‘No law allows blocking of websites’

Published January 21, 2015
MQM leader Farooq Sattar speaks at the Ideas Conclave in Islamabad.
MQM leader Farooq Sattar speaks at the Ideas Conclave in Islamabad.

ISLAMABAD: There is currently no law that allows the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to ban websites, even pornographic ones, and the actions of the Inter-Ministerial Committee for the Evaluation of Websites (IMCEW) are completely unconstitutional, a lawyer who has been fighting a legal battle for the restoration of popular video-sharing website YouTube, said on Tuesday.

Yasser Latif Hamdani, who represented Bytes For All in its case against the government of Pakistan in the Lahore High Court, told the audience at Jinnah Institute’s Ideas Conclave 2015 that the elephant in the room with regards to freedom of speech in Pakistan was the country’s controversial blasphemy laws. He said that the Constitution of the country guaranteed freedom of speech, except when it was in contravention with the glory of Islam, law and order or the sanctity and integrity of Pakistan.

Other speakers, including digital rights activist Shahzad Ahmad, activist Jibran Nasir and Dawn dot com Web Editor Jahanzaib Haque, spoke at length about the problems and opportunities afforded by the new media. They explained how social media offered a mirror of society and offered an unadulterated glimpse into the minds of Pakistanis.

Mr Ahmad talked about the futility of banning websites and said that it was technically impossible to ban anything on the Internet because there was always a way to get around blocks.

Mr Nasir spoke about the power of new media, which he called “Free Media”, saying that it had allowed him to put together an awareness campaign that may have cost millions on mainstream media in just Rs50,000.

There was no shortage of excitement on the first day of the two-day conclave. In the first session on ‘Sustaining Pakistan’s Democratic Transition’, Inter-Provincial Coordination Minister caused an uproar when he stated openly that Saudi money was causing instability in Pakistan.

No shortage of excitement at first day of Jinnah Institute’s Ideas Conclave

Then, the PTI’s Shafqat Mehmood insisted that both Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif had ceded too much space to the military, but hastened to add that General Raheel Sharif is a “wonderful man”.

In his address, ANP Senator Afrasiab Khattak told the audience about General Zia’s use of extremism as a nation-building strategy during the time of the Cold War. “The Taliban were a demolition squad developed to destroy Afghanistan,” he said.

Dr Farooq Sattar of the MQM told the audience that citizens had to act as watchdogs for politicians and the latter must always have the “sword of democracy” hanging over their heads. Explaining his party’s support for military courts, he said, “You can either give legitimacy to the military or the Taliban. We chose the military.”

‘Unbuckling our Governance Straitjacket’ saw more academic discussion, but the panel had its moments. Former State Bank governor Ishrat Hussain, while describing the recipe for a more effective civil service, said, “Ministers and officers should be delegated power and responsibility should be assigned to the ministry. All powers and decisions can’t be concentrated in the hands of the chief executive.” This made Engineer Khurram Dastagir Khan, who was sitting a few seats away to Dr Khan’s left, visibly uncomfortable.

Seasoned bureaucrat and academic Dr Ashfaque Hassan Khan turned up the heat further, saying “Government cannot be a family business,” and making the case for widespread reform in the civil service.

However, in his remarks, the minister for commerce fought back, saying that it was a tall order to balance the day-to-day of top-level governance with the needs of his constituents. “The dialectic between those who govern and those who are governed must be maintained,” he said, adding that, “No general will stand here and take your brickbats.”

He also said that energy and extremism were the two major issues on which the voting public would decide the fate of the government at the next polls and admitted that there was no defence for not holding local government elections in the country.

Published in Dawn January 21st , 2015

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