More free speech, not less


Mehreen Zarha-malik May 26, 2010

The impending clash of the judiciary with the government could lead to a systemic collapse. The struggle against militancy is showing little sign of singleminded commitment on the part of the government and no signs of end. And if these battles aren’t enough, Pakistan is now preoccupied with another one: against Facebook, YouTube and over 400 other sites.

There is no doubt that the content the PTA has tried to block is objectionable and government action may have helped ward off violence on the streets. But do the courts and the government really understand how to negotiate a world that exists beyond the streets, online where non-violent protests against a juvenile web campaign are possible? How does the decision to do away with 25 per cent of internet traffic reflect on their understanding, or lack thereof, of the social and cultural changes brought about by new technologies? Do they realise that what they are curtailing not just the responsibility but also the opportunity of Pakistanis to engage with this issue; to come together with Muslims around the world, on Facebook itself, to express their indignation and to take the opportunity to appraise the world of the positive significance of the Prophet (pbuh)?

This is the reality of an instant, online world: that protests against Facebook take place on Facebook itself; that one needs access to Facebook in order to protest its transgressions; that while banning Facebook appeases Muslims around the world, it also implicitly allows for the violent reactions of extremists instead of pushing them to calibrate their responses. The concept of free speech can be protected and combatted only with more free speech, not less.

The courts don’t understand these paradoxes. For once, they’ve taken swift action and want to be patted on the back for that. But if there’s anything we’ve learnt from this issue, it is that through a certain kind of framing – by the media, political leaders or protesters – certain issues are designated as ‘crises’, as problems that need immediate attention. And as much as one wouldn’t expect it from Pakistani governments or courts, swift action is taken. When we really want to get things done, they get done.

So this is for the courts, the political parties, the leaders and the citizens who have never taken seriously the reform of the law; who have failed to educate themselves and others on the values of pluralism; who have resisted focusing political attention and economic resources on educating women; and who have taken too long to begin fighting extremism on multiple fronts. This is a call to all those who think things can’t get done in Pakistan; to all those who are, or aspire to be, some part of the fight for human rights, freedom of speech and rule of law in this country; to all those who take seriously the fact that Pakistan is not Iran, or China. At least some part of this battle can be fought through organised communication online, a more viable option than violence or silence.

Facebook has emerged unscathed, as it has from numerous user protests in its six-year history. But if anyone is in a more precarious situation now than before this drama began, it’s Pakistan. The Facebook ban is not the answer.

Published in the Express Tribune, May 27th, 2010.

COMMENTS (5)

Mansoor Khalid | 10 years ago | Reply A clash between two important state pillars even in any developed country would lead to a vacuum, let alone a country like Pakistan. We must not create circumstances which lead to such a catastrophe. Democracy has to survive and survive for good.
Muhammad Ziad | 10 years ago | Reply What People seem to forget is that the ban serves no purpose. This will only allow more people to mock at Islam. The Islamic card don't work , perhaps the ruling in Islam regarding such provocation (i mentioned this ruling before but my comment was moderated) is nearly impossible to implement even if one considers boycotting as the 'least' thing he could do. Islamic rulings are perfect , anyone who enjoins his thoughts to it only leads to more mockery (as in this case). When was the Last time a Lahore High Court decision was implemented within hours of its judgement? Clearly the government seeks its own interest in every matter , i can challenge anyone on any forum to prove if the facebook ban is in the name of Islam or if one can prove me that Islam asks one to boycott any nation. Muslims have fought wars but never have they boycotted the goods of that nation - the trade went on. Had Islam been the reason , then Facebook should have been banned earlier on the basis of spreading 'fahasha' (Obscenity). The very notion of Boycott itself is a western thought , hypocrisy is that one calls this an Islamic boycott and the Mullahs jump in. Why not ban Google? Porns? the internet? I wish somehow i can also create a chain of email informing the 'Ummah' regarding these mislead policies which makes mockery of Islam. I did not expect such fatwas coming from respected personalities. Yes ban facebook forever, ban porns and heavily censor the internet if it is really for Islam on the basis of Obscenity.
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