On October 9, Pakistani authorities decided to ban the social media platform called TikTok, a digital content sharing app so popular it has more than 20 million active users in Pakistan and 800 million worldwide, an absolute online juggernaut. It’s also Chinese which, people assumed, meant that under the terms of the emergent CPEC overlordship, rendered it untouchable by telecommunication authorities here. But the Chinese hadn’t counted on the tenacity, willpower and idle time at the hands of the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) chairman.

Ten days later, it’s been unbanned as suddenly as it was shown the door. But since it was threatened with a ban earlier this year as well, we can expect the carousel to go on for a while until operational terms are set in stone.

The Pakistani government does not like that the medium is largely unregulated. So it decided to beat the dead horse of ‘corrupting our moral fibre’ to enact a two-week closure and get TikTok onboard for tighter regulation and censorship. This is the common theme in all recent bans imposed in the digital realm; they eventually get lifted, but with stricter regulation. 

Of course all states have despotic tendencies, and other countries have banned TikTok as well or — as in Trump’s case — remain committed to flirting with the idea. But even despotism should try and exhibit some statist tendencies as well, now and again.

The idea of anything corrupting Pakistan’s moral fibre is quite a stretch of one’s imagination. We are swarmed with tax evasion, theft and occupation of property, domestic abuse, sexual assault, child abuse and sectarian hatred, and blasphemy accusations are quickly replacing hockey as the national sport. Where exactly is this moral fibre that needs to be preserved? It’s like someone woke up one day and told our prime minister you need some more moral fibre in your diet and he’s taking the joke out on the rest of us. 

The TikTok ban was only the latest in a line of such bans. What does a state obsessed with censorship and regulation mean for content generators and tech innovators?

TikTok has little on offer that is egregious. It has user-generated content that relies on popularity with other users to gain any traction, essentially regulating itself with the moral outlook of its majority. And let me put the word ‘popularity’ in some perspective here: Jannat Mirza, the most popular ‘content creator’ in Pakistan, has 10 million followers on TikTok. That’s a bigger number than the population of Switzerland or UAE. That’s not just a user, that’s an institution. She could easily declare herself a sovereign authority, by which this ban would then become a declaration of war.

So why is this government adamant to swim against the tide? 

Perhaps a better explanation comes from the TikTok profile of Saud Butt, a PMLN supporter with one million followers on the app, who once did a wordplay joke about the prime minister. He was arrested outside the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) headquarters in Lahore, during a protest two months ago. Critics of the government and its misuse of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca) couldn’t have scripted a better plot development. 

I saw a TikTok video last night where a man is crying tears of relief into his dupatta while mock-thanking PTA saying, “TikTok maray nahin, sirf bayhosh huye thhe [TikTok did not die, merely had a fainting spell].”

Before the arrest, Saud Butt had half his current number of followers. 

I saw a TikTok video last night where a man is crying tears of relief into his dupatta while mock-thanking PTA saying, “TikTok maray nahin, sirf bayhosh huye thhe [TikTok did not die, merely had a fainting spell].”

Heavy-handed use of authority can always come back and bite you. 

So what does a state obsessed with censorship and regulation mean for content generators, tech innovators, artists, authors, actors? When the YouTube ban was enforced in 2013, the people who suffered were the local content creators on the website, not the people offending religious sentiments. 

Let’s go through all the things the incumbent government has banned in these auspicious two years. There was a video game banned for having addled the youth with bad grades, irritable tempers and the inability to pay attention to the living room rants of their fathers. There was a dating app banned for letting people meet in a virtual and somewhat safe environment to see if they could get away from marrying their cousins one day. There was a biscuit advertisement presumably banned for someone not performing ablution before eating the blessed treat. There was a movie called Zindagi Tamasha banned for — actually I don’t even know what it was banned for and, by the press releases issued, I don’t think the censor board or the Council of Islamic Ideology did either. There was also a popular web series Churails, with actual transgressive themes, where the moral outrage brigade finally had something to point towards — but with a caveat. It was released on an Indian platform with no access on local television and was not in the PTA’s jurisdiction. But undeterred by legalities, PTA apparently asked for it to be taken down, just to make sure all connotations of the word ‘authoritarian’ are well covered. 

We have enough problems in creative output and entrepreneurial activity as it is. Economic problems, serious ones. Most of our celebrated authors of the last 20 years have had to be published abroad. There’s been a resurgence in cinema but the exchange of bans between Pakistani actors working in India and Bollywood films screened in Pakistan were a blow. The art festivals have had visa problems, the literature festivals have had visa problems. The idea should be to overcome these problems, not take a meat cleaver to whatever’s left of creative endeavours.  

TikTok has little on offer that is egregious. It has user-generated content that relies on popularity with other users to gain any traction, essentially regulating itself with the moral outlook of its majority.

When government ministers then ask why we can’t produce indigenous solutions and local apps of our own (again, because they’d be far easier to regulate), how exactly are they meant to magically appear in such a disparaging environment? Who is going to spend thousands of hours setting up a platform that could be shut down any day a government higher-up gets up on the wrong side of the bed?

Why would anyone bother? Where’s the motivation in advertising agency meetings ending with ‘Everything looks great but will this get us a ban?’, and people wanting to direct internationally accessible web series earning more legal notices than recognition? 

Now the prime minister wants Pakistanis to watch Ertugrul but those employed in the making of local television serials — most of which have conservative content, not destructive to any fibres at all, and mostly sitting on the right side of censorship — weren’t happy about this turn of events. Because that’s what constant threat of prohibition creates: fear and insecurity. They want the promotion of local talent because, beyond these conservative television serials, they have nothing. 

How is this amount of insecurity going to lead to a Digital Pakistan, or the creation of local apps, or local productions of epic historical narratives? Can you imagine the subcontinent’s Islamic history being adapted for Pakistani television? Jehangir would have to give up drinking wine and Akbar would have to give up existing entirely just to pass the censor board.

The writer is a freelance journalist. He tweets @haseebasif

Published in Dawn, EOS, Octoberr 25th, 2020