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No room to breathe

Published Jul 09, 2012 12:00am


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IN an increasingly intolerant and violent Pakistan, diverse media platforms have offered members of religious minorities a safe outlet to network, share their perspectives, document abuses against them, and defend their rights.

The importance of these media platforms cannot be overstated, especially given that Pakistan’s religious minorities cannot always seek legal respite or resort to public protest owing to discriminatory laws and the ever-present threat of mob violence.

However, some minority media outlets are under threat. For example, last week, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) banned a website managed by members of the Ahmadi community. According to PTA officials the site was blocked because the Ahmadis are prohibited from promoting their religious views in public. This is not the first time the state has targeted an Ahmadi website: the PTA routinely bans, a site that documents crimes committed against Ahmadis. These incidents demonstrate that the space for members of religious minorities to air their views and engage with mainstream discourse is shrinking.

Such crackdowns are especially egregious examples of state censorship given the proliferation of jihadi websites in Pakistani cyberspace. While it obtaining information about minority communities may pose a challenge, Pakistanis can easily access beheading videos, threatening press releases, hate speech and violence-inciting propaganda by the Pakistani Taliban, Sipah-i-Sahaba, Al Qaeda and dozens of other extremist organisations. Just last week, Abu Jundal told his Indian interrogators that Lashkar-e-Taiba maintains a team of “trained and educated” boys to manage websites, send emails and juggle web servers. It is no mystery why the PTA is reluctant to curtail the online presence of these groups.

Unfortunately, bans such as these are likely to make mainstream media outlets even more nervous about seeking minority viewpoints to balance news coverage about a community.

This should spark serious concerns amongst all Pakistanis because treatment meted out to minorities today could impact them tomorrow. Our country is already setting an unnerving record for blocking content on charges that it is blasphemous or offensive to Islam. In May, Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, then IT minister, oversaw the blocking of Twitter because it refused to delete blasphemous tweets. Last year, Interior Minister Rehman Malik directed the PTA to block all websites and SMS “propagating an anti-Islam agenda”. And in 2010, Facebook was blocked for carrying content against the Holy Prophet (PBUH).

At each such instance, human rights defenders and digital activists have demanded that the PTA specify the reasons why certain sites are blocked and publish a list of blocked websites. In response, the PTA abdicates responsibilities for bans, claiming that a shadowy and secretive inter-ministerial committee imposes them. The committee’s workings have repeatedly raised questions about who made them the guardians of the faith and on what criteria they deem content offensive to Islam and thus deserving of censorship.

Since answers have never been forthcoming, all Pakistanis should fear the day when their websites are arbitrarily deemed offensive and blocked. After all, in a country where sectarian strife is perpetually on the rise, the discourse of all communities is subject to charges of religious offence by members of rival religious groups or sects. If the PTA begins to ban websites and other media outlets on the basis of complaints issued by religious groups, then the basic rights of free speech and the freedom to profess religion could be denied to any number of sects, minority groups as well as those who champion secularism.

In this context, the government should review the protocols and mechanisms of institutions tasked with blocking content and make the basis for censorship more specific and transparent. With regard to religious minorities, it should also remember that it is constitutionally mandated to “safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of minorities” under Article 36 of the Constitution. The laundry list of state actions required to prevent rights violations and violence against minorities is always growing: provide safety for members of religious minorities; dismantle extremist organisations; repeal blasphemy laws; promote tolerance and inter-faith harmony through public school curriculum. It would be unfortunate if the charge of silencing minority voices in the public sphere were added to the register of the state’s failings.

Until the government directly addresses this problem, Pakistan’s so-called public service broadcasters should embrace the responsibility of providing balanced and adequate coverage of minority issues and ensuring that their voices are not shut out of the national conversation. Recent debate around the need for a radio cess highlighted Radio Pakistan’s sorry financial state.

Meanwhile, PTV’s hybrid public-commercial model, whereby it receives both licence fees and advertising revenues, makes it equally beholden to the Pakistani people and the corporate sector. Both entities also lack independence owing to constant political interference. Despite these many constraints, the country’s public broadcasters should recognise their responsibilities to its most disenfranchised citizens — if Pakistan’s minorities, religious or others, cannot freely air their grievances or have easy access to justice when they are persecuted, how can they expect them to be redressed?

