The Islamabad High Court (IHC) established an important legal precedent in a recent ruling regarding freedom of speech in Pakistan. The decision involved a petition filed by the Shuhada Foundation, a non-profit organization affiliated with the extreme right-wing Lal Masjid in Islamabad, against TV coverage of music and dancing at recent anti-government protests in Pakistan’s capital. The IHC dismissed the petition and fined the petitioner for wasting the court’s time. In dismissing the petition, Justice Athar Minallah also gave the complainants some important advice: If you don’t like music, change the channel.
Justice Minallah’s advice has important implications when applied to other cases that involve complaints about offensive content such as those that seek to restrict the broadcast of international programming or allegations of blasphemy. In each of these cases, a court order is not required to remove the offensive content from the individual viewers television. They just need to change the channel.
The precedent established by the IHC also has bearings on another important issue: The now two-year-old blocking of YouTube in Pakistan. As with potentially objectionable content on television, no one is required to view any particular videos on YouTube or other online video sharing sites.
By making the individual responsible for his or her own viewing choices, the IHC’s decision strengthens Pakistan’s constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms of speech and access to information and limits the ability of anti-democratic forces to use legal cases as a weapon against minorities and other marginalized groups.