By Kamran Chaudhry
People in Pakistan woke up to a special alert in newspapers this week: “Attention active users on social media and internet! Use your freedom of expression but avoid committing crime. It is a crime to post, share and publish material based on blasphemy and religious enmity on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. Complain to PTA to block or remove insulting, hate material and any illegal content,” stated a notice from the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA).
The notice was published after the Supreme Court on July 22 took notice of social media and YouTube being used as a medium to humiliate judges, the armed forces and the government.
“Have the PTA or Federal Investigation Agency seen what is going on YouTube? Even our families are not being spared [from criticism] on YouTube and social media,” said Justice Qazi Amin.
“We have no objection to freedom of expression but the constitution also grants us the right to privacy. Everyone acts like an expert on social media. Some sit and act like our uncles on YouTube.”
Federal Minister of Science and Technology Fawad Chaudhry rejected these remarks. He said in a tweet that the courts and PTA must stay away from moral policing of the internet and that such bans would destroy Pakistan’s tech industry and development.
The apex court’s observation came a day after the PTA imposed a ban on video-streaming site Bigo and issued a final warning to TikTok to put in place a comprehensive mechanism to control obscenity, vulgarity and immorality through its social media application.
Islamabad High Court on July 24 ordered the PTA to unblock online game Players’ Unknown Battle Ground (PUBG) immediately and explain its reasoning behind banning the game. PUBG players and a game-control company had jointly filed a petition.The PTA had banned the game this month after receiving complaints that it was “addictive, a wastage of time and poses a serious negative impact” on the physical and psychological health of children.
Rights groups say the PTA has blocked more than 800,000 websites including pornographic platforms, news outlets considered critical of the country’s security and foreign policies, some social media and certain political parties’ websites from being accessed within the country.
Church leaders in Pakistan joined content creators in calling on authorities to refrain from banning Google’s YouTube video site for unregulated content.
Father Morris Jalal, the founder and executive director of cable-based Catholic TV, who has shared thousands of homilies and program videos on its YouTube channel “posting almost every single day,” termed such moves as absurd. The channel now has more than 9,000 subscribers.
“This is like stopping traffic after an accident. Amid the ongoing coronavirus lockdown and closure of educational institutes, a ban on video-streaming platforms will be detrimental for students and researchers. Many content creators will be unemployed,” he told UCA News.
“The Church is dependent on social media to livestream its services on Facebook live and YouTube. Some of our recent videos have had more than a million views. If we depend on cable alone, the reach is only 500,000.”
Father Qaisar Feroz, executive secretary of the Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference, called for an alternative way to stop misuse of YouTube. The Capuchin priest has gained more than 1,000 subscribers since initiating the YouTube channel of Radio Veritas Asia Urdu Service in 2017.
“Many people use it [YouTube] for political propaganda and a blame game. They have crossed all the ethical limits. Violation of privacy is a big issue. However, it is also a channel of peace, tolerance and harmony and must continue its services,” he said.
In September 2012, the government banned access to YouTube until 2016 to comply with a court order that sought to prohibit online content considered blasphemous by Muslims, such as the low-budget film Innocence of Muslims, which sparked violent protests across the country.
In 2012, the government blocked access to Twitter after it refused to remove tweets promoting a page urging people to post images of the Prophet Muhammad as part of a contest. Similarly, Facebook was blocked in 2010 after a competition page encouraged users to post drawings of the Prophet Muhammad.
Educationist Rubana Faheem of Pakistan Christian Action Network expressed her concern at the PTA media campaign. “This opens another front of persecution for religious minorities in Pakistan. Even Muslims will suffer,” she said.
In 2018, the federal cabinet approved an amendment to the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act aimed at bringing blasphemy and pornography within the ambit of the cybercrime law.
In 2017, Nadeem James, a Christian, was sentenced to death for sharing material ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad on the WhatsApp messaging service.
In 2016, the imam of a village in Punjab province instructed locals to boycott the Catholic community after Imran Masih, a janitor, was accused of watching an anti-Muslim video on YouTube.
Under existing laws, punishment for blasphemy ranges from several years in prison to a death sentence. A person making a false accusation can only get a fine of 1,000 rupees (US$9) or a maximum jail term of six months.