Tightening the Authoritarian Noose Around the People’s Neck

Source: flare.pk

Pakistan is not a country we should feel proud of anymore. It has increasingly become an entity that is acting hostile to the people it is supposed to stand for. This is clear and evident by the recent curbs on political freedom and freedom of speech in the current year reminiscent of the years of the military dictatorship in the country. However, the comment of the current Chairman PTA, who happens to be a military officer (surprise, surprise) is unprecedented.

The PTA Chairman Maj. Gen. (R) Amir Azeem Bajwa, whose name sounds eerily related to the current Army Chief, said that social media in Pakistan should be blocked in the manner of China and the UAE. He recommended that Pakistan should develop its own social media channels to allow for state censorship and censor inappropriate content. Appointed in December 2018, under the able leadership of Prime Minister Imran Khan, General Bajwa mainly focused on “blasphemous content” to make his case of taking away the right of citizens to use social media to express their voices. If anyone had doubts about democracy being under threat in Pakistan, this statement should remove it.

The Chairman PTA was testifying to the Senate panel examining purported grievances where he remarked that “either the technical abilities of the organization be enhanced or the allow them to block social media websites to stop the circulation of blasphemous material.”  Even though nobody is ever going to explain what a retired general is doing serving this position and one which he is most likely not qualified for, his comments will largely go unaccounted for other than some fringe criticism on the social media of all the places. Nobody is going to mention it on the mainstream media and any criticism on the national news is improbable.

Surely, for the PTA chairman, blocking more than 850,000 porn and news websites are not enough. It is pretty clear that for these state authoritarians, it is not nearly enough. They want to go after the internet itself and if not the internet connectivity to maintain a facade of modernity, they will neuter it to an unusable state-regulated version.

With the launch of CPEC development projects and the rolling out of the optic fiber link from Khunjerab to Gwadar, one of the biggest fears is the Chinese internet spilling over into Pakistan. While thankfully the CPEC projects in Pakistan have appeared to slow down, it has nevertheless inspired the civil and military bureaucratic despots at the reins of administration in this country.

Unfortunately, the narratives these anti-democratic forces have nurtured for the past seventy years have duped well-meaning conservative citizens into believing that their civil rights and political freedoms are bad for them and for the country. Even in the name of blasphemy and national security, there is no shortage of urban nationalist conservatives in the country who would gladly sacrifice the internet as a public enemy.

The greatest tragedy of all is the fascist administration of PTI, a party that was pretty much built by and through the power of social media, other than a little help of our military establishment of late. More than the duplicitous and malicious leadership of the PTI, the people who would be the greatest losers are the urban educated voters of the party who look down upon the traditional and less privileged voters all across Pakistan. The government they voted in might be infringing on their rights but they have a choice to speak up. Pretty soon this little freedom we have will be gone.

Pakistan still has a lot to lose, which it continues to lose every day.

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CyberCrime Bill: What Blasphemy Law Feels Like

cyber-crime-bill-southasiamedia-net-2404201518503513

I just came across an apparently credible copy of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes bill that is reportedly passed by the standing committee on information technology, but had learned just enough from the outraging social media posts criticizing it that the Pakistani government is at its worst again. Searches without warrant and internet censorship.

From the looks of it, the bill seems to be a grim reminder why government should be out of our lives in as many aspects as possible. It is also a reminder of the terrible extent of power our democratic structure vests into the hand of the government agencies such as the PTA and how nobody sees that as a problem.

The trouble with liberals aspiring for greater government control in Pakistan is that they conveniently forget that the country is an Islamic Republic. This means that ideologically, Pakistan is just a few shots away from becoming societies such as Iran. This is why I have always been skeptical about policing the internet for hate speech. But still, laws must protect people from hacking, harassment and financial fraud. However, such laws, just like any laws, should remain confined to dispute resolution as opposed to mandatory guidelines for moral behavior.

