By Hajrah Mumtaz
SOME recent developments that have impinged upon, or attempted to impinge upon, the right to unfettered access to information should spark a debate on a freedom that is considered one of the cornerstones of democratic societies.
These developments, despite constituting two distinct strands of action prompted by different factors, culminate in the same place from the citizenry’s point of view: they both attempt to limit free access to information.
First, there are the two recent court orders regarding blockages of certain Internet sites and links.
In May, following an order passed by the Lahore High Court, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) blocked close to 1,000 websites, most infamously Facebook. The issue was access to content that was considered derisive of Islam. The blocks stayed in place for about a week and a half, after which PTA was able to filter out undesirable links in some cases. In the case of Facebook, the material was removed, reportedly by the person[s] who put it up in the first place.
Then, through an injunctive order issued on June 22, the Bahawalpur bench of the Lahore High Court directed PTA to enforce an interim ban on nine websites that included search engines Yahoo and Google. It is unclear which, if any, websites or links, were actually blocked. PTA representatives were reported as having expressed reservations about taking popular websites and search engines offline; yet, it was also reported that a PTA official “assured the court that nine weblinks which allegedly contained blasphemous material would remain blocked”. Further hearings have been adjourned until September.
These orders came as a result of petitions submitted by private citizens. The courts, after reviewing the petitions and materials, delivered orders that the government was bound to follow. Yet what these petitions and the resultant orders represent are an effort to restrict Pakistanis’ ability to access certain content on the web; or, to flip that thought around, they constitute a plea for the denial of people’s right to choose what information they can access.
While the government or state has no control over what a court decides, in the case of restricting people’s right to information it too has recently had its hands sullied. On July 1, it was reported that the government had convened a “media coordination committee of defence planning” meeting to formulate certain “policy guidelines” applicable to private electronic and print media organisations with a view to developing a policy “for tuning in the private media to national outlook and securing national security interests”.
The proposals to be deliberated were submitted by the ministry of foreign affairs, the information ministry, the cabinet division and the military’s Joint Staff Headquarters.
What guidelines, if any, actually evolve from this remains so far unknown. But reservations have been raised that they could lead to violations of media freedoms and create a system open to abuse, misinterpretation or confusion.
Pakistan is no stranger to press censorship, and history shows that it is often motivated by a government’s desire to stifle dissent, muzzle political opposition and prevent the citizenry from gaining access to viewpoints or information that the leadership of the day does not approve of.
There are any number of examples, from the takeover of Progressive Papers Ltd during the Ayub years and the curbs placed on the print media during the Zia regime to, more recently, the clampdown on the media in 2007 by the Musharraf administration.
It is difficult to forget images of riot police firing tear gas shells and roughing up staff inside the Islamabad offices of the Jang Group Publications on March 16 that year, and journalists being assaulted by plainclothesmen and security personnel as they covered Nawaz Sharif’s return on Sept 10. And all this paled in comparison to what took place after the Nov 3, 2007 proclamation of emergency rule.
As pointed out earlier, the muzzling of press freedoms by a government and court orders regarding the restriction of access to certain web content are separate matters. Yet where they come together is their effect and in their underpinning ideologies: both represent a mindset that, for differing reasons, dictates that information available to Pakistani citizens must be controlled from the top – that people cannot be allowed the right to choose the information they can access. In doing so, citizens are forcibly reduced to becoming passive consumers of only that information which is deemed allowable or safe.
In terms of restrictions on the Internet, the motivation appears to lie in a desire to spare religious sensibilities by removing access to potentially hurtful material. Certainly, it is hard to argue that material such as that which caused the Facebook furore would not be deemed offensive by quite a large number of people. Nevertheless, surely the notion of a free, civilised society dictates that people be left free to choose for themselves, to choose whether or not to access anything that they might find offensive.
Yet, some would argue, giving people the choice cannot be allowed in a society such as Pakistan, for that could result in the widening of viewpoints and the plurality of opinions and ideologies that would ultimately undermine the project to homogenise the country that many feel has latently been under way for decades.
Press censorship in Pakistan has the same effect, albeit for different reasons. Common to all such efforts has been one central motivating factor: the urge to stifle a press that threatens to hurt a government’s, or its functionaries’, vested interests, or to clamp down on viewpoints that refuse to toe the official line.
The underlying fear that can be read into this is that if citizens had access to independent and unfiltered news reporting, in other words if they were allowed to make up their own minds about their government (whichever one may be at the helm), that government may find itself under severe criticism. Therefore, information – and access to it – must be tightly controlled.
The court-ordered blockages of the Internet, and the policy guidelines for the press in the process of being formulated, come together in representing the manner in which uncensored information, and unfettered access to it, has always been viewed as a problem in Pakistan.
As a result, in a variety of ways, Pakistanis are denied the right to access information of their own choice. This may well be one of the factors that keep us in the dark ages: unless we are allowed to make up our own minds, how shall we mature in any meaningful way on the societal level?