Millennium Post


In September 2012, the Pakistani government expanded a ban on some YouTube contributors to a blockage of the whole video-sharing site, because the anti-Muslim film Innocence of Muslims had appeared on it. Eighteen months later, the ban remains, exposing a simmering struggle within Pakistan over the basic issue of freedom of expression and information that could be decided in court next month.

What the Pakistani government doesn’t realise is that its attempts to restrict the Internet have already provoked the growth of the very digital counterculture that it has sought to control. And even if they lose in court, that counterculture’s members are going to become only more determined to communicate on the Internet, using its many alternative channels if they have to.

The blocking of YouTube is part of a larger attempt by the government to censor the Internet. It has already spent millions of dollars to acquire Internet filters and other surveillance equipment, including Netsweeper from Canada and FinFisher from Gamma International in Britain.

Anti-Islamic material isn’t all that the government wants to keep away from Pakistani eyes. Videos that expose military action in Baluchistan, a restive province; human rights violations reported by citizen journalists, and political messages that can be seen as anti-establishment are also removed.
But having experienced decades of political oppression and dictatorship, Pakistanis are used to finding alternative ways to get access to and spread information. So when YouTube was shuttered, they started using proxies to gain access to it, while also uploading to other video-sharing sites.
Of course, the government began blocking the most popular proxies, but couldn’t always keep up. Even today, YouTube occasionally becomes accessible on some Internet providers for a few hours.

In any event, young Pakistanis, having been raised on satellite television, the Internet and smartphones, already have an insatiable thirst for information and the public space in which to think freely. So their appetite has been whetted, and many of them now are challenging the
establishment’s societal mores.

‘We are building a movement of defiance among the youth and larger Internet users by providing them tools to circumvent the government’s policy of censorship,’ says Shahzad Ahmad, the country director of Bytes4All, an organisation of young Pakistanis who use digital technology to promote human rights and sustainable development.

Since 2012, Bytes4All has been petitioning the Lahore High Court for a writ against the ban on YouTube, and lately the issue has become dramatically politicised; Ahmad has accused government lawyers of threatening that if YouTube is opened, there will be ‘bloodshed on the streets of Pakistan.’

Anusha Rehman Khan, state minister for information technology and telecom, was ordered to appear at a hearing in March, but failed to show up; it was the third time she had done so. Instead, lawyers from banned religious outfits appeared in court, an indication of how far the government would go to sway the judges and intimidate Bytes4All.

During the March court hearing, Justice Mansoor Ali Shah, the lead judge, remarked: ‘What the government is saying is a joke. Every child is accessing YouTube. It’s a fraud against the people of Pakistan.’ But according to Ahmad, even though the judge recognised both the hypocrisy and the futility of trying to stem the flow of digital information, he insisted that the issue should be resolved not in his court, but within Pakistan’s political leadership.

That path that may be an invitation for trouble. The next hearing is scheduled for 13 May, and Ahmad remains cautiously optimistic that the bench will rule to unblock YouTube. But even if it does, he knows that citizens would still have to keep pressure on the authorities to implement it. And so he admits the possibility that a recently adopted draconian law, the Pakistan Protection Ordinance, would be invoked to maintain censorship. That law empowers officials to clamp down on anyone suspected of fomenting ‘disorder,’ or ‘syndicated’ or ‘heinous’ crimes.

Alongside the legal battle, an irreverent social media campaign called #KholoBC has also emerged. Engineered by the Pakistan for All movement, a collective of young Pakistani tech enthusiasts, it features a song released by the Pakistani musician Talal Qureshi, the rapper Adil Omar and the comedian Ali Gul Pir with lyrics too rude to print in this newspaper. (So is a translation of the campaign’s name.

Ziad Zafar, the head of Pakistan for All, says the vigilante-style campaign has been successful on social media, and has struck a nerve in the government: A senior figure in the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, the party of Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister, complained to Ali Gul Pir about being ‘mocked’ in the video.

Officials repeatedly assure the public that YouTube will be unblocked soon, even as the government tries to build a huge firewall modeled on the one in China. It’s a cat-and-mouse game that speaks volumes about the impossibility of damming up an ocean, but also about the amount of energy the government is willing to expend trying. Technology-savvy Pakistanis are determined to thwart the government’s dreams of a toothless Internet, even though, as Ahmad says, ‘In Pakistan, there will always be a reason to block the Internet.’ Needless to say, any videos that are part of the movement have to be posted on Vimeo, Dailymotion and other sites, because they still can’t legally be seen on YouTube.

Bina Shah is the author of several novels, including Slum Child, and short-story collections
By arrangement with The International New York Times

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