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Twitter: @humayusuf


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (15) Closed

Bilal Jul 09, 2012 03:47pm
My friend it was promised by Quaid-e-Azam that every Pakistani is free to practice his religion. We should give some respect to Quaid's words. I don't think Ahmadis have started propagation of their religion by running a website, if you don't like them then don't visit it. Point is that PTA is setting a wrong tradition, it is denying its citizens freedom of expression, which should not be the case in a democratic society.
Cyrus Howell Jul 09, 2012 08:09pm
" Everyone in Europe knew the war (WWI) was coming, and they also knew they could do nothing about it." H.G. Wells
Cyrus Howell Jul 09, 2012 08:10pm
It was well written, but actions speak louder than words.
Syed Munir Ahmed Jul 09, 2012 03:32am
Thank you, Ms Huma. In these pressing times, where expressing the sentiments of any kind has almost become impossible, people like you and the publications like Dawn still are a sign to provide a 'room to breathe'. This governments, or for that matter any government in our beloved country has never been able to stand on principles. You have rightly mentioned the basic rights given to every citizen of the country, may he/she belong to a minority group of any kind. Our respected judiciary is too much busy to realize what is happening right under its nose, it can't see/smell the brutal killing of a teacher,belonging to Rabwah, by the custodian of law of the land, the police. The CJ of Pakistan was reminded by many different ways to kindly take notice of the brutal killing of Master Abdul Qudus, but up till now I have not heard any word from the CJ. The recent ban of the Ahmadiyya website,, it seems is in sheer retaliation of what the head of the community has received in his recent visit of the USA, He was given a historic welcome reception by the US lawmakers, that was telecast by the Ahmadiyya TV, mta, The way the Pakistani officials behave towards the minorities is not earning any good name for the country. Ahmadies still love their country and even the non-Pakistani members of the community are asked by the Head of the community to pray for the prosperity of the country. How many other, so called mainstream, religious parties have ever done that. One again, well done for such a courageous piece.
Saad Jul 09, 2012 01:03pm
good question!
indian Jul 09, 2012 02:42pm
Jinnah never mentioned that? This amendment was made later at the behest of misguided minds. Go and read how your constitution was sabotaged then talk.
Rattan Jul 09, 2012 10:53am
I wonder if Pakistan has reached a point of no return - hope not
AHA Jul 09, 2012 06:04pm
We have chosen the path of intolerance for others, and are chocking off all forms of openness. We are our own worst enemies.
shankar Jul 09, 2012 11:26am
No room to breathe! What does one expect! The idea is to choke the minoroties and establish a uni-religious society!
muneer Jul 09, 2012 10:44am
our constitution does not allow Ahmediz to propagate their religion. What the writer wants? whether to allow them to preach their belief or something else!
abushinawar Jul 09, 2012 02:40am
This should spark serious concerns amongst all Pakistanis because treatment meted out to minorities today could impact them tomorrow: a beautiful piece by Huma Yousuf. we must acty against this intolerance and inequality other wise we will suffer.
INDIAN Jul 09, 2012 06:37am
..Hope some sane minds read your article....people need employment, food, shelter..with empty stomach who can pray god...Pakistanis lost all credibility as humanbeing..when whole world is celebrating finding of HIGGS BOSSON particle..Pakistanis forgotten nobel prize winning scientist Mr. Abdul Salm whose immense reaserach lay the foundation for this findings..he is the only Muslim scientist who got Nobel prize (sorry, you people even dont consider him as a Musilm)...when people love people as humabeing then only they get nearer to teh God..
majid maqsood Jul 09, 2012 08:17am
Its unfair with minorities......who are they to give the certificate of Muslim & Non-Muslim..........???????? I appreciate the way you have drawn the attention of Govt........
Dr Imran Ahmed Jul 09, 2012 09:52am
Excellent article. I am incensed that my elected institutions are persecuting my fellow citizens in my name. Only abusive words spring to mind to describe these custodians of our speech.
bush Jul 09, 2012 09:53pm
True say