On Sunday, John Oliver, America’s newest late-night comedy sensation warned his viewers about the US’s march toward a two-tiered internet that could alter the face of the medium. Under this system, certain companies with deep pockets could buy their way to faster consumer access – a death knell to the intrinsically democratic nature of online communication. Such an internet would greatly diminish the possibility of new startups coming out of nowhere and establishing themselves as major internet players virtually overnight (so far a defining feature of the worldwide web), but even more importantly, this money-grabbing bid by America’s internet providers could lead to under-the-table control of content once cable companies and web applications that can afford to live in the fast lane cozy up to each other in a Faustian pact. John Oliver’s disclosure and his subsequent urging of ‘internet trolls’ to inundate the website of the Federal Communications Commission resulted in the website crashing within hours of the call; television driving internet traffic to serve the cause of free media. Whether something comes out of the signatures in hundreds of thousands on the FCC website remains to be seen but John Oliver has successfully catapulted into the limelight an insidious plot that could well have remained under the radar and become a part of the system without anyone noticing. This is impactful journalism being practiced by someone who has the power and the wherewithal to know how to wield that power for good.
But it is also the power of the first amendment of the American constitution that grants Oliver the right to continue to be as loud and as determined as the likes of rabid right wing rivals like Bill O’ Reilly.
The Pakistani constitution however, affords its citizens no such unqualified right. Nor does the constitution of any country in the world that deems itself ‘Islamic’. From the literal shutting up of liberal voices by making them the brunt of bullets to virtual censorship, Pakistan has run the complete gamut. Starting from the 2012 ban on YouTube and a short ban on Facebook in between, leading to a recent censoring of certain accounts in Pakistan by Twitter to the latest banning of progressive pages on Facebook, liberal ideas in Pakistan have never been as vociferously under attack post-Zia as the current onslaught. Yesterday, Laal, Roshni (for the 3rd time), and others including Taliban Are Zaliman, Bhensa, Zalaan, Saaen and Lashkar-e-Bhangvi’s Facebook pages were banned in Pakistan as reported by human rights activist Beena Sarwar. These pages were trying to do the job that our schools have failed at; making our young ones aware of a world beyond Pakistan’s physical and ideological boundaries. None of their content was either blasphemous or pornographic, two of the conditions specified on the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority’s website as reasons for a possible ban. When contacted, none of the page admins could give a reason as to why their pages had been blocked, since none had been provided to them. This is also in violation of the PTA’s own policies as laid out on their website:
“The persons affected by its decisions or determination are given a due notice thereof and provided with an opportunity of being heard.”
Roshni, whose page has now been banned a third time, has never been given any reason as to why they have constantly been meted out this treatment.
Now there are hushed expressions of fear by owners of cultural cafes in Karachi and Islamabad that strive to enrich the lives of their cities’ residents through different cultural and intellectual activities. Owners of some of these places are being harassed by ‘law enforcers’ demanding employee lists, contact numbers, and bank statements alongside questions like, ‘What country runs this place?’, the obvious insinuation here being that all liberals in Pakistan are foreign agents. These are classic tactics state agencies employ to harass the handful of liberals whose voices though muted, thanks to a paucity of numbers, are still too great a threat to allow to continue unchecked. Much more than God, it is liberals they fear. Much more than gun-toting terrorists it is the advocates of humanitarianism they feel the need to nab and shut down. Spaces (supposedly) funded by Germany or the US are suspect but madrassas run with Saudi money are halaal.
Putting all angry rhetoric aside, trust is, till such time as a great upheaval happens to shake the very foundations of our constitution and state, the right to liberal protest will, at best, remain hollow. Anyone crying freedom of speech in Pakistan is essentially deluding themselves into believing that first-world ideals of freedom can exist or be demanded in a country that finds the garlanding of murderers perfectly acceptable but a non-believer’s need to be at once Pakistani and irreligious an unpardonable crime.
Sabahat Zakariya is a writer and editor, interested in exploring the intersection between Pakistani pop culture and feminism.