Internet censorship in Pakistan
He is a devout Muslim. He prays five times a day. He observes fasting during the holy month of Ramazan. He recites the Holy Quran in the morning and evening. His very name is Mohammad Islam.
He loves Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) like anybody else does. Nay, he loves him even more. For, when there surfaced the issue of blasphemous cartoons and caricatures and the consequent sacrilegious film “The Innocence of Muslims” on the internet, he actively participated in the protests, held countrywide. Only he would not indulge in any acts of violence and would only register his protest in a peaceful manner.
During one of these demonstrations, he suffered the tragedy of his life, too. He became a victim of police violence and received heavy baton blows on his head, resulting in his unconsciousness and month-long coma. He lost grip on reality and was ultimately brought to our mental institution.
It was back in September last year, when the PPP government banned YouTube in Pakistan. In the succeeding months, Islam received extensive psychotherapy and showed signs of improvement. He somehow regained his mental rigor and analytical powers. Some two months back, he was even given access to the institution’s state-of-the-art library with its Internet facility, where he started work on his doctoral thesis.
Yes, it turned out the young man was a PhD student before the ill-fated incidence. He had finished his course work and was conducting research on his paper, titled “Religion and Science: The Muslim Outlook”.
A couple of days ago and much to the chagrin of our staff, he had this sudden fit of frenzy again and in his hysteria, he indulged in a sort of stream of consciousness, which is copied here for the general benefit of the readers:
“It is unbelievable, man! It has almost been a year and the YouTube ban still lingers on. To make matters worse, the government has now blocked our access to even the torrent sites. Now that is beyond my mundane mind. It seems more like an Orwellian attack on the World Wide Web.
“Every time, I’d try to open a torrent site, the message pops up on my screen, saying: ‘Surf Safely’. This website is not accessible’.
“Goddamn it. Just what does the PTA take us for? For downright anarchists? For blasphemers? For warmongers? Or for something more worse and sinister? Oh, but it is so true a saying: A sick mind would only see things through a sickly lens. For it – the government – takes the very source of information for mere negativity and disinformation.
“I understand, there is objectionable, nay highly offensive and anti-social material on the YouTube and torrent sites. But is that all? Does that mean we kill the very messenger, who brings the information? Just tell me, if you spot some lice in a child’s hair, do you pick lice out or do you kill the innocent child? Well, apparently, you are killing the child and not making any concerted effort to pick the lice out and killing them at all.
“It is a shame that a major part of the civil society and media is keeping a criminal mum on the issue. An issue that concerns the very basic right of our citizens: the free flow of information. And you, the PTA, just fail to see there is another side to the coin. That this other side is the quintessence of the whole phenomenon.
“That there are millions of research papers on these sites. That there are thousands of lectures by world-renowned scholars. That there are hundreds of thousands of journals, e-books, audio books and documentaries on subjects ranging from science, arts, history, nature, geography to culture and beyond.
“It is clear now the government abused our right to protest. It is more like a political issue now. We wanted to register our protest on the blasphemy issue. What the politicians did was to go a step further and rather to block the public’s access to their own scandals. Establishment included. By failing to maintain law and order in the land, they subscribed to such underhand tactics. And so, we virtually lost the much-fabled virtual world.
“Now that is quite strange for a government, which does not tire in gurgling out claims of the underground, the tube, metros, and bullet trains. Oh God. Just how can you start the tube, when you cannot even filter specific links on a simple website like the YouTube? And, just how can you start bullet trains, when you don’t have bucks for even running the traditional locomotives?
“So away with your self-righteous ‘Surf Safe’ shenanigans. Away with your totalitarian tantrums. Down with your undemocratic attitude. And hey, the new Minister of State for Information Technology! What made you to deactivate your Twitter account? Was there just too much of criticism of your policies? Is this how you go about things in real life? To bury your head in the sand like an ostrich, when adversity strikes? You seem rather a nice person, mademoiselle! But not so, when my Mozilla browser comes up with that obnoxious message: ‘Surf Safe’. That is just too condescending of you.
“And tell you what? You are supposed to be out there for the IT development in the country. But what you, in actual fact, need is to develop your own IQ. This wholesome banning and blocking of the site domains would not help at all. Educate yourself a little bit. Study the dynamics of the new technology. Learn from the experiences of other countries. India is just next door. If it can sort out the issue, why can’t you?
“As for the general public, you should know there are ways to get around things. The proxy software and servers, you see. After all, it is the virtual world. You just cannot control it even if you want to. Better you play it fairly like they do in a responsible democracy. You won’t lose anything, but rather earn some respect for yourself and your government. Just don’t push people around to use illegal means for an otherwise legitimate cause.
“The way things are going, it seems, we will soon be witnessing a complete Internet blackout in the country. In the end, what we will be left with, is merely the Orwellian nightmare: Big Brother, doublethink, newspeak, thoughtcrime; and paradoxical mottos like: ‘war is peace; freedom is slavery; ignorance is strength’.”
The writer is a researcher and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.