There is something breathtaking about the over-eager efficiency with which government officials have a tendency to restrict the liberties of ordinary citizens beyond the call of what is asked of them. For the last several days, this has been on display at the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority which seems to have gone beyond the Lahore High Court’s order to block Facebook by adding YouTube, Flickr and over 800 other websites to the proscribed list. The PTA’s actions are without cause and justification. As part of the executive branch of the government its job is not to interpret the law, merely to implement it. In a statement released to the press on May 20 (and also available on its website), the PTA said that its bans on the other websites were “not only in line with the Constitution of Pakistan, the wishes of the people of Pakistan but also an extension of the court orders passed by the honourable High Court of Pakistan and directions of the Government of Pakistan”.
Since when does the PTA have the right to interpret the constitution? It does not consist of legal experts and only the courts have the authority to issue orders based on an interpretation of the constitution. The authority needs to be held accountable because it has clearly overstepped its mandate. Regardless of what it thought it was doing, and the noble sentiments that the action must have been done under, its actions constitute a dangerous breach of the separation of powers. Furthermore, on whose authority has the PTA seen it fit to abridge the rights of over 17 million internet users in Pakistan? Under what law or logic did it, even temporarily, ban sites like Wikipedia, which are used extensively by students, and researchers?
When will the ban on the other sites be removed? What is the government waiting for? And perhaps more importantly, why isn’t a timeframe being communicated to the millions of internet users who for now must wonder where all this is going? One wonders why the PTA felt the need to go beyond the court’s orders. Might it simply be the government’s need to control the flow of information in the country? Why else would there be a centralised server through which all internet traffic in the country is routed?
Governments in Pakistan – and this one is no exception – have always been wary of anything that allows ordinary people to have either great access to information or which enables them to share it with each other and with the rest of the world. In the past we have seen prohibitions on sections of the electronic media, on YouTube (this one came at a time when a particularly hilarious clip of then President Pervez Musharraf was doing the rounds on the website) and even a law which hands down stiff punishments to those who use messages on phones to make fun of senior government functionaries. The longer the ban on the hundreds of websites continues the more credible will the perception become that there is more to the ban than just the blasphemous page on Facebook. And it will unnecessarily continue to appease those who conform to an extremist and reactionary world view. The site has said that the offending page will be made unavailable to users in Pakistan. The government should follow up on this and then unblock the website, given that the site was used by over two million people in the country and was a very good way of meeting old friends, keeping in touch with old ones, as well as relatives and even sharing information on all kinds of civic causes.
The unfortunate fact is that governments in Pakistan tend to err towards authoritarianism and this often acquires a religio-nationalist cloak, making it all the more difficult for ordinary Pakistanis to understand and realise that their rights are under attack and to then do something about the onslaught. Bans are only a stop gap measure and serve to lock out Pakistani citizens from the largest marketplace of ideas in the world.
Published in the Express Tribune, May 27th, 2010.