ISLAMABAD: The National Assembly on Tuesday unanimously adopted a resolution to lift the ban on video-sharing website YouTube, which has been in place since September 2012 when sacrilegious material was uploaded on it.
The resolution, moved by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Shazia Marri, has been lingering for the last few sessions, and finally sailed through the House on Tuesday. Shazia Marri contended that all Muslim countries have lifted the ban on this website, and there is no need to have it in place in Pakistan. Minister for Health Services and National Regulations Saira Afzal Tarar said that the government is in favour of lifting the ban and suggested that all the political parties should sit together to resolve the issue.
However, she told the House that the higher courts where the case is being heard have not given any verdict so far. The National Assembly voted unanimously to lift the ban on YouTube, in a non-binding resolution that was nonetheless welcomed by free speech campaigners as an important symbolic move. The video-sharing website has been blocked in Pakistan since September 2012 over its hosting of the “Innocence of Muslims” movie that sparked furious protests around the world.
A US appeals court in February ordered Google, which owns YouTube, to remove the film after a lawsuit brought by an actress who says she was tricked into appearing in it, but the Pakistani ban remains in place. Shazia Marri said students and researchers were suffering as a result of the blackout. “We have been disconnected from the world by the ban on YouTube,” she said. The deputy speaker of the House, Murtaza Javed Abbasi later read out the resolution and all the lawmakers voted in its favour.
“The house resolves that government may take immediate steps for opening of YouTube,” he said. Responding to the resolution, Saira Afzal Tarar said the government was in favour of lifting the ban but it was in the hands of the courts. “YouTube has been banned on the orders of Supreme Court and there is another case regarding the ban in Lahore High Court and the matter is sub judice. However the house can suggest names to form a committee to work on the issue,” she said.
After the vote, Marri told AFP it was time for Pakistan to give up what she termed its “double standard”.”The Pakistani Taliban launches their website and the (government) does not take action against it, but it maintains a ban on YouTube,” she said. It was the PPP government which initially imposed the ban. Marri defended this, saying religious hardliners at the time were “outraged”. Though the resolution is not legally binding, it was seen as a positive step by anti-censorship campaigners.
Shahzad Ahmed, director of a group called Bytes for All that campaigns against Internet censorship and has asked a court to overturn the ban, said it was a “very welcome” move. “It’s great news and I think it’s time for the political leadership to take the lead in resolving the issue,” he said. But some observers remained doubtful. Newspaper columnist and commentator Harris Khalique said the government was reluctant to lift the ban as it doesn’t want to confront the religious groups. “Slapping a ban on YouTube was purely political but garbed in respect for religion,” he told AFP.
“It is a ridiculous way of appeasing the orthodox religious groups who are in a minority but create a huge nuisance.” Free speech campaigners in Pakistan have long complained of creeping censorship in the name of protecting religion or preventing obscenity. In November 2011 the telecommunications authority tried to ban nearly 1,700 “obscene” words from text messages, which included innocuous terms such as “lotion”, “athlete’s foot” and “idiot”.
Meanwhile, responding to a call attention notice moved by Shaista Pervaiz, Saira Tarar said that the World Health Organisation’s travel restrictions are not Pakistan-specific, as two other countries, Cameron and Syria, have also given the same treatment. “The government has called a meeting of all the provincial health ministers and representatives of health departments tomorrow (Wednesday) to devise a strategy to address the issue”, she told the house.
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