Pakistan is earning its reputation as “Banistan” for the continued efforts by the government to ban content from the Internet there, and the biggest casualtyy in this latest round of censorship is YouTube. Freedom House, a rights organization, ranks Pakistan among countries deemed to be “not free” as it pertains to online communication. It is small wonder as Pakistan already goes further than most in digitally shielding its citizens from the outside world, as it is not just clerics and far-right religious parties who want more control over the Internet, though they are by far the most active and vociferous in censorship.
In to this a new, young dynamic movement has arisen from failed attempts to ban Facebook years ago. The alternative is MillatFacebook, or myMFB which purports to be “the largest Muslim social network in history,” according to its founder Zaheer Meer.
MyMFB may look similar to the original Facebook, but it boasts enhanced features such as a live camera feed from the Grand Mosque in Mecca. On this site, which claims to have half a million users worldwide, there is no opportunities to view pornography, a virtual epidemic in Pakistan, or any content deemed by its founders to be hurtful to religious sensibilities. Meer contends that,
“It is not just for Muslims, but for anyone who believes freedom of expression does mean inciting hatred or provoking people.”
Unlike YouTube, Facebook is not banned in Pakistan, but Meer shuns Facebook for what he perceives is a double-standard when it comes to content saying that,
“On FB they will remove it if it is against Jews, but they will not remove it if it is against Muslims.”
Not unexpectedly, Facebook did not comment on the allegation. Privacy activists and liberty loving people worry about the latest prohibitions, as there is little appetite to lift bans once in place with violent protests against them fresh in leader’s minds.
Digital rights advocates rail about a clandestine “inter-ministerial committee” that decides the fate of websites and social media accounts.
“No one knows who they are, what their capacity is, or whether they understand what free speech is,” said Shazad Ahmad, director of Bytes for All, a Pakistani digital rights group. “The blocks are always arbitrary and often against political content.”
A gay website, called Queer Pakistan, was the latest victim of the crackdown after only a month in existence, and some who do legitimate work on the human anatomy complain that, in its attempt to address the rampant pornography problem (Pakistan is the world’s foremost porn-searching nation), scientific content has become a victim. However, the reach of censorship extends farther than religion and pornography – political dissent and secessionist rhetoric is also taboo, and is therefore systematically censored.
On the other hand, the country’s success at blocking material is uneven – maybe deliberately so- according to some. Hate speech by Islamist militants from India , Afghanistan, and even sectarian groups who target the country’s Shia minority, seems somehow to flourish. Yet, possibly because no one wants to arouse the mullahs, it persists. This while, as Ahmad puts it, “innocent, straightforward liberal discourse is being blocked.”
The losers in this situation are the millions of Pakistanis for whom freedom of speech and expression is not available. The winners are the VPN companies whose existence provides hope to those living in the repressive regime. Hopefully, Pakistanis will continue to flock to services which allow them to experience the freedoms enjoyed by others throughout the world.