picture of the situation, this kind of reporting puts the lives of anti-censorship activists in danger. Taliban sympathizers in our midst are much too easily ‘provoked’ to the divine mission of attaining heaven by killing others. In the past, such allegations have led to incidents of violence against activists, some even resulting in their deaths.
Typically, this kind of propaganda is spread by several religious social media hubs and then reinforced by TV shows and newspapers. Allegations are little more than a veiled threat to activists, telling them to back off or face dire consequences. Once a person is deemed anti-Islamic by any of the major religious organizations, it means only one thing: The person in question is now on the hit-list of religiously motivated militants. He or she may also face mob justice motivated by religious right.
This sudden surge of pro-censorship publicity is happening at a time when PTA is out of valid arguments in the case. In fact, the court has criticized the regulatory authority and decried the IT Ministry's utter inability to devise a sensible policy regarding online content. The government will play the central role in resolving the questions around the YouTube case, if it so wishes. But what many choose not to see is that the government is far from willing to even come to the negotiating table. Instead, state institutions are creating new lists of URLs each day and blocking them routinely, even when the issue of online filtering is being contested in the courts.
In US, the recent revelations about government surveillance programs sent tremors through the White House and have resulted in a very public debate over the National Security Agency’s surveillance tactics and a Congressional motion that proposed to scale back its operations. Although the motion was narrowly defeated, it shows that speaking out against censorship and surveillance in US is not life-threatening.
In Pakistan, on the other hand, even the discovery of the mass-surveillance software, Netsweeper and its admission by PTA hasn't stirred anyone or anything. Clearly, the majority of the population has accepted the utter lack of personal freedoms as fate. Those who are fighting against censorship are trying to create awareness among the masses so that more people will speak out against government efforts to monitor users and content online. But in this milieu, it is the actions of those who are trying to sabotage the efforts of anti-censorship activists that are most harmful and unfortunate. One can only hope that when the history of individual liberty in Pakistan is written, theirs will be the names penned down as traitors of our society.