KARACHI: Two years, a new government and the promise of change, and at least 20 court hearings later, internet users from Pakistan are still denied access to YouTube. This restriction of access has become the symbol of a state which has increasingly become obsessed with controlling the online space in a non-transparent manner.
The ban had been imposed on September 17, 2012 by then prime minister Raja Pervez Ashraf following national outrage over a sacrilegious video clip. The video had prompted outrage across the Muslim world and prompted temporary bans on the website in Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Sudan. Threat of bans in Saudi Arabia prompted YouTube to selectively curb access in that country and it took a court order to censor it in Brazil.
But even after a US court ordered YouTube to take down versions of the video following a suit filed by one of the actors appearing the clip, the site remains inaccessible in Pakistan. The refrain, that the clip hurts religious sentiments of the people, is obscene or hurts national security has acted as an effective screen for a process which is less than transparent and has gone on to impact services and content beyond just pornography and blasphemous videos.
“We should understand that our government has realised the power of online media and is afraid of political dissent which finds space on the Internet,” says Nighat Dad, founder and director of Digital Rights Foundation.
“We have witnessed in the past that Ministry of Information Technology (MoIT) has been trying to curb political dissent and we have examples like taking down Asif Zardari shut up video and Laal musical band’s Facebook page.”
The extent of blocking by the government through the Inter-Ministerial Committee has gone on to affect satirical videos, news articles and news websites by elements of which the state has a less than favourable view of.
The digital rights organisation Bytes for All had taken the government to court over the blocking of YouTube. After 20 court hearings, a document of consensus was reached by several stakeholders including petitioner (Bytes for All), MoIT, PTA and technical experts from the IT and telecom industries, it was concluded that filtering the Internet was futile owing to technological reasons.
Justice Mansoor Ali Shah of the Lahore High Court observed that banning Youtube because of one undesirable video is like shutting down of an entire library because of an offensive book contained within it. The LHC though refrained from issuing an order, instead directing the litigants to approach the Supreme Court for an interpretation of the September 17, 2012 order issued by the apex court which instituted the blanket ban on YouTube.
However, the hurdles that Bytes of All members had to face during the litigation process offer a glimpse on how closely does the state wishes to keep its ‘weapon’ of censorship hidden away from the prying eyes of the very people it impacts.
An emailed response from Bytes for All detailed how baseless accusations were leveled against them and a defamation campaign was run against them by the government and pro-censorship lawyers.
“There were articles written in some pro-government publications in which Bytes for All was accused of being the agents of west and working against the national interest. We were labeled as ‘Followers of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ during one of the hearing, which was amusing and sad at the same time.”
Dad questioned the legality of the Inter-Ministerial Committee. “This committee should be renamed as the ‘Mysterious committee’ which decides for 184.4 million of what to see on internet and what not. ”
She further complained how politicians, who championed freedom prior to being elected, performed near volte-face once acquiring office.
“[Minister for IT] Anusha Rehman was once a champion for online freedom before coming into the government. She had promised in her election campaign that unblocking YouTube will be the first thing she does once she assumes office. Two years on, there are no developments.”
The lack of accountability in this regard is a theme that has extended to the corridors of parliament. Syed Ali Raza Abidi, a Muttahida Qaumi Movement MNA and part of the National Assembly’s standing committee on information technology says the committee has met only four times in the past year.
“I have raised it [YouTube block] in supplementary questions at least four times since I have been an MNA. These supplementary’s were asked whenever there was a question about the IT ministry and its performance,” Abidi says, adding that in these meetings, the Minister of IT and Secretaries of the department have told parliamentarians that the matter is sub-judice and courts are the only authority to reverse the ban. Requests for a public hearing on the ban in the committee too have been ignored
Abidi adds that a joint resolution was submitted in the national assembly by Pakistan Peoples Party’s Shazia Marri and it had been supported by the MQM, but no action was taken on that either.
“The only reason the PML-N government is not interested in unbanning YouTube is because they fear backlash from religious groups which are primarily their support base in Pakistan.”
It is odd how in their annual list of achievements, Rehman lists the auction of 3/4G licenses. Yet, sites and services, which the public would use these technologies to access, continue to be blocked without a coherent reason or as much as a public announcement.
“Nothing should be blocked on internet. Let people decide what they want to see and what not. Government shouldn’t decide on our behalf,” says Dad.
For its part, Bytes for All will soon be submitting an application in the Supreme Court to seek clarification on its earlier order. “We believe that the intent of the apex court was not to have entire Youtube blocked in Pakistan. We hope for a positive outcome resulting in free and open Internet contributing towards national socio-economic development.”
YouTube ban gives rise to alternatives
While any one on the internet with moderate skills can find ways to mitigate the ban imposed by the government and access YouTube, it has not stopped the rise of alternative websites which offer similar content.
French company Dailymotion has risen to become the sixth most visited site in Pakistan, according to the ranking website Alexa. So much so, visitors from Pakistan contribute over 13% of the site’s traffic, more than its native France.
Monday’s incident, where Senator Rehman Malik and MNA Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani were offloaded from a PIA flight, went viral after video clips recorded on cellphones were posted onto Dailymotion.
Local video sharing platform, Tune.pk, too has seen its fortunes rise in the vacuum created by YouTube’s forced absence. It is the 13th most visited site in Pakistan.