Islamabad Event on Freedom of Expression for Civil Liberties in Pakistan

Bytes for All, an organization dedicated to promoting internet freedom and free speech in Pakistan, organized an event in Islamabad on Freedom of Expression and Civil Liberties on September 19, 2013. The event featured participants from all over Pakistan, including the FATA.

The event included three sessions, focusing on hate speech, fair trial and surveillance in relation to freedom of expression. The introductory speech was made by author and journalist Mohammed Hanif, who primarily spoke about the human rights violations in Baluchistan by Pakistani security agencies. Hanif revealed that no less than 529 people have died over 5 years in such incidents, which involved torturing and mutilating the victim’s bodies beyond recognition.

Hanif also served as a panelist for the first session, along with Taha Siddiqui, Murtaza Solangi and Sabeen Mahmud. that focused on hate speech. The session was moderated by the flamboyant Ajmal Jami. Taha Siddiqui, journalist, presented the findings of his research report on the presence of terrorist organizations on the internet and the hate speech they propagate to find recruits. A participant objected that the report focused on only a certain kind of groups, which sounded reasonable, but apparently Taha’s focus was on emphasizing that terrorist groups were operating unabated in the country with a clear online presence and that authorities were not moving a muscle in response while banning other websites instead.

Murtaza Solangi, broadcasting journalist, defined hate speech for the audience and said that you should not impose your beliefs on others for harming them. What he did not explain was what if that was precisely what the beliefs required you to do. Mohammed Hanif was the one who actually briefly touched that aspect, emphasizing that you would not be able to take the poor people’s God away from them and that it simply would not happen. He also mentioned that it is hardly any use complaining about extremist militant groups if the state itself handpicked a community, namely the Ahmedis, during a democratically elected government and declared them literal outcasts by legalizing their expulsion from Islam and inviting hatred against them.

Sabeen Mahmud, the Karachi based founder of T2F, presented the hate messages and death threats, quantified on the Nafrat Aggregator, that she received in response to her controversial pro Valentine’s Day campaign in response to Tanzeem-e-Islami’s campaign of forbidding people to celebrate the holiday using Koranic verses and Hadiths. She offered a personal viewpoint on how it is like to be threatened with groups invading your free speech and right to life in that manner. The shocking aspect remains that most people in Pakistan would consider it their religious duty to violate other’s freedom and security like that, even though in this case, she had hardly done anything that can be considered wrong. I personally fully support her actions and consider her a free speech hero.

The second session focused on Fair Trial and its impact on free speech, moderated by Rabia Mehmood. The panelists included the eloquent Saroop Ijaz, a lawyer and columnist, Safdar Dawar, a FATA based journalist and journalist Mahvish Ahmed. The most important point was made by Ijaz that legal jurisdictions and continued debate about fair trial, surveillance and privacy violations are necessary and will eventually make a continual but certain difference for the better. The session also focused on the implications of the vagueness of legal definitions. Dawar emphasized how FATA was not ruled by any court of law and that there was no way to address violations of civil liberties there. Mahvish Ahmed raised the importance of political solutions.

The third session focused on Surveillance and its impact on free speech, moderated by Rahma Mian. The panelists included Abid Imam, a lawyer and academic, Asim Zafar Khan, a technology adviser to the government,  Shahzad Ahmed of Bytes for All and Fahd Deshmukh, a technology expert and activist. The crux of the session was that surveillance was inevitable, so staying ahead of the technology curve is all that people could do. Abid Imam pointed out that avoiding surveillance is not even a declared fundamental human right in the law, and not one that states are likely to grant. Shahzad Ahmed spoke passionately about the need to reclaim the right of privacy and to raise voice against growing state surveillance.

The good thing about such events is that introduces a lot of people to the very idea of freedom of expression, which is pretty much alien to a society like Pakistan where questioning is discouraged and you are mostly required to practice self-censorship right from your childhood. However, when you hear about an event focusing on freedom of expression, you prepare yourself to reflect on a more academic discussion about the subject, especially focusing on the subtleties of hate speech and freedom of expression. It is not always the case when you get there and in this case discussion often deviated from the topic due to the line of questioning from the participants as well.

As a matter of fact, a lot of participants use the forum to bring forth other subjects than the one under discussion. While there is nothing wrong with doing that, as I understand many of these participants need a forum like this to be heard, but it is rather unproductive, time-wasting, largely distracting and drains a lot of energy of everyone involved.

The event was concluded after recommendations from the participants. While I believe that such seminars that educate people about freedom of expression are very useful, further interest among the educated general public could be stirred by holding public debates between liberal and conservative columnists and intellectuals who are for and against freedom of expression, instead of constantly offering a lecturing monologue.

If it does not convince more people of how important free speech is, it would actually make the anti free speech debaters look bad.

Pakistan & Youtube Bans

Source: PTA

Source: PTA

Some governments need bans to make their presence felt.

It is hardly any surprise that the Pakistani government is one such authority. When you are unable to do anything about a violation of your perceived moral higher ground, it probably feels good to deny access to it, which would supposedly correct and improve the morals of the society at large.

So why Pakistan blocks youtube every now and then, you might ask?

This has not been the first youtube ban, and if it ever gets lifted, it certainly will not be the last. Because censorship somehow satisfies the vain sense of virtue of our nation, because that is all we can do about certain things and it makes us feel good.

