Except for the general gloominess about the country’s future course, there’s never a dull moment in Pakistan.

Despite ignoring much of the rinse-repeat political drama involving the usual characters on the same old issues and the Capital Talk, this week was still happening (or enraging) enough, depending on how one sees it. For now, let’s stick to the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) blocking online payments for the Indian on-demand video service, Zee5.

In a letter to banks, electronic money institutions and payment service operators/providers, the SBP directed them to block payments for Indian content. “We are in receipt of a letter from the Cabinet Division, government of Pakistan, whereby they have instructed [us] to stop different modes of payments, including credit cards, for subscribing (to) Indian content in Pakistan, including Zee5 video-on-demand service,” stated the circular issued on Nov 9.

For the uninitiated, the outrageous content in question that invited the wrath of the much-concerned cabinet was the locally directed series, Churails. It had previously generated a fair bit of controversy after a clip went viral and was briefly taken off Zee5 before being restored. But to make sure that such vulgarity remains out of reach for our netizens for good, the government decided to go an extra mile and involve the SBP.

The central bank is now issuing instructions as to what online content platforms are kosher for Pakistanis

This means that the financial sector regulator and lender of the last resort is now resorting to issuing instructions regarding what content platforms are kosher for Pakistanis. Sure, the SBP has always limited the way payments are made, but for the large part, those reasons were related to curbing terror-financing or money laundering.

With this latest move, it seems to have expanded into the world of content and, given how much of that is produced these days, the SBP should consider hiring a new team for this function. One can obviously argue that it was actually the government’s decision and the SBP merely carried out the operations. In that case, we might not have a particularly independent central bank, as they had been telling us for the past few years.

Forget everything, payments to most Indian platforms (content or otherwise) from Pakistani cards were already off limits in the first place. This included the audio streaming app Gaana, which briefly even partnered with a local carrier billing provider only to pull out later as it didn’t wish to be seen doing business in our country. And that has been the case for a number of services, such as Saavn to which local cardholders can’t subscribe.

An informed source said that online payments for merchants with an Indian internet payment gateway (IPG) aren’t already allowed, which is why most websites — such as Amazon.in or Hotstar — are beyond the reach of Pakistani accountholders. Zee5 had one of its IPGs elsewhere so an extraordinary measure was required on part of the authorities.

Inevitably, the question is: what’s next? If vulgarity (though no one has officially described it as such) is going to be the reason our regulator and government start banning payments for platforms, then we’d probably be just streaming to QTV’s YouTube channel. After all, Netflix, Amazon Prime and virtually every service has content that goes against the “values and culture of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan”. Maybe even consider stopping people from watching any cricket matches involving Virat Kohli for his flowery language when catches are dropped or stumpings missed as it will corrupt our innocent masses.

One thing to notice is how the government has become more innovative in the ways of censorship, moving over and beyond just banning platforms and their IP addresses (or the VPNs that could bypass them). The ‘new normal’ involves officially naming the service provider and effectively strong-arming financial institutions from processing the payments.

Maybe it’s time that we just give up on whatever freedom was afforded to us in the first place and wait for the “Pakistani Netflix” that Fawad Chaudhry talked about. A good dose of national-interest dramas and pre-vetted platforms is exactly the recipe for a thriving digital economy.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, November 16th, 2020

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