Mr Prime Minister, development is not just launching mega-projects. Development also means expansion of freedoms and enjoyment of fundamental human rights
Dr Haider Shah
June 07, 2014
The national media was already consumed by agency-fuelled warfare when the breaking news of Altaf Hussain’s arrest by Scotland Yard over money laundering charges further shrank any space for other important social issues. While the finance minister Ishaq Dar was upbeat with economic growth and current account figures, a very retrogressive activity was in operation right under the nose of the government. In a swift and clandestine move the operatives of al Qaeda masquerading as officials of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) banned all social media websites that had been campaigning against extremism and militancy in the country. While we were clamouring for lifting illegal restrictions imposed on a private television channel and condemned attacks on journalists, another draconian move has silenced social media pages belonging to progressive and secular voices. These include ‘Laal’, ‘Roshni’, and many more. Interestingly the websites run by banned outfits still flourish and disseminate hate and militancy under the blissful guardianship of the PTA.
Blasphemy has many shades and comes in various varieties. Its essence, however, remains the same. One is not allowed to express one’s opinion, otherwise one can be silenced by the threat or actual use of force and violence. In Pakistan we see four main varieties of blasphemy. First, the most commonly known is religious blasphemy where anyone can be accused of disrespecting a personality who is considered holy under the belief system of Muslims. Second, if family honour, often closely linked with females, is thought to be attacked. Third, if the military establishment feels offended by any statement or accusation. Fourth, if anything unfavourable is said about the political leaders of certain parties, most notably the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), though others also exhibit this behaviour to a varying extent.
While society in general is accustomed to violence on account of faith and family honour-related forms of blasphemy, in the recent past military and political parties’ related blasphemies have also become very potent. Interestingly, we find an ironic criss-cross relating to the fate of two eminent Pakistanis who once sounded like immortals but are now being tried under the laws of Pakistan and the UK. Musharraf wants to flee from Pakistan while Altaf is desperate to flee to Pakistan. In Pakistan, expressing one’s free opinion on the high treason case against Musharraf is tantamount to blasphemy and consequently journalists accused of blasphemy are being thrashed in broad daylight. The chemical of religious blasphemy was also added with the help of a few managed TV hosts and ever obliging clerics to make the mixture more potent. Altaf unfortunately is in the UK where the police is never deterred by any blackmailing of blasphemy mongers. When the members of parliament of the ruling party in Britain can go to jail over minor irregularities in expenses claims, how can money laundering and tax evasion cases be dropped for a street level nuisance created in a distant land?
In all this hullaballoo the news of al Qaeda seizing the PTA has received little coverage in the national mainstream media. According to Taimur Rahman of the music group Laal, when their popular page was banned he approached Facebook (FB) and they replied officially: “We restricted access in Pakistan to a number of pieces of content primarily reported by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority and the Ministry of Information Technology (IT) under local laws prohibiting blasphemy and criticism of the state.” It therefore transpires that the pages were made inaccessible to internet users after officials in PTA sent a request to FB for shutting down access to these popular anti-extremism pages. The enlightened volunteers who were generating a progressive discourse with the help of write-ups, memes, quotes and images did not feel discouraged and promptly launched new pages to continue their struggle in the battle of ideas in Pakistan. But it is a worrying trend that needs to be condemned and challenged. No official can be given the power to become prosecutor and judge at the same time.
Mr Prime Minister, development is not just launching mega-projects. Development also means expansion of freedoms and enjoyment of fundamental human rights. We were expecting that in addition to you improving our neglected physical infrastructure, your government would also give attention to the dilapidated intellectual infrastructure in the country. What use is 3G and 4G mobile technology if PTA officials do not update the software installed in their brains? What constitutes blasphemy is a very subjective issue and even members of the honourable superior judiciary may not agree on one single definition. If left to the discretion of the PTA and IT ministry officials, the writings of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Ibne Sina will also be banned on blasphemy charges. Just as you, Mr Prime Minister, restored Sunday as the weekly holiday in your earlier government, we believed that you will undo another cheap popularity seeking decision of the PPP government by lifting the ban on YouTube. Unfortunately, by banning progressive websites your government is weakening those institutions that create an enabling narrative for strengthening democracy in Pakistan. In the long run, you will also be the victim if you do not patronise those that want to create a new Pakistan based on tolerance, social equality and regional peace.