June Issue 2014

By | Society | Technology | Viewpoint | Published 10 years ago

It’s been a year and nine months since the block on YouTube was instituted in response to a 14-minute trailer, called Innocence of Muslims which was posted on the website, inciting spontaneous anger in Muslim countries around the world, including Pakistan. The uproar over the video in question is but a foggy memory now.  A new government, led by Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), is in power. But YouTube remains blocked in Pakistan.

Pakistan, though, isn’t unique to such censorship. The communist government in China has blocked access to all western social-networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, but citizens here rely on indigenous copycat versions. Iran has switched back and forth with blocking YouTube. A block was instituted during the 2009 presidential elections, but removed subsequently and then reinstated again in 2012, in the aftermath of the release of the Innocence of Muslims.

Saudi Arabia, a country not exactly known as a bastion of liberal ideology, filters pornographic and other “immoral” sites, but has refrained from blocking complete access to YouTube. Turkey, on the other hand,  has on many occasions blocked YouTube for posting videos that insulted Turkey and the country’s founder, Kemal Ataturk, but restored access when a German company claimed a copyright on the videos in question and took them down.

Google, which owns YouTube, had blocked the trailer of Innocence of Muslims in Egypt, Indonesia, India, Jordan, Libya, Malaysia, Russia, Singapore, and Turkey after the governments of those countries requested the removal of the video. Google clearly isn’t averse to accommodating some form of censorship when requested on reasonable ground. So the question is, why can’t the same accommodations be made for Pakistan?

A spokesperson for YouTube explained that the decision not to block access in Pakistan had to do with the way the company serves content in Pakistan.

“We offer a localised version of YouTube in 49 countries around the world. In each country (e.g. in India through www.youtube.co.in), we offer local content that is more relevant to users in that country and we also abide by that country’s laws. ”

The spokesperson said that when YouTube is notified about a video that is considered illegal in a specific country, they restrict access to it after a thorough review.

This localisation policy explains why the video was blocked in other countries but not in Pakistan. In Pakistan, people access the global version of YouTube on youtube.com, which follows US law where free speech laws offer broad protections.

The PTA, however, found the explanation unsatisfying and pointed to the example of Facebook, which faced a similar controversy over a competition organised by some American users of the website to draw cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Facebook responded to the controversy by blocking the page in countries that requested it to be blocked.

The difference in Google’s approach and that of Facebook, is that Facebook offers one website to its users worldwide, while Google has made an effort to offer as much customisation by geography as possible for many of its products, including YouTube.

In the absence of a localised version of YouTube, most users and activists have been open to a compromise of asking Google to remove the specific content that is considered objectionable. But according to sources in the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunications, Pakistan needs to sign a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) with the US before asking Google to remove objectionable content from the website.

A founding member of the Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan (ISPAK), Wahajus Siraj said that, “Unlike Pakistan, countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Indonesia and Malaysia have entered into agreements with the US. Under the MLAT, these countries are in a position to request Google to follow local laws and remove the objectionable content from YouTube.”

According to Siraj, the absence of the treaty was why, despite repeated requests from Pakistan, Google has not taken down the video. The treaty would also give Google the “legislative change” or Intermediary Liability Protection, that it had asked for in its letter to the Lahore High Court that exempts Google from liability to country-specific laws over videos posted on YouTube by individuals.

When Anusha Rahman took office as the information and technology minister for the PML-N government, she said that lifting the ban on YouTube would be one of her “top priorities” and that her ministry would start working on a system to filter out blasphemous and pornographic content, regardless of how difficult a task that may prove to be. “We will pump in extra money if needed and do whatever is in our capacity to bring YouTube back to Pakistan without compromising our ethical values,” she said.

Rahman had also made it clear that she wanted Google to filter out its content for the country as a whole, and if they refuse, as they have done in the past, Pakistan will not only keep its ban on YouTube, but will also block Google altogether “as a last resort.” But the minister has since alleged that she was misquoted on that threat.


Minister for information and technology, Anusha Rahman.

As a public official, Rahman has proved to be extremely inaccessible and is notorious for not taking any media requests or responding to emails. Newsline reached out to Rahman for comment, but her office never responded.

Her MO has been to offer vague lip service with soundbytes such as, “the Ministry of Information and Technology is working on the issue of YouTube blockage,” but her actions seem like delaying tactics meant to pacify the public while kicking the issue down the road. What is unclear, though, is whether her actions are based on orders from the top, or the result of her own inclinations.

