Pakistan’s caged social media

Ayushman Jamwal

ImageEven though Pakistan has enjoyed one full term of a democratically elected government, followed by a successful election last year, its citizens are struggling to fully enjoy one of the basic tenets of democracy – the freedom of expression.

The Pakistani state has been in regulation mode since the former PPP government banned Youtube after the movie ‘Innocence of Muslims’ sparked outrage and protests across the Muslim world. Even with a change of guard at the Centre, the video-sharing site has remained blocked till this day. The Pakistan government is currently in talks with Google over localising YouTube in the country, hence aiming to formalise a regulatory mechanism to ban material it deems unfit. In May last year, a Pakistani band released a satirical song on the video sharing site Vimeo criticising military generals which went viral. This in turn led the authorities to block the site in Pakistan. Last year, reports also emerged of restricted access to Tumblr in regions of Balochistan and Sindh and a ban on Viber in Karachi, Hyderabad and Rawalpindi. