When Social Networks Came Together to Warn Pakistan

Source: New York Times/Aamir Qureshi/Agence France Presse/Getty

How many times in history has all the social networks come together, for a change, against a country? Well, Pakistan, a supposed democracy, made that happen this week. Pakistan’s PTI-led government under Prime Minister Imran Khan passed the ridiculously titled Pakistan’s Citizens Protection Rules (Against Online Harm) without putting it up for either debate or voting in the House.

According to this New York Times report, the new rules will require social media networks to take down any content created by a user if it happens to irk the Pakistani government and the government could ask for the removal of content within 24 hours and even within a few hours in “emergencies” that will be declared by the Minister of IT. The rules are reported to have even more ridiculous conditions such as these organizations deputing their country representatives in Pakistan and to establish data centers for the country locally.

It should be shocking that a government would receive a warning such as this but with this government in power, it probably should not surprise anyone. The government’s rules were responded to by the Asia Internet Coalition, an industry association that features facebook, Google, and twitter among others as its members. Now I am not sure whether a letter from this body amounts to this sort of headline or not, but it certainly is a damning sign for the people of a developing nation who are already struggling to thrive economically. Especially coming from the incumbent government that claims to be the party of the youth and has pledged developments on the digital front. Instead, it only offered the worst media censorship in living memory and curbs on journalism.

It is one of the many spectacles created by the government led by Imran Khan that has made Pakistan a laughing stock for the world. But far worse than just bad press, it concerns the freedom, economy, and the lives of the people of Pakistan. Just imagine if these services indeed pulled from Pakistan if the government does not roll back the new rules, how devastating it would be for a growing digital economy with millions of freelancers and dozens of thriving e-commerce startups. All just to satisfy the fragile egos of men in the military and civil bureaucratic establishment. Recently, the Modi administration cracked down on citizens for using VPN in Kashmir, an abomination in a democracy. Is that next for Pakistan since the FIA has nothing better to do but to monitor online content? The only fitting response to such a country must be international trade and financial sanctions.

Pakistan must correct its course because it ends up completely destroying itself. And the national security threat, in this case, is not the dissenting blogger, but the national security state itself.

 

The Zindagi Tamasha Affair: The Spectacle of Blackmail by Blasphemy Censorship

Source: Khoosat Films

Filmmaker and free speech hero Sarmad Sultan Khoosat, who is arguably the most brilliant filmmaking mind in Pakistan, has just announced the release of his film “Zindagi Tamasha.” The film, perhaps controversially, portrays a naatkhwaan or a hymn reciter, played by Arif Ali, with a compromised reputation due to a sexually explicit leaked video as evident from the trailer. Nobody has watched the film yet, with its clearly fascinating story and stunning imagery and poster graphic design, such as the religious protagonist wearing a dupatta, a feminine article of clothing, but it has already hit a roadblock.

It was clear from the very beginning that the film was testing the waters of acceptance and free speech in Pakistan. The film has been passed by the Censor Board but not without event. According to Sarmad in one of the “meet and greet events” of the film, only curse words are bleeped while no line has been cut. However, his initial trailer had to be taken down and cut from the new trailer version. The earlier trailer had an ingenious shot of children on the swings chanting “Labaik Ya Rasoolullah,” revered by the Barelvi/TLP.

The recently emerged but notoriously nasty Tehreek Labaik Pakistan, a Barelvi anti-blasphemy and group headed by Khadim Hussain Rizvi, has announced countrywide protests against the film on January 22 as it allegedly “mocks Islamic values.” The film trailer has certain lines that allude to religious clerics committing sodomy and abusing young boys, while at another place, it shows perhaps a Barelvi cleric threatening the protagonist with a blasphemy threat.

Source: Khoosat Films

Sarmad Sultan Khoosat is a brave filmmaker who has made bold films such as “Manto” about the controversial Urdu author. However, this episode is apparently even too much for him. Sarmad has been receiving threatening calls and messages, asking him to cancel the release of the film and warning about dire results. Sarmad, being the sensitive and peaceful artist that he is, is now considering canceling the release of the film. He has been forced to cancel the promotion events of the film in Karachi.

 

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

In an open letter heavy with disappointment, Sarmad explained how the film was much more than a film for him, on which he had dedicated two years of his life and perhaps his entire career spending. The film that has won Kim Ji-Seok Award at the Busan International Film Festival, is surely not one that can be dismissed as a mediocre effort. However, it appears that theocratic thuggery is more important in this society than an artist’s statement.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

It is indeed a new low for the state of free speech in the country that a religious fundamentalist group is now hijacking the release of a motion picture. It is indeed a direct consequence of the deep state sponsoring and enabling religious fundamentalism for years, despite the recent crackdown against the TLP.

Source: Sadia Nazir

However, the genie of Islamic fundamentalism is out of the lamp, and it probably can only be undone with drastic and authoritarian measures, which will surely seem unfair and counter to religious freedom to most. However,

Every Pakistani who claims to uphold the arts and should be ashamed of it.

As of today, the censor film board has invited the members of the TLP and the government to the screening of the film for review again and the release of the film has been postponed. Let us just hope that the audiences in Pakistan get to watch at least a part of this milestone film made specifically for them.

The fate of Zindagi Tamasha hangs in the balance. Nobody is sure about the release, not even the filmmakers. But if you can be sure of one fact, it’s that Pakistani cinema audiences will be missing a great treat under heavy censorship which has no reason to be in this day and age.

With attitudes such as this, it makes you wonder if Pakistan deserves a “revival of cinema” at all. All we deserve and need are military produced shitfests and Mullah-approved scripts.