Tag Archives: censorship

Pakistan’s increasing isolation

Imran Khan leads protest

The Lahore High Court this week tightened restrictions on screening foreign films – a move clearly targeted at India’s prolific Bollywood industry. This follows a campaign by some in Pakistan’s TV industry last year to secure a ban on foreign content. The provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa officially banned a 12-year-old academic book by Suranjan Das, the Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University in India. No rationale for the ban was given, and the Government of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, recently banned the teaching of comparative religion. YouTube remains inaccessible in Pakistan, and earlier this week access to IMDb was temporarily blocked, with a Pakistan Telecommunications Authority describing the site as, “anti-state, anti-religion, and anti-social.”

But cutting itself off from foreign media is not the only isolationism that is gaining popularity in Pakistan. In the wake of a drone strike that killed senior members of the Haqqani Network, a group designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the United States, Pakistan’s Interior Minister publicly questioned how Pakistan could continue to regard the US as a friendly nation. Populist politician Imran Khan took the rhetoric a step further, declaring the strike to be “a declaration of war” between Pakistan and the United States and announced that he would organize a permanent blockade of NATO supply routes beginning today. Protests led by Imran Khan have begun, but it’s unclear whether they will actually be able to sustain an effective blockade of NATO supplies. What is clear is that, while Taliban militants continue to attack Pakistan, Imran Khan and other populist leaders are focused on casting the US as the real enemy, fostering sympathy for terrorists.

While Pakistan may be looking to replace American patronage by more closely aligning with China, it is unlikely that this would relieve Pakistan from pressure to tackle extremism. US and Chinese interests increasingly align in Pakistan, and earlier this year Pakistan was forced to take action against three militant groups due to pressure from China. The legality and efficacy of the US drone program can be debated, but it does not alleviate Pakistan of the responsibility to ensure that it is not becoming a safe haven for terrorists, as desired by al Qaeda.

Pakistan is facing a number of difficult challenges. Closing itself off from the rest of the world is not the solution.

Pakistan’s YouTube Ban About More Than An Offensive Video

Media censorship in PakistanPakistan’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.

Pakistan’s judiciary has blocked critical TV programs through court orders as well as threatening criminal charges against journalists who criticize the judiciary or the military.

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.