As the people of Pakistan celebrate a historic turning point, the first successful transfer of power from one civilian government to other in the nation’s 65-year history, the country faces numerous challenges in the road to development and democracy. Numerous issues exist in the realm of education, corruption, the rule of law and human rights. But one issue that is crucial to the development of democracy is censorship and the freedom of expression.
Internet Censorship remains a crucial issue in Pakistan. Legislation related to censorship in the country has stymied the potential for people to use modern technologies in order to organize and express themselves freely. The Arab Spring has shown potential power that these technologies can have in reshaping the political discourse of a society.
In Egypt, social media tools were used to organize protests and famous sit-ins at Tahrir Square. The ability of ordinary citizens to document protests marginalized the importance of the restricted media, and empowered them by allowing them to share information, discuss ideas, and organize actions. The Syrian opposition was able to organize information and actions through the use of social media forums like Google and Skype to counter the propaganda of the state run media.
The importance of free Internet is now essential to the health and growth of any democratic society, and serves as the most powerful weapon in the arsenal of the young revolutionaries in the region, and Pakistan is no exception. According to a report by the OpenNet Initiative, the Pakistani Government has employed sophisticated restrictions for internet filtering in order to limit access to controversial social and political issues, as well as issues related to the military and conflict areas.
Pakistan has dismal record when it comes to the issue of censorship. Last year, the UN Human Rights Council recommended Pakistan remove restrictions to Internet access for vast majority of its citizenry. It cited several incidents in recent years, including the suspension of the video sharing site Youtube in September of 2012. The report noted that it was the 4th time the website was suspended since 2008.
International human rights groups have documented the persecution of journalists at the hands of the Pakistani military intelligence agency and extremist groups, stifling the flow of information and governmental accountability. Advocacy groups such as the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists have continued to call for investigations into attacks against journalists, which continue without impunity.
Reports have also indicated that censorship has been applied the most in the province of Baluchistan where the government has routinely ordered the blocking of Balochi news, independence and culture websites to avoid any organized opposition to its notorious kill and dump policy. The primary effect of the censorship is that many such sites have closed down, purposeless without a native audience, further limiting access to information for millions of Pakistanis and limiting the potential growth of the cyber business industry in Pakistan.
According to a recent survey, Pakistan has 8 million Facebook Users and that number is growing fast. In a country of nearly 180 million, nearly 100 million of which are youth of under 30 years of age, the potential for social media to be the tool Pakistanis use to come together, organize and actively engage in civilian matters is sky high. In the recent elections, parties like Tehreek-E-Insaaf used social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to reach out to young voters. The party gained a better than expected outcome, when it finished as one of the major opposition parties to the newly elected majority party of PML-N. The controlling institutions in Pakistan can learn from this, and use the Internet to increase political participation in a country where voter turnout has been historically low. However, instead of using the Internet to engage the citizenry in civil matters the ruling parties in Pakistan have seen the Internet as a threat to the status quo.
In the absence of a specific legal framework to regulate Internet censorship, Pakistan’s filtering practices have evolved largely out of executive action taken by various government agencies. Blocking orders have been issued through an obscure process that invites speculation as to the political motivations behind them. Authorizing agencies have alternated between the Ministry of Information and Technology, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority, the courts, and law enforcement.
These various government agencies have often used the pretext of religious morality to censor Internet material it deems “blasphemous”. Government mandated filtering of pornographic or “blasphemous” material are highly problematic for freedom of expression, and has the potential for abuse against political speech. The Mubarak-style cutoffs of communications in regions of unrest and censorship of reporting on political scandal are a dangerous trend that must be confronted.
A healthy foundation for democracy comes with the freedom of expression, speech, information and opinion. A free press, which will increase transparency and speak truth to power, is essential for the development of civil society. The censorship of speech or expression undermines these democratic principles, and prevents Pakistan from reaching its full potential as a society.
It is high time that government moves away from a policy of censorship and repression and encourage education and growth through the utilization of technology and information. This is essential for the socio-economic development of the country. And, is a better course than excluding certain sectors of society from the mainstream development processes by blocking their communication channels. The anti-democratic practices of censorship will only serve to further deteriorate the civil society of Pakistan, instead of bridging the gap between the disenfranchised and the mainstream. Pakistan’s future depends on it.