Pakistan’s bans: Burning the barn to slaughter the goat

Published October 8, 2013
The increasingly nonchalant approach by the government when sacrificing the freedom of its citizens under the guise of protecting their security is disturbing. -Photo by AFP
The increasingly nonchalant approach by the government when sacrificing the freedom of its citizens under the guise of protecting their security is disturbing. -Photo by AFP

Within the week following Freedom House’s declaration that Pakistan was one of the least free countries for internet users, the provincial government of Sindh attempted to ban instant messaging applications, like Skype. Though the ban is being reviewed by the Interior Ministry, it differs from previous ban attempts that concerned blasphemous material, as the provincial government justified the block on grounds of security. However, if the government of Pakistan continues to limit access to its net users, they may find wisdom in Benjamin Franklin’s words;

Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.

The Freedom House conducted an international study on internet rights, evaluating many nations based on their net users’ obstacles to access, limits on content, and violation of user rights. Pakistan was rated amongst the bottom 10 nations, as the report cited to several website bans in the country’s recent history, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. These bans have been justified under religious grounds, in a reaction to anti-Islamic YouTube videos and the “Draw the Prophet Day.”

Lawyers and internet activists have critiqued this approach asserting that banning Youtube in Pakistan for over a year in reaction to one video is akin to burning down the barn to slaughter one goat. Not only is a total blackout of YouTube an overreaction, some argue that it is counterproductive, as it denies Pakistanis the opportunity to create their own content disproving the claims made by anti-Islamic videos.

Along with bans based on religious sensibilities or morality, the new threat to internet freedom is the state citing to security concerns to justify censorship of web content. This is exactly what the Sindh government argued in order to attempt to block services, like Skype. Government officials explained that these services pose a security threat because they are used by terrorists groups to communicate and plan attacks. The ban has not been approved by the Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, who has expressed reservations about the policy.

Even if the attempt is rejected by the Interior Ministry, the provincial government’s efforts are symptomatic of the global devaluation of internet freedom. The Freedom House report notes that internet freedom is decreasing overall because countries are monitoring their citizens in order to deal with global terrorism, thereby, failing to properly balance freedom and security.

One of the effective ways to balance these two principles is by encouraging an open public discourse and maintaining transparent proceedings so that citizens can take part in the process of pursuing national security while respecting their freedoms. Unfortunately, in Pakistan, the disregard for net freedom is evidenced by a legal framework that remains ad hoc and opaque in nature.

The federal agency tasked with limiting content is the Pakistani Telecommunications Authority (PTA) and its decisions to ban content are not made available for public debate or disclosure, leaving activists wondering what legal justifications are used to ban websites or online services. Even more troubling, as demonstrated by the KPK and Sindh provincial governments, is that several state actors are running roughshod over one another with inexplicable limits to net freedom.

The Pakistani Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of information, speech, and privacy, yet, there seems to be little value associated to the usage of these rights in the 21st century through the internet, as the government continues to assail net freedoms. Though the courts have entertained cases challenging these bans, these attempts could take years to be effective, and are impeded by government agencies dragging their feet to court.

In some ways, the Parliament has acted to address the lack of legal structure in the process of limiting digital rights by passing the Fair Trial Act. This parliamentary act poses a more narrowly tailored approach to confronting terrorism than banning websites for all citizens and attempts to instill some institutional structure to the state spying on citizens and endangering their net freedom. The Act allows the government to monitor electronic communications of terror suspects after being granted a warrant by a judge. The judge must be convinced that the monitoring agency will not unduly violate the target’s rights and must balance the state’s security interest with the target’s individual rights.

By banning the messaging systems used by terrorists all together, the provincial government is either purposefully denying security agencies the chance to monitor internet communications between terrorists or admitting that they cannot do so. Either conclusion is disturbing, but not as disturbing as the nonchalant and spontaneous approach by the government when sacrificing the freedom of its citizens under the guise of protecting their security.

There is no doubt that certain internet freedoms will and should be limited in order to preserve national security, however, these limitations should be narrowly tailored so as to respect the digital rights of citizens and the decision-making process to form the limits should be transparent and collective. As the world becomes increasingly virtual, citizens of countries that respect internet freedom will have a competitive advantage to those whose access to information depends on the personal opinion of a few government officials. Therefore, until the government acknowledges the great value of internet freedom as a 21st century tool that encompasses the right to information, freedom, and privacy it will continue to sacrifice that right on the basis of security or morality.

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