On 5th June, 2014 PTA connived with Facebook to ban a number of prominent progressive, secular and liberal pages in Pakistan. Their ‘crime’ was campaigning for a Pakistan where values of democracy, human rights, social justice, and egalitarianism are observed.
The irony is that anti-state, Taliban pages operate with impunity in Pakistan while the voices of moderation, reform and sanity are silenced by the PTA, the state organ responsible for regulating telecommunication.
The blocked pages include Laal (Red), a left leaning, progressive page run by the famous Laal band. It rightfully calls itself South Asia’s largest left leaning Facebook page with a mammoth following of more than 400,000. Laal’s Facebook page highlights issues of human rights, terrorism, religious intolerance and socioeconomic inequalities.
The ban on Laal’s page led to an enormous online backlash covered by both local and international media leading to lifting the ban on Laal within two days. It is probably the first time that PTA retracted a ban on any Facebook page.
Roshni (Light) was another secular and liberal page which was banned, not the first time but the 3rd time by the state. Roshni in many ways has been the pioneer of online progressive activism. It addresses the audience in the native Urdu language which adds to its value in the eyes of the audience. Roshni commanded influence on hundreds of thousands of people, hence it finds itself on the PTA’s ban list after every 6-10 months. Roshni took on a wide array of issues like persecution of minorities, Arabization of Pakistan and civil military relations in a country which has a history of military rules.
Other banned pages include ‘Saeen’ and ‘Lala Ji’ both of which were radically secular and liberal. These pages encouraged people to think freely of dogmas in every sphere of life and walk shoulder to shoulder with the world. These pages also addressed the audience in native Urdu language. Bhensa (Buffalo, bulldozing your ignorance) and Lashkr e Bhangvi (parody of Al-Qaeda affiliate sectarian terrorist outfit, Lashkr e Jhangvi) were also the pages PTA felt merited a ban for having a sarcastic take on religious clergy, religious intolerance, Arabization of Pakistan and sectarianism.
Taliban are Zaliman (Taliban are oppressors) was another page which was banned by PTA for apparently lambasting a banned terror outfit Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and deconstructing its takfeeri ideology. Interesting thing to note here is that the Pakistani state is fighting TTP militarily since the year 2007. It appears as if the state is giving a message here that if you stand against an enemy of Pakistan, we silence you.
Although the ban on Laal’s page has been lifted, the remaining six pages remain blocked till date.
Pakistan is a country haunted by a troubled past. Its decade’ long involvement in Afghan Soviet war had bombarded the simpleton with all sorts of rationales advocating for picking up arms to fight the godless communists in neighboring Afghanistan. This has tattered Pakistan’s social fabric; society is deeply radicalized religiously and the space for progressive discourse has been shrinking over the years.
Pakistani progressives opted to stay low on the radar of the general public which was being fed with all sorts of paranoid nonsense about progressive elements and their ‘dubious’ loyalties to the state of Pakistan. There is no doubt that with each passing day since the day of Zia’s repressive regime, the society has become less receptive towards progressive discourse. Fanaticism in Pakistan remains just another day.
Over the years, broadband internet penetration began to see a stellar rise in Pakistan under General Pervez Musharraf’s reign. This development blessed the embattled progressive Pakistanis with an unparalleled opportunity to channel their narrative to a much larger audience and that too with little fear of persecution in a society where being aligned with liberal thought alone merits one’s life to be taken away. This was primarily because the web offered a certain degree of anonymity.
Soon social media, Facebook in particular, began to see sprawling progressive pages, disseminating progressive narrative in the society, calling out for social reform and taking to task government’s discriminatory or unjust policies.
The social media started giving a new picture of things earlier obscured from the simpleton because of a variety of factors including state censorship. ‘Inculcating many of these realities should have been the state responsibility in its basic schooling, a task which progressives started doing’, mentions a leading human rights activist Beena Sarwar. The increasing spread of awareness through social media potentially has the ability to contribute towards a change in the status quo.
Due to the effectiveness of this media in spreading alternative narratives to the people, the forces of status quo in Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) acting like the heirs of Zia’s legacy approached Facebook and entered into an agreement with the latter under which any blasphemous page or a page critical of government could be banned by Facebook at the plea of PTA.
This is a plea to all the concerned people anywhere around the globe that in this hour of need, be the voice of Pakistani progressives. Be our voice in the wake of naked state censorship of dissenting progressive voices. You could do the following to help your fellow Pakistani progressives:
1. You could write to tabloids and if you are an author yourself, op-eds in your local papers highlighting this blatant attempt at state censorship, mentioning how Facebook is being a party to it.
2. Bloggers could use their words and blog about the murder of free speech in Pakistan.
3. Media outlets and rights organizations could be engaged and asked to highlight such incidents in your respective countries.
Everyone is entitled to the fundamental human right of freedom of thought, conscience and speech. Pakistan has a long history of suppressing dissenting voices. This convention has to be challenged and changed for the better. Embattled Pakistani progressives can’t do this mammoth task alone, we need your support.
Article 19 of UNDHR states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Blocking of progressive Pakistani Facebook pages without a notice by PTA is a breach of article 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Today, Pakistani progressives need their brethren outside Pakistan, let us truly be global citizens and fight state repression together.
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