Pakistan’s decision to block access to YouTube was bound to fail. The US is never going to require a publisher to suppress content at the request of a foreign government. Neither will the US reverse course on free speech jurisprudence and enforce a blanket heckler’s veto on behalf of an insulted party. Given this reality, Pakistani policy makers should ask whether censorship is an effectively public policy, or whether such policies threaten to undermine the very democracy they have sacrificed so much to obtain.
Ironically, the infamous YouTube clip that sparked riots across the world itself was virtually unknown until it was pulled from obscurity and heavily publicized by a right-wing Egyptian TV host. After groups like Jamaat-e-Islami and the Difa-e-Pakistan Council organized protests against the film, Prime Minister Ashraf ordered access to the video sharing site blocked in Pakistan.
The government of Pakistan continues to insist that the ban is a temporary measure while a new “firewall” is built to block access to objectionable content not only on YouTube, but across the Internet. This actually makes slightly more sense, from a policy perspective, as restricting access to YouTube doesn’t restrict access to the offensive video which is available on other popular video and file sharing sites not blocked in Pakistan. Nor does the YouTube ban capture the countless other Internet Websites that contain content that could offend someone.
The only way to truly restrict access to objectionable material on the Internet, of course, is to completely disconnect from the Internet. Any society that chooses to connect to the Internet will have to find a way to live with offensive material.
Iran has been working on launching a separate “halal” Internet – one that conforms to “Islamic principles.” Of course, the “Islamic principles” of Iran’s Ayatollahs are not the same “Islamic principles” of Pakistan’s Sunni hardliners, raising the question of who decides what is objectionable.
In Pakistan, this is the real issue – who determines which ideas are and are not objectionable. As democracy replaces authoritarianism in Pakistan, some on the far-right are continuing to advocate for restrictions on access to information in effort to maintain some control over society – and it’s not limited to “blasphemous” content.
Pakistan’s cable operators blocked access to BBC World News in response to a documentary that some felt presented the military in an unfavorable light.
The operators called on the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) “to revoke the landing rights of foreign channels” if they were found to be “propagating” information harmful to the country.
Geo TV’s Ansar Abbasi, who reportedly told US Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Judith McHale that “we hate all Americans,” recently wrote that he is at war with Indian and Western culture, and complained that “vulgarity, obscenity, and the spreading of Indian culture in Pakistan is no big deal” for Pakistan’s liberals and intellectuals. And it was Ansar Abbasi and Geo TV that reminded Pakistanis about the forgotten video just as the government of Pakistan prepared to restore access to YouTube, causing the government to do an about face and reinstitute the ban on YouTube only hours after lifting it.
The Express Tribune, an English-language daily, noted the danger such a policy presents to civil liberties.
The fight against the YouTube ban is important to cause the government to think twice before it embarks on another round of censorship. The proposal to build a firewall like China, where the internet would essentially be controlled by the government, is extremely worrying. We need to make it clear that we do not wish to regress to a dark age when a centralised authority controlled all access to information. Retreating to such an era would essentially mean that we were longer living in a democracy.
As Pakistani officials contemplate how to protect both the right of free speech and public order, they should also consider whether the policies they are pursuing and the precedents they are setting are effectively serving the public interest, or whether anti-democratic forces are using these debates as a means to roll back democratic reforms obtained during the past few years.