Banning Sanity

Those who seek to communicate will still find ways, while the federal and Sindh governments revel in their idiocy.

Saroop Ijaz October 05, 2013
The writer is a lawyer and partner at Ijaz and Ijaz Co in Lahore [email protected]

Khan Abdul Qayyum Khan, as soon as becoming the chief minister of what is now K-P, banned his own book. Many years after writing that book, and now in power, he wanted to erase his own history. The attempt is comical as it is telling. The censorial instinct is the impulse to control information, the narrative, the history and of course, the present. It has now been over a year since YouTube has been banned in Pakistan, and the federal government and the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority are in no hurry. The ostensible reason for banning YouTube is that the blasphemous film still lurks there and to access YouTube in the meantime, would lead to an utter breakdown of morality and eventually lead to law and order problems. The information technology minister has apparently expressed the desire to include the Council of Islamic Ideology in the deliberative process of potential unbanning. Allah be praised.

The Sindh government has decided to join in the fun, and now apparently seeks to ban Viber, Skype and WhatsApp, etc. since they are the preferred modes of communication for terrorists. What next? Motorbikes, cars, cell phones, since the terrorists use all of these as well. There were times in the previous government’s tenure when cell phone services were suspended for a few hours on account of ‘clear and present danger’. One could perhaps, grudgingly, make peace with that, however, to ban Viber and Skype for a few months, that is plain silliness and laziness by the Sindh government. It also highlights that the power to ban things will gradually intensify, once one thing can be banned without much commotion, under the pretext of ‘security’ concerns, it is just a matter of time before more things are banned. It seems almost addictive.

The chief minister of K-P also continues with his streak of providing dark humour, when recently he claimed that the Media was responsible for bomb blasts in Peshawar, because you know, they give coverage and all to the carnage. Similar sentiments were echoed by the Supreme Court in taking suo-motu notice of the attack on Ziarat Residency. In both these instances, the common thread was that the showing of the tragedy was the real problem and not the tragedy itself.

The arguments for freedom of expression are universal and have been made since Plato’s Apology and cannot be stated without tedious repetition. However, in our particular context, the conflict is becoming more pronounced. Information and specifically, important information is heavily defended territory almost everywhere, case in point is Snowden. The Pro-Paternal/Police State argument is not based on rights but efficiency. And it fails on that count as well. The strategy of our State is to ban anything and everything uncomfortable. Therein lies the problem. A blanket ban is a cop-out. Since YouTube can possibly be used for nefarious activities, hence YouTube is bad, hence you ban it. Similarly, since Skype is used by some terrorists hence Skype is dangerous and again, you get rid of Skype. Obvious logical fallacies aside, this also breeds slothfulness. YouTube is banned so no need to fight for a more tolerant narrative. No need to attempt to create a society where people do not get riled up, just eliminate the immediate reason for provocation, and then the next, perhaps comparative religion and then the next, ad infinitum. When nobody can communicate via Skype, then terrorists cannot either. No pressing need for a counterterrorism strategy, you just restrict new means of communication. Taken to the logical extreme, this counterterrorism strategy would be a society where nobody can communicate with anybody else, as a side effect making coordination between terrorists impossible.

To restate the problem, while a ‘ban’ starts off as part of a greater plan, however, prohibition has logic and a trajectory of its own, the ‘ban’ would inevitably become the plan. Resulting in that YouTube will be banned, however, hate speech and conspiracy theory websites will remain up and running. An additional problem is that YouTube can still be accessed by anyone with an internet connection via a proxy. Enacting prohibitions which are easy to breach results in the erosion of faith in the rule of law, also, when the State refuses to recognise a phenomenon by banning it, it shrugs off all responsibility to regulate. An example out of the cyber context is alcohol. In theory, Pakistan is dry as the Thar on a July afternoon, yet holy water flows from Karachi to Khyber in abundance. However, since the State does not recognise alcohol, every Eid dozens die due to contaminated moonshine. You cannot regulate the quality of something that you do not admit exists.

Similarly, the State has not come to terms with the existence of cyber space and technology — the ostrich approach of occasional banning allows for the feeling of being in control, while allowing impunity. The control freak instinct of the State is satisfied by the ban, hence no realisation for the need of cyber regulations. The Pakistani State in its time warp does not accept that it is no longer possible to restrict information on cyber space. You counter disobliging information with more information; problems caused by free expression are only curable by more free expression, not less.

Those in the business of free expression, like the media, understand that disobliging and provocative things will be said about people and whatever objections one might have with our media, it also provides the space for the alternative view (this publication certainly does). More debate and disagreement will lead to tolerance, not less.

The classic restriction of freedom of speech is ‘shouting fire in a crowded theatre’. All the ingredients are present here; the State does not want us to ‘shout’ fire and the theatre has hardly any elbow room left. There is just the minor problem, that there is actually a fire (or perhaps, multiple fires) raging, and not shouting will lead to suffocation and then being fried.

The federal government does not trust the people enough to choose what they want to watch. The Sindh government believes that the terrorists who have been holding the state hostage for decades now will be debilitated by banning access to Skype and Viber. Why did we not think of this earlier; what madness is this? People will still find ways to watch what they want, those who seek to communicate will still find ways, while the federal and Sindh governments revel in their idiocy. All they are ensuring is that people get the unregulated bootlegged moonshine, instead of the real stuff.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 6th, 2013.

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observer | 9 years ago | Reply

Reminds me of Stalinist Russia and Maoist China. Both were run on the same assumption- Whatever is not Compulsory is Prohibited.

Soon barring 5 things, all else will be prohibited in Pakistan.

Uza Syed | 9 years ago | Reply

You wrote as you usually write staggeringly beautiful prose about horrifyingly and scary and ugly truth that stares us and dares us either to act or let our inaction destroy us. Good job, Saroop sahib and thanks for being so consistent and brave and wise.

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