Reports that the government is considering ways of blocking the transmission of material that it finds ‘unwanted’ and ‘objectionable’ are themselves unwanted and objectionable. Censorship in Pakistan is gathering traction by the day. It has been two years since YouTube went dark at the behest of the clerical rightwing ably supported by sympathisers in the government. There were reports of the popular blogging site WordPress being blocked on March 21-22 and the self-censorship practised by all the media houses further limits access to a range of sources. The government has discussed a possible amendment to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) Act of 2007 that would empower the authority to ‘delink’ the signals of TV channels at their satellite source. This would mean that no cable operator or TV could receive the broadcast. It is unclear if the capacity to block transmission extends to individually-owned satellite dish connections but possible at least in theory.
There is no detail as to what exactly constitutes ‘objectionable’ or ‘unwanted’ or who decides what is to be blocked, much as there is complete obfuscation as to the processes associated with blocking websites on the internet. It appears that the discussions between the government, Suparco and lawmakers are already far advanced, and are being trailed by the government as just another part of the National Action Plan (NAP) and aimed at limiting sectarian material or ‘hate speech’ — including that of politicians. Once again the fig-leaf of ‘the national interest’ is being used to cover the advance of yet more limitations to freedom of speech and debate. We in no way condone — indeed vigorously condemn — the spreading of sectarian or hate material, and support an ethical position regarding the reporting of terrorist acts; but smuggling in another layer of censorship without transparency or checks and balances smacks of an uncomfortable totalitarianism. And that is cause for concern.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 27th, 2015.
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