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No room to breathe

July 09, 2012

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 thepersecution.org, 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.

huma.yusuf@gmail.com

Twitter: @humayusuf