In February, a US Appellate Court had ordered Google to take down the trailer of Innocence of Muslims, when the plaintiff, Cindy Lee Garcia who claimed that a clip she had filmed for a different movie, had been partially dubbed into the trailer without her knowledge.

PML-N legislator Awais Ahmed Khan Leghari has questioned the logic behind the continued block on YouTube in the National Assembly and said that rather than installing filters to block the blasphemous movie, the government has adopted an “ostrich-like defence.”

However, in March, PTA Chairman Dr Ismail Shah admitted that there was no foolproof way to block access to the video in question, without blocking the entire website.

“The PTA has tried to find a technical solution to block the video while keeping YouTube open, but it is next to impossible and this is what I will inform the court,” said Dr Shah.

A Lahore High Court (LHC) division bench, which is hearing a petition against the YouTube ban by the advocacy group Bytes For All, has asked Rahman to appear before the court on several occasions but she has failed to appear before the court citing “security reasons.”

In spite of the federal government’s inaction on the unblocking of YouTube, in April of this year, leader of the opposition, Syed Khurshid Shah, Senator Farhatullah Babar, MNA Shazia Marri along with representatives of the Internet rights advocacy organisation Bolo Bhi united to urge the government to lift the ban. This was followed by the Senate’s functional committee on human rights approving a resolution to do the same.

The momentum of these events culminated on May 6, when the National Assembly passed a resolution moved by PPP lawmaker Shazia Marri urging the government to take immediate steps to lift the ban on YouTube. While these resolutions have raised hopes among Internet users all over Pakistan, they have little binding effect. What they have accomplished, though,  is to bring the issue to the fore.

The question remains whether the inaction of the PML-N government regarding the issue is a result of mere disinterest in the matter, or deliberate disinterest that’s being couched in protecting religious sentiments.

There are many in Pakistan who feel that the Islamic outrage in Pakistan has historically been contrived and perpetuated by the establishment. Religion has been an effective pretext used by the military and bureaucratic elites, who with the help of allies in the media and clergy, exert a tremendous amount of control on the public’s access to information and suppress any dissent in the country, especially when it comes to the military brass.

But are there other ulterior motives behind continuing with the block on YouTube?

YouTube has been the bane of many military, political, business and even media elites of Pakistan, where endless embarrassing gaffes and shameful behaviour during television appearances, live immortally on the Internet to be viewed and shared by every Pakistani with access to a computer and an Internet connection.

The examples are a plenty, most notable of which was the “planted interview” affair in which footage of then Dunya TV anchors Meher Bukhari and Mubashir Lucman conducting what was undoubtedly a scripted interview with Bahria Town’s Malik Riaz, allegedly arranged and paid for by Riaz himself, was posted on YouTube resulting in a nationwide scandal.

There was also the despicable footage that showed the beating of an employee at a Lahore bakery, who declined to open the bakery before its scheduled hours when asked by the daughter of current chief minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, whose son-in-law was arrested in the matter.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is no stranger to censorship. One might recall Sharif’s oppressive attempts during his last term to stifle the media by impounding newsprint and harassing journalists.

Hypocritical government officials and conservative reactionaries, who have designated themselves the guardians of religious morality, use perceived slights to religious sensitivities as a red herring to censor and gain the support of the right. Yet somehow their religiosity eludes them when it comes to evading taxes, embezzling government funds, bribing officials to curry favours, or reprimanding those who actually disrespect religion by using it as a prop for personal again.

Part of the blame, though, also lies with us, the citizens. Politicians are fickle people who are only motivated by tangible consequences. There’s a reason why, when it comes to alleged blasphemy, governments in Pakistan are so quick to act because the issue mobilises people into action. While violence as a form of protest is unconscionable, it’s undeniable that when people mobilise, even the most incompetent of governments take action.

Admitedly, the censorship of YouTube affects a small contingent of Pakistani citizens, but those who decry the ban the most have also grown comfortable with adapting to new norms rather than voicing their dissent in any substantial way. Our citizenry has come to embody the  metaphor of the frog in the boiling pot of water. If you plunge a frog in a pot of boiling water, it immediately leaps out. But if you put the same frog in a pot of cold water and gradually raise the temperature, the frog is cooked alive. One by one our freedoms are being taken away, and it seems we’ll only realise it when it’s too late.

Democracy needs citizens. Individuals need to understand that their own pursuits of happiness must operate in tandem with obligations and responsibilities to a larger community.  Decisions are made by those who show up, and unless Pakistani citizens are willing to show up, the government will continue to treat them with irrelevance — the way it has for so many years.

This story was published in Newsline’s June 2014 issue.

The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.