At the same time, as we are in a middle of a “democracy”, you know, a democracy that only tolerates enough freedom of speech that the masses are conditioned to tolerate. Not realizing how undemocratic bans on communication channels are. You cannot help but wonder if the ban is really about blocking blasphemous and “indecent” material, whatever in the world that means.

Have you ever considered how vigilant the PTA or the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, Pakistan’s information big brother, is when it comes to blocking youtube when the slightest opportunity presents itself before it?

Again I am not really sure if it is actually about the blasphemous material on youtube, especially the seemingly-indefinite current ban which was enforced by the government after they discovered that some people in Pakistan had discovered that some people in Egypt had discovered a trailer of an unimportant second rate anti-Islam motion picture called the Innocence of Muslims.

Even some of the most educated conservatives in the country, justified it. All the seemingly intellectual talk show hosts seemed to endorse the ban as well. This time it is more personal as far as Google is concerned and goes far beyond blocking a page or two, as previously has been the case with Wikipedia and facebook.

This time around, as it concerned the ever popular youtube than the ever popular and the much-easier-to-convince-and-not-easier-to-give-up facebook, the PTA was hoping to mold Google in succumbing to the local traditions and to sacrifice their vicious ideals of American freedom to operate in Pakistan in peace. But apparently to no effect. But that does not mean that the PTA is sitting idle.

Bytes for All had earlier reported that the PTA had been investing in a powerful mechanism to block hundreds of thousands of websites, particularly pornographic websites. So probably these bans mean something greater, such as the preliminary steps to a greater internet control. This means we would see more messages like the one in the image above whenever we are trying to visit a website with “indecent” content.

Because slowly but surely the ambiguous definition of “indecent” will begin to eat up just about anything that comes down as a threat on the radar of insecurities of the PTA and the nationalistic, religious and ideological ethos of the conservative Pakistani society. So, the government control of the internet and the youtube means the PTA converting it very much into the Pakistani media, which actually kills the entire point of using the internet.

But if the Pakistani government did block the youtube because of the blasphemous video, then there is no sense in lifting it because the video is still there. Isn’t it? As youtube would most probably not remove the video on the basis of the principles of freedom of expression and their terms of services, whether you agree with them or not.

But if the PTA does get youtube to operate under the Pakistani laws, then you can say goodbye to possibly a lot of other content too, such as historical foreign documentaries and particularly atheistic and science youtube channels, which are in their own right “converting” the educated youth to a certain extent. At least its encouragement of critical reasoning shakes up their faith a little. It’s disturbing for the harmony of the society.

I tweeted this a couple of weeks back.

What I found interesting were a few responses to the tweet. Things like a youtube ban is not something that you cannot live without. The people in old times did not have computers and the internet and youtube, but they lived their lives happily. It’s such a lame argument, if it can hardly be considered one at all. We have been so brainwashed that we can’t even recognize our rights.

It is like saying that you should not claim your rights just because you have been deprived of it for centuries, like the right to education. Furthermore, centuries ago people had also been living without electricity and utilities and they had no CNG to fuel their cars with. Give up all that too and stop complaining about the government then.

Speaking of the government, a couple of days back Senator Rehman Malik, the interior Minister tweeted that he had recommended to lift the ban on youtube and had forwarded the summary to the Prime Minister. He also confirmed that the PTA would be using a “strong firewall” to block anti Islam, blasphemous and pornographic, you know “indecent”, material.

Now, even if the youtube ban is lifted, that is bad news on just so many levels.

Because apparently the government is hellbent for greater internet control and to screw the great internet freedom that Pakistan had enjoyed in the earlier years, largely thanks to the ignorance about it in the conservative circles. Furthermore, I have observed, though I could be wrong, that the mainstream media has been growing more conservative by the day.

Rehman Malike can try all he can to give a shot at progressive actions, but given his party’s resistance to liberalism (they need to get votes) and electoral alliances with obscurantist fundamentalist parties such as Sahebzada Fazal Karim’s Sunni Itehad Council (a prime proponent of the youtube ban), the government will remain a guilty party.

And shortly after Malik’s recommendation, the Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf ordered blocking the youtube again after a brief lift of ban as the moral police immediately discovered that the blasphemous video was still up and running. So much for taking progressive steps. Still I think we must appreciate his individual efforts.

Source: Bytes For All/accessismyright.pk

Source: Bytes for All/accessismyright.pk

Source: Bytes for All/accessismyright.net

Source: Bytes for All/accessismyright.pk

Speaking of rights again, Bytes for All has launched the Access is My Right campaign. It’s a good initiative on the social media, but I hardly see any improvements in the near future, as apparently the mainstream Pakistani media is moving far more towards the conservative side of the slider since the Musharraf days. Because it’s about the faith of the Momin.

But in the end, this is just for the government of Pakistan, including the politicians and the bureaucracy, to know that there are people in Pakistan who are aware of their rights. They won’t break any laws. Some of them may not want to go to jail to have them and certainly not die for them, at least not me, but they know what it’s about. So thank you very much for everything.

Life is more precious than any principles or political correctness, when it comes down to it.

Update: Dec 31, 2012 – 0031 HRS – Access is My Right Graphics used with permission; 15:4