However, what is encouraging is the public outrage at the bill in the Muslim majority country, at least online. Finally, my dream of seeing the likes of the Jamaat-e-Islami protesting on the streets to prevent a facebook ban could be near its realization perhaps. What is the world coming to?

Among the youth, it is really refreshing to see the passionate opposition, despite the fact that the bill apparently contains many things that the activist folks have been campaigning for years. Of course, that does not include protecting the head of the government, who happens to be a “natural person,” or the state from criticism, or allegedly defamation, but you could expect such provisions to creep into the penal code. Though that is a biased, out-of-the-way interpretation really of the most ambiguous, but pretty authoritatively liberal bill you have seen in a while. But in all honesty, I do not expect the current state regime to formulate any law without providing for the protection of the glory of Islam and the sanctity and security of the state.

This offers some remote idea to the liberal and conservative Muslim majority in the country of what the blasphemy law remotely feels like. The more informed of critics would obviously laugh away this comparison, as they should, but anyone can agree that you don’t see Pakistanis getting outraged at free speech curbs everyday. I would also like to apologize to the drafters of the bill for comparing it with something as terrible as the blasphemy law, but let me proceed with my argument anyway.

The insecurity that you just felt by learning about the Prevention of Electronic Crimes bill 2015 is what most citizens not belonging to a certain religion in Pakistan do every day because of the blasphemy law. I really hope that this occasion is used to extract some empathy for the people whose lives are jeopardized by the blasphemy law.

As for the cybercrime bill, it is important to stay vigilant before the state ends up killing the internet in the name of preserving its sanctity. We must openly and unapologetically oppose the blocking of websites on any ground, let alone religious, political or pornographic. We must oppose the notion of the state deciding moral right and wrong for us. Unless that is the case, we are always prone to lose our freedoms forever. I know it is way too early to freak out about this bill, but we could be headed down a dark alley where columns such as this one would never be seen again on a Pakistani website in the future.

We have had enough activism in this country calling for government intervention. It is time to call for the government to keep its hands off the internet. It is time that we start questioning if offending the glory of state and religion is a criminal offense at all. Thankfully, the Pakistani youth, at least the online bit, is reading the writing on the wall. Since there is not much you can do about the Islamic nature of the constitution of the country, at least you can try keeping government out of things like speech on internet as much as you can.

I still have good faith that our government and parliament will not pass this bill into a law, or at least not unanimously, but you never can tell in a country crazy enough to still have YouTube banned for apparently no sensible reason at all.

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs.

 

The Bored Baby With the Dangerous Toy

Source: telecompk.net

Source: telecompk.net

While I did expect that it would happen one fine day, but just when I was done with an overdose of patriotism with the March 23 parade, I found out that my blog was not a safe surfing area for people living in Pakistan anymore.

Of course, I was not receiving any special treatment and it was wordpress.com which was blocked, and along with it hundreds of other Pakistani blogs. From what I read in the papers, it was because of national security. No confirmation from the PTA, but apparently it was just another of those switch on and off episodes. Nothing to worry about.

Perhaps the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority is either incompetent, or is being malicious on purpose.

The PTA has become an out-of-control psychotic. Or if that sounded too harsh, probably more like a bored baby with a dangerous toy in his hands, with rather juvenile and cute, but obnoxious antics, only with potentially dangerous consequences. The idle and overly concerned bureaucrats in this government body, which probably should not exist in the first place (at least the department of censorship), must invent new things to keep themselves occupied and feel purposeful about themselves.

We often hear political parties make big fuss about public infrastructure and welfare projects being a waste of money for partisan reasons, but no one ever bothers considering these bureaucratic agencies, not to mention completely useless organizations such as the Islamic Ideological Council, a burden on the poor taxpayer. They are just drawing salaries out of your tax money, and they need to be there because, well, they are a part of the government.

But there is an even more dangerous question to ask.

How far will our government go in curtailing our civil liberties and access to information in the name of national security?

