Forget the millions of students that could have been educated at home. For free. Forget the hundreds of budding talents, musical prodigies, artists, and filmmakers just aching to be discovered. Forget the thousands of ‘how-to’ programmes that teach millions of people everything from tying ties to coding, from playing a guitar to algebra. Forget the hours of footage that news organisations such as ourselves are struggling to put up as the country’s politics overwhelm us. Forget the documentaries, the music videos, the cute cats — forget every tiny, visual micro-addition to the human experience of living in the 21st century that millions of people the world over are adding to every second. Forget all of it because in Pakistan, YouTube continues to be banned.
The government stopped pretending to have any moral rectitude regarding the ban a long time ago. The case in the courts has stalled despite numerous NGOs’ best efforts; politicians stay mum; and as the country lurches from crisis to crisis, they hope people will just accept the ban as it is. Like dictatorships, catcalling, corruption, and other unsavoury phenomena that seem to be part and parcel of the Islamic Republic, they want the YouTube ban to be here to stay.
The ban was ostensibly put in place to ‘protect’ this country’s vulnerable citizens from blasphemous content — content that YouTube itself has long since removed. The people and places that needed protection — Pakistan’s cinemas and cinema-goers — were wilfully forgotten as mobs set fire to everything they could get their hands on. Nobody banned them. Instead, a website with more than six billion hours of footage viewed every month, was shut down for a video lasting 15 minutes. But there’s more. How is it that a country that has done so little for its unfortunate citizens remove yet another lifeline in the name of acting on their behalf? This is not about piety. This is about governments that cannot forego control. It is about quashing dissent. It is about limiting freedom. It is about trying out the latest technology in censorship. It is about deciding — wrongly and patronisingly — about what is good for Pakistanis without their consent. It is about flailing, pathetic attempts to control information. It is about insulting the collective intelligence of this country by saying the ban was put in place for our protection. But the governments — the previous one that put the ban in place, and this one for keeping it — through all this have not surprised. Governments the world over would like to keep themselves away from censure and criticism. They would like to have a monopoly over information. It is civil society’s responsibility to keep those authoritarian ambitions in check. In this regard, Pakistani citizens’ reactions have been meaningful, if limited. YouTube star Ali Gul Pir and co. did their part by singing a song about it. The Pakistan for All-led KholoBC initiative has been both subversive, and a draw for young internet users. NGOs Bolo Bhi and Bytes For All have put in countless hours in court dates, petitions and advocacy. But if we are to end the ban, the government needs a greater push.
The two-year anniversary in that regard provides an ideal opportunity for citizens to press their representatives about the ban’s reversal. The courts, while willing to hear the petitions, have not decreed this way or that. The Senate Committee on Information Technology conducted hearings of its own on this issue and in the end its members unanimously agreed that the website need to be reopened. The fact is that even Saudi Arabia doesn’t ban YouTube anymore and the only Muslim country that does is Iran, but its reasons may also have to do with curbing political dissent in general. One, unfortunately, get the impression that the government seems to think that people have just forgotten about the ban and will get on with their lives as usual. However, it misses the point that the site is invaluable to millions of citizens, especially students, artistes, musicians, and afficianados of music/drama.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 17th, 2014.