Pakistan has from time and again enacted social media bans on websites (YouTube, Facebook, TikTok) mostly over objectionable content which hurts the sentiments of Muslims.
The latest incident, fresh in our memory is the ban imposed on TikTok by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), the government’s official telecommunication regulating agency.
The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) on October 9 suspended the operation of the video-sharing application TikTok, which had 20m users in the country citing its failure “to develop a comprehensive mechanism to control unlawful content”.
The geopolitical implications over the timing of the ban were lost on PTA, but not elsewhere, as Indians and western media gleefully pointed out that China’s friendly country, Pakistan had banned the Chinese App TikTok. India had banned TikTok along with 60 other Chinese Apps in June 2020 during the skirmishes between the two countries in Ladakh.
Read more: Why is Pakistan rescinding TikTok ban?
Now, while the application/ website may be different but the cycle remains the same in Pakistan: First, some “objectionable” videos are identified;
second, PTA takes them up with the relevant authorities – they either don’t respond or at best engage in discussion with the relevant officials from the country who fail to accommodate their demands;
third, Pakistan threatens to block the application if “objectionable” content not removed;
fourth, Boom! The application (or some other medium) is no longer available for viewership within Pakistan.
[can we try putting this as infographics with arrows – BOOM should be a big cartoon one]
Banning TikTok’s immoral content
In the case of TikTok ban, according to PTA’s press release: “The decision to this effect was taken after receiving complaints from different segments of the society against immoral and indecent content on the video sharing-application.”
The PTA said after issuing final notice to the application, a “considerable time” was given to respond and ensure compliance with the authority’s instructions to develop an effective mechanism to moderate unlawful online content proactively.
However, the application failed to fully comply with the instructions; therefore, directions were issued to block TikTok in the country. The PTA said TikTok had been informed that the authority was open for engagement and would review its decision “subject to a satisfactory mechanism” by TikTok to moderate unlawful content.
After being called out for not moderating content on its platform, TikTok, in its second transparency report, revealed that it had removed over 14 million videos of content creators on its platform, for violating its community guidelines. Out of these 14 million videos, over 3 million videos were from Pakistan.
This ban only lasted for ten days, as PTA, upon gaining assurances from the TikTok authorities that it would “moderate” content per local laws unlocked the application, something that was expected, and should have negotiated, in the first place, away from the spotlight, and avoiding the need to create a public brouhaha over the issue.
TikTok has received its share of criticism in Pakistan from various groups and individuals on account of its “immoral, obscene and indecent” content
The ban on the social media platform, Tik Tok caught many by surprise. While some celebrated the ban, others felt for the millions of users that used the platform for creative expression, connection, or often just to escape from life under Corona; it was a massive interference with the freedom of expression. Regardless, this is not the first time in recent history; the Islamic Republic of Pakistan has sought to ban different forms of social media.
Conflicting Role of Civil Society
It’s noteworthy how journalists and civil society have a major role to play in the “ban culture.” In July 2020, a civil petition was filed in the Lahore High Court (LHC) demanding an immediate ban of the mobile video application, TikTok in the country.
Advocate Nadeem Sarwar, who filed the application on behalf of a civilian, stated that the matter is of great importance, and said that at least ten deaths had been reported in the country that was all linked with TikTok. The petition also highlighted the pornographic aspect of the application, whereby users promote it for fame on the internet.
The lawyer argued that the application is banned in Bangladesh and Myanmar on the pretext of indecency, and asked for the same in Pakistan.
TikTok has received its share of criticism in Pakistan from various groups and individuals on account of its “immoral, obscene and indecent” content. The content creators on the application have also been the target of frequent harassment in their daily lives.
Advocates of Creative Expression
Advocates of free media argue that TikTok allows people from all walks of life to become a part of its platform, essentially diminishing the class divide that is evident in other social media apps.
The platform is accessible and easy to use and means that anyone can become a creator, and unlike Youtube doesn’t require fancy cameras and tripods. Many would have seen Phoollu’s recent viral video celebrating TikTok’s opening. Phoollu lives in a village and has over a million followers, earning Rs. 600 daily from it.
Shmyla Khan, Director Research and Policy at the Digital Rights Foundation, argues that “TikTok has been able to attract users from across the spectrum of class, age and sensibilities. Given its content and demographics, TikTok is dismissed as frivolous at best and a threat to cultural norms at its worst.”
