Freedom in a box is no freedom at all.

This op-ed was originally published in Dawn on July 12, 2010.

The Lahore High Court’s recent order to the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority to ‘more effectively manage objectionable content’ on the internet is frightening, both in letter and implication. The PTA directives to carry this order out are, really, even more frightening, and if you’re faint of heart, I wouldn’t even suggest that you look over the recent controversy regarding a civil-military media monitoring committee, aimed at “evolving a policy for tuning in the private media to national outlook and securing core national security interests”.

(This last committee eventually met and somewhat sensibly decided to revisit its own mandate, but the fact that it exists at all, and that it has been meeting ‘secretly’, according to a report in this newspaper, is cause enough for concern.)

The question here is simple: are we, as Pakistanis, free? Or is our freedom circumscribed by a box? As is often the case, the answer is neither a full-blooded ‘yes’, nor a terrifying ‘no’.

First, the facts.

On June 23, Judge Mazhar Iqbal of the Lahore High Court (Bahawalpur bench), responding to a petition, ordered the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority to block nine allegedly ‘blasphemous’ websites, including the major search engines Google, Yahoo!, Bing and MSN. Their crime was to make available “material against the fundamental principles of Islam and its preaching”. That the judgment displays a stunning lack of understanding of the basic principles of how the internet works was not lost upon the PTA. Its director subsequently appeared before the bench on June 28, explaining that while the consequences of banning the internet’s most used search engines would be catastrophic for internet users, the PTA could come up with new procedures to monitor ‘objectionable content’, keeping the courts out of the matter entirely, thus ensuring that those of delicate sensibilities needn’t run to the LHC every time their feelings were hurt by content on the internet.

In a draft of the new policy to monitor and block objectionable content, the PTA cites the “recent appearance of blasphemous and sacrilegious content” on the internet as necessitating a new website blocking policy, so as not to create “immense discomfort and dismay amongst the people of Pakistan”. For the sake of “National Security and communal harmony”, it goes on, the PTA will block websites at the URL and IP level that contain objectionable material, which is classified as content that  does everything from “undermining the integrity” of the State to “hurt[ing] national sentiment” (whatever that may be).

Are we children, that we must be protected from that which we disagree with? Or, more pointedly, are we children that we do not know how to deal with that which causes us “discomfort and dismay”? Perhaps we are, judging from the violent demonstrations and calls for action against ‘blasphemous content’ on websites such as Facebook, or the attack on an art exhibition in Karachi in 2009 that had a collage that was ‘objectionable’ to members of the ruling political party. And we may well be children, not because of these outbursts themselves, but because there are no mass marches for preserving freedom of speech, no court orders safeguarding our freedom of expression or right to information. In Pakistan, one daren’t be perceived as pro-‘blasphemy’, and here, being pro-freedom of speech amounts to precisely that. The mental calculus is child-like.

The PTA policy, though, goes on. It also states that any website that “brings contempt to” the armed forces of this country, or the government of Pakistan, is also liable to be blocked. By which standard, of course, the op-ed pages of every newspaper in this country should promptly be taken offline.

The issue one comes back to, whether it is the LHC’s order, the PTA’s directives or the civil-military media monitoring committee’s very existence, is what the role of the State is in regulating information in this country. Fundamentally, it comes down to freedom of expression. And fundamentally, the Pakistani constitution is ambivalent on this matter.

“Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press,” it declares grandly in Article 19. And, with barely a pause for breath, goes on to give the proviso: “subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan […], public order, decency or morality […].” That word ‘reasonably’ is tricky. Countries have gone to war over ‘reasonably certain’ arguments.

We are free, but we are not.

This is not, of course, a new problem. Even in 1954, in the infamous Munir Report, the State perceived itself to be tasked with such duties as ascertaining the “distinction between a Muslim and a non-Muslim”, so that the “consequences” of such distinctions could be enforced. The report went on to outline the difficulties in such a task, but made it clear that such a duty was within the remit of the State. Because one can’t have non-Muslims going about professing to be members of the faith. It is the sort of thing that ‘dismays’ us.

The question comes down whether we reason with our hearts, or with our minds. Are our politics, and public life, part of a rational public sphere, or a purely affective one? To put the question in religious terms: is it the aql (mind), or the qalb (heart), that drives us?

The question has been grappled with since the time of the British Raj, as Indians organised themselves against the occupying British: the Deoband school asked it, as did Allama Iqbal. You may be surprised, but in general the former came down on the side of aql, and the latter on qalb.

If we are to be ruled by our hearts, the inferred question is whether these are the hearts of adolescents, easily broken and needing paternal protection, or those of adults.

Either way, in today’s Pakistan we continue to be free. But freedom in a box is no freedom at all.


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