Thursday, March 16, 2017

Pakistan - Banning social media

The National Assembly has passed a resolution condemning the blasphemous content on social media. A special parliamentary committee will investigate the matter. Earlier, the Islamabad High Court had ordered the government to check digital spaces for ‘blasphemy’ and the Interior Minister threatened to impose a blanket ban on the social media websites that were hosting the sacrilegious content. This is an unfortunate series of events where blasphemy appears to be the cover for censoring social media.
There is no question that offensive content hurts the feelings of many, but the lawmakers should understand that banning or restricting digital media is not the solution. Censorship is counterproductive and affects the rights of millions who rely on digital media, especially social networking sites for information, entertainment, as well as commerce.
Some social media sites including Facebook and YouTube were banned in the past as well. While the ban on Facebook was short term, YouTube remained inaccessible in Pakistan for approximately three years. The dynamics of media have changed significantly since then. Social media is a vital source of information and citizen engagement. Just because a few individuals post offensive materials is no argument to threaten censorship.
The PTA and IT Boards of the government have been working vigorously to promote Pakistani IT talent to the world, also showcasing the potential the market has for international investors. At such a time, a taking such a step will only deter the confidence of potential investors in the sector keeping in view a continuous threat of government’s fluctuating policies.
The ban on YouTube and the consequent mechanism devised by the government authorities and Google should serve as an example of how to tackle the issue. The anti-cybercrime law passed last year was severely criticised by right groups as the threat it poses towards the freedom of expression. Some senior officials have threatened that to prosecute people under that law for defamation. Given the vague definitions and high-handed approach of state functionaries, this law is open to abuse. Sadly, most of Pakistan’s political parties backed the law and the Parliament instead of safeguarding our rights has become an instrument to curtail our liberties.
In January, five bloggers went missing. A vigorous media campaign accused them of blasphemy. After three weeks of detention, these bloggers returned home and nothing came out of that unlawful process. The Parliament should have checked such excesses by the executive. Tragically, it has joined the chorus orchestrated by elements of state and sections of mainstream media. If nothing else, these developments are a sad reflection on the quality of democracy in Pakistan.

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