By Dr Haider Shah
September 07, 2013
It is tragic that while we see all hate preachers doing brisk business over the internet, sites of science and humanism have been axed
Together with countries like China, Iran and Turkmenistan, Pakistan happens to be a place where people cannot access YouTube because of an official ban by the government. The aforementioned countries are well known for human rights abuses. Why Pakistan is in that league is harder to understand.
When Jawed Karim posted Me at the zoo, a 20-second video, commenting upon trunks of elephants at the San Diego Zoo in 2005 on his newly created video-sharing site, few could have guessed that one day this novel idea of users-created video would attract more than one billion users watching over six billion hours of video each month. In terms of variety of content, YouTube serves as the world’s greatest superstore as it caters to the needs of almost all internet users. No wonder it was declared the best invention of the first decade of the 21st century by many analysts including Entertainment Weekly.
Of many sad legacies of the previous government the unjustifiable ban on YouTube a year ago must appear very high on the list along with bad governance and corruption. The government reacted as if Pakistan was the only Muslim country on this planet, as we did not see any other Muslim country so obsessed with causing self-inflicted wounds over religious issues for such a long duration. Condemning a tasteless and sloppy movie was a perfectly sane and appreciable act, both at individual and national level. But the unruly faithful began damaging national property and killing their own countrymen in order to prove how inflammable they were. If government acted irresponsibly, the judiciary also left much to be desired by failing to protect the freedoms of an ordinary internet user.
Banning a popular tool or website is the same as banning pen and paper. We need to understand the notion of literacy first in order to appreciate the issue. An illiterate person is one who is unable to communicate his knowledge through non-verbal means for storage purposes. In the era of printing, anyone who cannot read a book or write with a pen is considered illiterate. In ancient civilisations clay tablets were used, so those who were unable to communicate with their help were the illiterate of those times. In this internet-enabled communications era, the definition of literacy has also undergone transformation and anyone who is unable to communicate through electronic communication cannot be called a literate person. Google, YouTube, internet browsers and various social media have become standard media of literacy in the 21st century. Government and judiciary have done a great disservice to the young by depriving them of one of the most important literacy devices for more than a year.
On July 1, 1977, the weekly holiday was changed to Friday from Sunday by the then PPP government. It was left to the Nawaz Sharif government to take the pragmatic and bold decision of reverting to Sunday. Once again all eyes are on the pragmatic government to clear the mess created by its predecessor in its failed attempt to play Machiavelli with the rabble. The first public statement about banning Google by the lady cabinet member entrusted with information technology however poured cold water over my enthusiasm. Of late there are reports that suggest that YouTube might soon be restored to its millions of users and some sanity might return among our decision makers.
It is not just lifting the ban on YouTube that concerns me though. More worrying is the dictatorial and fascist way in which a few trigger-happy PTA officials decide what is appropriate for internet users. Even more worrying is the tendency of certain members of the judiciary to prove their faith credentials by wearing the mantle of the ‘defender of the faith’. Theological differences have long been debated by Muslim thinkers. We should stop dispensing certificates of true faith as we have a rich legacy of a rationalist past. Ibne Sina, Al Razi, Ibne Rushd and Sir Syed, to name a few, had challenged many dominant doctrines of their times. Faith should be facilitated to evolve, otherwise stagnation sets in. The internet facilitates this process in a non-intrusive manner. Unlike TV and newspapers, the material is not forced on the user.
On the internet, we access any material of our own sweet choice as no one can force anything on us. As such, PTA and the courts should keep their interference in electronic material to the minimum. Only porn websites and material that glamourises and promotes violence, hatred and terrorism should be banned. But it is tragic that while we see all hate preachers doing brisk business over the internet, sites of science and humanism have been axed. For example, the famous site of the Oxford University’s science populist professor Richard Dawkins has been blocked for promoting scientific thinking and debunking irrational myths. Similarly a popular Facebook site ‘Roshni’ has been banned for Pakistani users as the site sensitises internet users over human rights abuses.
One hopes, along with lifting the ban on YouTube, the government would focus its energies on websites run by extremists, hatemongers and militants and not impose bans on websites that encourage progressive thinking and respect for human values. It is hoped sanity will now prevail and those in power will find better ways of playing to the gallery.
Dr Haider Shah teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan.