Govt unwilling to discuss YouTube ban

Published November 7, 2014
— Reuters/File
— Reuters/File

ISLAMABAD: The government of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) appears to be extremely sensitive to any mention of the video-sharing website, YouTube.

At least that was impression conveyed by the attitude of retired Captain Mohammad Safdar, the chairman of the National Assembly Standing Committee on Information Technology and Telecommunication as he tried to scuttle discussion on the fate of the website that has been blocked for users in Pakistan for well over two years now.

However, a ruling party MNA told Dawn that “unblocking YouTube was no longer a priority for the government” and that they had bigger fish to fry, such as the rollout of 3G and 4G services, as well as allegations of fraud in the Universal Service Fund (USF).

During Thursday’s meeting of the standing committee, PML-N MNA, retired Major Tahir Iqbal, asked, “How soon will Internet users be able to access YouTube again, for educational and entertainment purposes?”


Capt Safdar scuttles discussion during standing committee session; PML-N MNA says unbanning video-sharing website ‘no longer a priority’


The committee chairman, however, seemed to be in no mood to discuss the unbanning of the website and insisted that discussion on the topic be deferred until the committee’s next meeting.

Then, PML-N MNA Talal Chaudhry and Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s Syed Ali Raza Abidi both tried to inquire about the status of the ban from the chairman of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA). But the chairman would have none of it and adamantly replied, “We cannot discuss this today.”

This came as a surprise to the lawmakers present, who observed privately that while sensitive issues such as terrorism could be discussed in the house, a country that was actively looking to make headway in the field of information technology was afraid of even talking about unbanning YouTube, which is one of the most popular sites on the Internet today.

Not a priority

One of the ruling party MNAs present at the committee’s session on Thursday clearly told Dawn that unblocking Youtube was no longer a priority for the government.

The subject has become so taboo, that in most meetings involving the Ministry of Information Technology or the PTA, questions about the ban are met with the same, one-line response: “The matter is in the court”.

“YouTube should definitely be unblocked and doing so should be a priority for the government. Students, entrepreneurs, artists and people from all walks of life have suffered enough due to the ban,” PML-N MNA Talal Chaudhry told Dawn after the committee session.

There is also confusion about where the buck stops with regard to the decision to unblock YouTube. The IT Ministry, meanwhile, reiterated its stance, saying it had no role in banning or unblocking YouTube and that this was the domain of the PTA, which answered to the Cabinet. A PTA spokesperson, on the other hand, claimed that directions to block YouTube “came from the top”, adding that, “It will be unblocked when the PM’s Office orders it so”.

When the website was first blocked, digital rights activists Bytes For All (B4A) had taken on the government through a petition filed at the Lahore High Court. In their final order on the matter, dated May 13, 2014, Justice Mansoor Ali Shah and Justice Atir Mehmood had recommended that the website be unblocked after ensuring that objectionable videos on the website carried ‘interstitial warnings’, but also advised the petitioners to “seek clarification” of a Sept 17, 2012 Supreme Court judgement that the government uses to justify the ongoing restrictions on the website.

On October 1, 2014, B4A wrote to the chief justice of Pakistan, asking that the website be unblocked after taking the measures recommended by the high court. However, they have so far received no response.

B4A’s Shahzad Ahmad told Dawn, “It is shocking that access to important information and online educational platforms such as YouTube is not a priority for our government. Our rulers claim to be champions of democracy but have no respect for basic fundamental rights, such as freedom of expression, access to knowledge and freedom of speech.”

Published in Dawn, November 7th, 2014

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