So the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) has started banning pages that do not fit the moral worldview of some of its more conservative office bearers. None of these pages are blasphemous by any stretch of the imagination but they do not fit the agenda that is being imposed by people sponsored by Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) who have infiltrated every organisation, every regulatory body and indeed every institution of the state since the 1980s. Laal Band’s Facebook page was banned at the PTA’s request for two days and for what exactly? Was it the poems of Faiz Ahmad Faiz that caused offence? Faiz Ahmed Faiz who amongst other things was appointed the first editor of Pakistan Times by the father of the nation before partition and who was later sent to Kashmir to secure the accession of that state to Pakistan? Was it Habib Jalib’s poetry that was offensive to a certain Director General (DG) of the PTA (who by the way still has to provide verification for his foreign degree after 15 years of employment)? If Jalib’s revolutionary poetry of the 1960s is so offensive, surely someone should have sent that memo to Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif who often uses his poem Dastoor in his speeches? The PTA of course says it did not ask Facebook to ban the page. This is just hokum, an utter and absolute lie that only the most dishonest and corrupt official of an intellectually and morally bankrupt organisation can muster. In an email response a high-up at Facebook wrote: “We followed up on the press story with the PTA and they lifted the block on the laalpak page so I have the instruction for the block to be lifted last night” (Emphasis added).
There is a secret agreement between the PTA and Facebook to block pages the PTA deems unfit for consumption by Pakistani audiences. It is not that secret. One representative of the PTA admitted as much during the course of the Youtube case, while explaining how Facebook had been chastened by a ban on it four years ago. Now here is the problem. I have scanned through the entire Pakistan Telecommunications (re-organisation) Act 1996 and have found nothing that clothes the PTA with the authority of moral policing on the web. Such powers under law in any event have to be explicitly conferred on an executive authority or a regulator such as the PTA. How then is PTA deciding what web pages to block and what web pages to allow — and it must be said every sectarian web page promoting hatred amongst the people of Pakistan, including those like Anjem Choudhary’s ‘Sharia4Pak’ page which calls for the complete genocide of every Pakistani, Muslim or Non-Muslim who disagrees with Choudhary’s worldview, is easily accessible. I know the PTA Chairman, Dr Ismail Shah, to be a fair and honest man. It is indeed a great blessing that he is at the helm of affairs in that decrepit cesspool, which he is trying his best to clear up. Therefore I ask him to look into this sorry state of affairs — a consequence of the JI mafia in the PTA. This particular DG, who for now I shall not name but who I refer to above is well known within the organisation. To allow an unbalanced and self-evidently dishonest person like this particular official to ride roughshod over civil liberties, fundamental rights and the law is criminal. I therefore call upon Chairman Dr Shah to take immediate action and bring to book these rogue elements within the PTA.
One must also ask Facebook why it seeks to deviate from its terms of service to satisfy rogue elements within errant organisations, which are operating outside even the scope of Pakistani law. Facebook must stop this appeasement now and if its higher-ups are unable or unwilling to do so, some of us will be left with no choice but to take this matter to a court of law in Palo Alto, California. Facebook is complicit in the denial of our fundamental rights and freedoms here in Pakistan but then our fundamental rights have never been of any concern to ruthless corporate organisations such as Facebook. Well there are several legal theories about the First Amendment to the US Constitution one is just itching to test and there are many US citizens of Pakistani origin living both in that country and this who would willingly move the court there. It is a tricky business navigating legal systems for a realm such as cyberspace. For Facebook, Google, Twitter and other giants of our time, would it not be better then to stick to principle and not the dictates of corporate interest? After all as tools these giants have transcended the categories of mere corporations and have become part and parcel of daily life and whose curtailment has grave implications for the rights of life, privacy and freedom of expression worldwide. Machinations by rogue officials within the PTA will be defeated sooner or later for theirs is a futile attempt to arrest the march of humanity. As for Facebook, it must decide now whether it wishes to stand with those who seek to curtail freedoms worldwide or those who fight against oppression. Please let us know so that we can also proceed accordingly.
The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore and the author of the book Mr Jinnah: Myth and Reality. He can be contacted via twitter @therealylh and through his email address firstname.lastname@example.org