We have directed all ISPs to unblock the website as Google informed us that a country version of YouTube has been launched for Pakistan. Google has been using country versions for different countries such as Saudi Arabia
Many people in civil society argue that the objections raised in the LHC petition represent status quo forces for whom any space for self-expression is seen as a threat to themselves. This is especially, the case if the users are middle or lower middle class, women, young people and trans-individuals – their expression is seen as a ‘threat’ to society and in need of ‘control.’ These status quo forces are further enabled by the courts which mostly represent the same class.
Sadaf Khan, Director Programs and Co-Founder of Media Matters for Democracy points out that “TikTok has given people from every stratum of society an ability to occupy online spaces in a way that is impactful among the masses. When have we ever seen people from small towns working with the government on its emergency management strategy directly? TikTok has enabled it because it reaches the audience that no one with supposedly fancy platforms or resources has effectively reached.”
If you thought TikTok was the only recent ban to hit this country of 220 million people – then recall what happened on July 1, 2020, when Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), an online multiplayer battle royale game developed and published by PUBG Corporation, a subsidiary of South Korean video game company Bluehole was banned. According to the PTA, once again it acted on the complaints received against it from different segments of the society.
In response to a petition filed in the LHC, PTA ordered the ban on the basis of it being a “waste of time”, and “for promoting violence and for affecting the mental health of its players”.
Some respite for the PUBG fans came when on July 14, in a hearing in Islamabad High Court, Justice Amir Farooq commented that the PTA should have taken advice from a mental health expert before banning the game.
You will be amused to know what the response of the PTA’s lawyer was. He said the game was banned due to religious and ethical sensitivities. All of a sudden, a game banned on the pretext of inciting violence in the society was put into the ‘sensitive to religion category’. IHC reserved the decision on the hearing, citing that it has become a practice to ‘put everything in that category’ (to justify the ban).
Longest ban in Pakistan’s internet history?
In 2010, on 19-20 May, Pakistan’s Telecommunication Authority, PTA imposed a ban on Wikipedia, YouTube, Flickr, and Facebook in response to a competition labelled “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” running on Facebook.
The ban imposed on Facebook was the result of a ruling by the Lahore High Court, while the ban on the other websites was imposed arbitrarily by the PTA on the grounds of “objectionable content”. The ban was lifted on May 27 2010, after the website removed the objectionable content from its servers, succumbing to the demands of the government. But this wasn’t the longest ban in Pakistan’s internet history.
On September 17 2012, Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf ordered an immediate shutdown of YouTube in the aftermath of protests against the anti-Islam film “Innocence of Muslims”. The movie was believed to be produced by a small group of extremist Christians in the US.
The four-year ban on Youtube, during a prime period of its development, left Pakistani creative artists way behind Vietnam and Thailand that took off during this period
The film sparked a fury of protests in different parts of the country. Many people gathered outside US embassies and monuments in at least 20 countries.
In a directive issued to the Ministry of Information Technology, the PM stated that the decision was taken after YouTube decided against removing the film and the shutdown will remain effective until the website removes all content from the sacrilegious film.
YouTube returns to Pakistan
Much respite came in when, after over four years of being told to ‘Surf Safely‘ and using VPNs, internet users in the country were able to access YouTube, following orders from the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA).
“We have directed all ISPs to unblock the website as Google informed us that a country version of YouTube has been launched for Pakistan. Google has been using country versions for different countries such as Saudi Arabia,” PTA official release stated.
Google promised Pakistan that objectionable content would be restricted in the country, including at the request of the government of Pakistan.
All in all, if we put together all the different social media bans imposed on the many – Pakistan has primarily acted on the justification of hurting the sentiments of the Muslims of the country. But bans for whatever reason impact the country’s international image and perception of the country.
Where does it end?
PTA needs to create more transparency around the banning parameters, but so far, nothing has been shared publicly. With globalization, Pakistanis face an outside world and are subject to much which they don’t approve of due to their cultural norms. However, social media bans are equivalent often to using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
The future is technology, and at a time when investors’ eyes are turning to Pakistan with growing interest, these arbitrary bans increase the risk perception disproportionately on all fronts, including for the large social media giants, who the government is wooing to setup offices in the country. The four-year ban on Youtube, during a prime period of its development, left Pakistani creative artists way behind Vietnam and Thailand that took off during this period.
The creative eco-system that is being encouraged by many of these media is lost out to Pakistan, including the related potential income necessary for the economy. It is time for serious introspection and more importantly, an understanding that we need to work with the 21st-century implements and cannot take a 19th century Luddites approach to technology.