Sadly this question remains as unanswered in advanced democracies such as the United States and the EU, as it is in countries with almost theocratic preoccupation. So why bother.

Despite the tendencies among the Pakistani people to accept every single state absurdity in the name of national security, they do come across as pretty freedom loving. So would they be willing to give up facebook one day in the name of national security, decency or for the protection of all things that are holy?

Or would that trigger a riot for the demands of their beloved social media platform one day, with the likes of the Jamaat-e-Islami leading it? Only time will tell.

I really do hope we live to see that day. Wishful thinking.

Though the question of the temporary blocking of wordpress.com should not go unanswered. We should demand a response from the PTA, who should explain to the Pakistani people why they take them for an intellectually challenged group.

Why do they believe that blocking words of dissent on one platform would prevent the people from its harmful effects?  And that if they are curious, they can always find ways to reach such information.

Why is Pakistan trying so hard to become China?  I am not even sure if our other horrible ideal, Saudi Arabia, practices this much internet censorship.

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs

My Pakistani Person of the Year 2014: Muhammad Jibran Nasir

Source: Jibran Nasir

Source: Jibran Nasir

Up till this morning, I had been pretty clear in my mind that my Pakistani person of the year would be none other than Malala Yousufzai. But then again, I thought there should be better reasons than just being the Nobel peace laureate for the year. She is making her difference alright, and the Nobel Peace Prize is certainly the highlight of the year before she largely becomes irrelevant.

But who has contributed something different for Pakistan this year?

Who is it that has been willing to face the danger of challenging Mullahs for their understanding of what is good for the country, without putting their personal safety first.

For these reasons alone, my Pakistani of the year has to be Muhammad Jibran Nasir.

Though I cannot fully get myself to agree with the Charter of Demands of the movement. Article 3 more specifically, which gives PEMRA and PTA more reasons to live, and calling for the kind of social media profile witchhunt and ideological targeting that could kill free speech in this country. Because while it would be meant to target those inciting hate (hopefully), such internet policing would eventually target pro-secularism elements.

I also oppose suppressing the voice of Maulana Abdul Aziz, who is only doing the cause of secularism a favor by honestly expressing his Islamist beliefs. Let his madness be known to all.

Furthermore, I have no interest or inclination to call for the protest of someone who did not condemn or had celebrated the Peshawar massacre, and so what if he ultimately apologized? It means nothing.

But despite all those differences, his cause is absolutely right.

There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the clerics of Lal Masjid and the administrators of Jamia Hafsa are killing freedom of hundreds of children. And it is not hard to imagine that if it were up to them, they would take away whatever freedoms we enjoy.

Even during the anti-Abdul Aziz protests, a father was looking for the release of a detained daughter in the female seminary of the mosque run by the wife of Maulana Abdul Aziz.

This, apart from their active militant activity back then,  is why the Lal Masjid operation carried out by the military in July 2007 was absolutely justified, though seemingly a little excessive in its execution.

Jibran Nasir became a hero for the secularists and liberals in Pakistan as soon as he started his protest movement, but he also gained the support of most skeptics when he received the first death threat from the Lal Masjid terrorists.

A death threat from these people is no joke. It is not freedom of religion, though that is what gives them a free pass, and it is surely not freedom of speech.

If that was not enough, Maulana Abdul Aziz dug his own grave by threatening Nasir, the MQM chief and other protesters. It was primarily his own stupidity more than anything else that got him into trouble. Even resorting to sending out threats of suicide attacks. But the credit must go to the protesters outside the Aabpara police station who persisted on the calls of his arrest.

While a local judge has issued the warrant, Maulana Abdul Aziz has not been arrested as of December 31, 2014.

Meanwhile, Jibran Nasir has been accused of all sort of things that the pro-Islamist, pro-Taliban nationalist right wing considers to be evil under the sun. He has been called an anti-Islam agent of the Indian, US and Jewish lobby, member of the MQM, a Hindu-loving Holi-celebrating traitor and an Ahmedi, the ultimate enemies of the state and the root of all evil in the universe.

