The state of Pakistan has never disappointed us when it comes to censorship. This is a country where the Madar-i-Millat (mother of the nation) Fatima Jinnah’s radio broadcast against the political role of the military was censored. A crackdown on independent print media came in the wake of General Ayub Khan’s dictatorship when the so-called anti-state publications were clamped down and ‘banned’ for all practical purposes. The late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was no different, as he was plainly intolerant of dissent. Historian Khursheed Kamal Aziz once told me how Fatima Jinnah’s memoir My Brother was also censored to omit the portion where Ms Jinnah was not too kind about Pakistan’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan.
General Ziaul Haq took censorship to new heights. Jinnah’s famous speech delivered at the Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1947 was actually subjected to a blackout. This was a speech not only by a politician but by the governor-general (designate) where Jinnah laid out the contours of the new moderate and inclusive Pakistani state. Newspapers were not allowed to carry the speech and textbooks were purged of references.
Fortunately, times have changed. Globalisation and technological advancement make it virtually impossible to suppress free speech and related freedoms. However, the postcolonial state designed in the 19th century with archaic procedures and outdated world view fails to understand this; for example, General Pervez Musharraf tried to suppress the media for a brief time — though, in the end, had to give up his plans.
The rise of social media in Pakistan, albeit with limited outreach, has posed a new challenge. The boundlessness of the internet and unprecedented freedoms have been threatening. This is why a Lahore High Court judge entertained the possibility of banning Facebook based on a right-wing public interest litigation. For a whole year, the denizens at the Pakistan Telecom Authority kept the Blackberry browsing services down. Some lunatic in another part of the world indulges in a blasphemous act and our authorities want to punish the entire country. Such an insecure interpretation of ‘religion’ makes us the laughing stock of the world.
The recent attempt to ‘ban’ Twitter — a social networking site used by millions across the world, including Pakistanis — came in the wake of a blasphemous cartoon contest taking place on Facebook. The government has even demanded Twitter to take action, forgetting that it is a global platform and will not accede to the ascendancy of paranoid right-wingers of Pakistan, who have successfully made the PPP and its coalition partners hostage to their demands.
What is most worrisome is that the PPP government earlier mulled over proposals to screen and censor internet content ostensibly in its antiterrorism drive. Such proposals were resisted by internet activists and shelved, at least for now. However, the threat of censorship remains real given the history and conduct of our state.
If Pakistan has to evolve as a mature democracy, then its rulers need to remember that the right to free speech is non-negotiable. It does not behoove a political party claiming to be moderate and liberal and pandering to urges of censorship. Similarly, conservative elements in the judiciary must also be held to account if they pander to censorship petitions. The state of Pakistan will have to deal with the new realities. Censorship of bygone decades is next to impossible, especially when it attacks the 20 million internet users. We shall resist and fight.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 22nd, 2012.