The issue of blasphemous content on the internet does need the attention of the government, no one denies that. But the response to this problem must be reasonable and proportionate above all else. Recent statements by the Islamabad High Court (IHC), which is hearing a petition on this matter indicate that the judge – Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui – may have allowed religious sentiment and a zealous mindset to take precedence over his legal duty to exercise dispassionate logic. There is real danger that he may return an absurd verdict, and his fairly extreme comments have already done irreparable damage to years of hard won progress on this sensitive narrative.
The petitioner seeks the ban of social media for displaying blasphemous content – not just a site or two, a complete ban on sites like Facebook and Twitter used by millions of Pakistanis and people across the world. While this is obviously a ridiculous demand, more rhetoric than a serious one, the honourable justice has given it credence, saying that if the government is unable to block access to suspect sites, the court may have to order such a complete ban.
This would clearly be a travesty of the principles of proportionality and a mockery of common sense. Blocking the entirety of social media – one that provides information, connectivity, education and a platform for business – for such a minor issue is overkill, and severely harmful to the people of Pakistan’s daily activities. Like the Youtube ban, it will only stifle intelligent discourse and access of information, and will be eventually reversed when the authorities realise the futility and foolishness of such an action.
The better route is to ask the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to review sites that viewers find objectionable – a system that the body already has in place – and rely on it to weed out the actual problem. Even so, the more logical course is to ask the petitioner to practice circumspection. The internet is a vast place full of all kinds of material; people usually exercise their discretion and wisdom to stay away from sites that might offend them, as should the petitioner. Instead of asking the court to delete social media, maybe he should simply refine his internet practices. No one can ban everything objectionable on the internet unless one bans the internet itself – a prospect that the court must consider.
There is a need to dial back his religious fervour and act as a federal judge cognisant of his role and the power of his words. The Youtube ban stunted the growth of Pakistani society and made it a laughing stock of the world, the social media ban will repeat it – only it will be so much worse.