KARACHI: Two years, a new government and the promise of change, and at least 20 court hearings later, internet users from Pakistan are still denied access to YouTube. This restriction of access has become the symbol of a state which has increasingly become obsessed with controlling the online space in a non-transparent manner.
The ban had been imposed on September 17, 2012 by then prime minister Raja Pervez Ashraf following national outrage over a sacrilegious video clip. The video had sparked outrage across the Muslim world and prompted temporary bans on the website in Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Sudan. Threat of bans in Saudi Arabia prompted YouTube to selectively curb access in that country and it took a court order to censor it in Brazil.
But even after a US court ordered YouTube to take down versions of the video following a suit filed by one of the actors appearing in the clip, the site remains inaccessible in Pakistan. The refrain, that the clip hurts religious sentiments of the people, is obscene or hurts national security has acted as an effective screen for a process which is less than transparent and has gone on to impact services and content beyond just pornography and blasphemous videos.
“We should understand that our government has realised the power of online media and is afraid of political dissent which finds space on the Internet,” says Nighat Dad of the Digital Rights Foundation.
“We have witnessed in the past that Ministry of Information Technology (MoIT) has been trying to curb political dissent and we have examples like taking down Asif Zaradari shut up video and Laal musical band’s Facebook page.”
The extent of blocking by the government through the Inter-Ministerial Committee has gone on to affect satirical videos, news articles and news websites by elements the state has a less than favourable view of.
The non-governmental organisation Bytes For All had taken the government to court over the blocking of YouTube. After 20 court hearings and a document of consensus reached by several different stakeholders including petitioner (Bytes for All), the MoIT, the PTA and technical experts from the IT and Telecom industries, it was concluded that filtering the Internet was futile owing to technological reasons.
Justice Mansoor Ali Shah of the Lahore High Court observed that banning YouTube because of one undesirable video is like shutting down of an entire library because of an offensive book on its shelves. The LHC refrained from issuing an order, though. Instead it directed the litigants to approach the Supreme Court for an interpretation of the September 17, 2012 order which instituted the blanket ban on YouTube.
However, the hurdles that the NGO members had to face during the litigation process offer a glimpse on how closely does the state wish to keep its ‘weapon’ of censorship hidden away from the prying eyes of the very people it impacts.
An emailed response from Bytes For All detailed how baseless accusations were levelled against them and a defamation campaign was run against them by the government and pro-censorship lawyers.
“There were articles written in some pro-government publications in which Bytes for All was accused of being the agents of west and working against the national interest. We were labelled as ‘Followers of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ during one of the hearing, which was amusing and sad at the same time.”
Dad questioned the legality of the Inter-Ministerial Committee. “This committee should be renamed as the ‘Mysterious committee’ which decides for 184.4 million of what to see on internet and what not. “
She further complained how politicians, who championed the cause of freedom prior to being elected, performed near volte-face once acquiring office.
“[Minister for IT] Anusha Rehman was once a champion for online freedom before coming into the government. She had promised in her election campaign that unblocking YouTube will be the first thing she does once she assumes office. Two years on there are no developments.”
It is odd how in their annual list of achievements, Rehman lists the auction of 3/4G licenses. Yet, sites and services continue to be blocked without a coherent reason or as much as a public announcement.
“Nothing should be blocked on internet. Let people decide what they want to see and what not. Government shouldn’t decide on our behalf,” says Dad.