The decision by a US appeals court on Wednesday ordering Google to remove the controversial film ‘Innocence of Muslims’ from the video-sharing website YouTube is welcome news for people in Pakistan. The film triggered mass outrage and violent protests around the country, far in excess of its aesthetic value or content. The Pakistani government now has no legitimate excuse to continue the ban, which is extremely unpopular with the public and with activists wary of the state’s penchant for censorship. Not having legitimate reasons has never stood in the way of governments, but people working to overturn the ban can use this case to highlight two facts. The first is that banning YouTube was an unnecessary measure that violated constitutional rights to free information and speech, while empowering extremists to promote their violent narrative. The second is that bans and outrage don’t work — rational argument does.
The judges hearing the case rejected Google’s assertion that removing the film amounted to a prior restraint of speech that violates the US Constitution, on the ground that one of the actors involved in the production was misled about the portrayal and credit she would receive for participating. The plaintiff, Cindy Lee Garcia, objected to the film after learning it incorporated a clip she had made for a different movie. How much simpler would Pakistan’s case have been if, instead of hyperbolic, unconstitutional, and ultimately uninformed outrage and bans, the government had found legal grounds to challenge Google’s constitutional objections. In the case of Ms Garcia and YouTube, releasing the film without her knowledge or consent amounted to a violation of her rights, which the appeals court recognised. Moreover, Pakistani authorities could have negotiated an agreement with Google, as other countries have done, to limit certain content in Pakistan in case it inflames religious sentiments.
The previous and current governments’ hypocrisy with regard to the ban is clear. If either government felt so strongly about the film, they could have spent the last two years investigating the film’s legality and its release, citing statutes including incitement to violence, hate speech, or in this case illegal appropriation of another person’s creative property. Instead they chose to declare a day of protest, which caused millions in property damage, and ban a popular website, causing a great deal of resentment among the internet using public. If the government insists on acting as a ‘defender’ of Islam, it should also take that job seriously and effectively pursue its objectives, instead of making the public victims of its shortsightedness. It is better left to the public to defend their own faith as they see fit, since clearly the government cannot do so.