No, he is not anti-Islam. It is probably people like me who would bash him for not being precisely that. But no, we won’t.

He responded to each and every falsehood though, and has proved to be the moral victor. But moral victories do not matter in the real world, or at least in Pakistan.

While I am aware that the militantism that the anti-Abdul Aziz movement is taregeting does not address the root of the long term problem of faith based violence, but I must also concede that his movement is probably the best shot we got. This, along with the government’s decision to crack down on religious extremist elements.

However, our law enforcement still looks pretty weak, and almost unwilling, when it comes to cracking down on the real culprits, namely Islamist extremists, and would be far more comfortable targeting the protesting workers of AWP as easily as they would drink water.

It is people like Jibran Nasir who are actually making a difference for Pakistan, out in the battlefield, and putting the rest of us to shame.

Dear Pakistani expats, this is the sort of person you may want to support.

His battle is the battle of the people of Pakistan and is the battle for democracy.

And for all you Islamists out there, he is not alone.

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Read about my Pakistani person of last year here.

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  

Freedom of Speech and the Illusion of Secular & Liberal Political Parties

Source: Pakistan Today

The May 20 twitter ban from the Pakistani government and the recent announcement of the PTA to seek vendors in order to block “objectionable” material from the internet have been revelations for those who are under the impression that the current Pakistani government has anything to do with promoting freedom of expression and values consistent with their democratic claims. They may be pretty tolerant of the local television channels and the crude satire and criticism that is the part of the most of their content, but they have really shown signs of weaknesses where it really matters.

Nothing highlights a government’s intolerance of freedom of speech more than its restrictions on the internet, the most immediate medium of publication for the common man. Some of the most undemocratic and authoritarian regimes have been noticed of their intolerance of the internet. Blocking websites, internet censorship and limited user access are common in regimes such as China and North Korea. However, in the recent years countries such as Pakistan and, surprisingly or maybe not so surprisignly, India are joining the list.

The funny thing is that the government does not realize that its most immediately noticeable act of suppressing the freedom of expression on an international level is banning websites and putting controls on the internet. As a matter of fact, the Pakistani government and its overzealous telecommunications watchdog, the PTA, have been highlighting online events perceived to be blasphemous themselves by going out of their way and banning them. And ones that hardly anyone in Pakistan even knows about, let alone bother about them. Responding to anything that can be perceived remotely blasphemous has actually become a political stunt to gain cheap public sympathy in Pakistan. It is even worse to see these tactics employed by political parties which claim to uphold democratic, liberal and secular values.

The funniest thing about these bans are that they only last a while. Why is that so? Not sure what changes about the internet afterwards. One of the greatest examples of that is the Wikipedia page about Prophet Muhammad which contains his illustrated images. The problem about that page is that to date it has still not changed a bit since the ban on it was imposed and lifted, so I am not quite sure what do you achieve by a ban, other than have a false sense of self-importance that you are in charge, just because you can block access to certain webpages. Also, the banning of certain social media websites as a response to any blasphemous event taking place would not take away all the blasphemous content from the internet.

The blasphemous content can actually turn up in an instant with a simple Google search. But hey, I guess the only ones searching for such content seems to be the PTA. Because frankly, I can hardly imagine that an average intenet user in Pakistan is even bothered by that. And even if they are, why would they disarm themsevles in response of an action supposedly carried out to offend them? Why should they not keep themselves empowered to respond to that? Why cannot they use the same medium to protest against any blasphemy, which is used to carry it out?

You really can count on the Pakistani government to make fools of themselves in whatever manner they can find possible. I don’t even want to start with foreign policy examples, but the mere mention of the twitter ban episode is enough to prove that point.

I want the PTA and the Government of Pakistan to read this.

Because I want them to know that their way of protesting against something is absolutely nonsensical.

Grow up please.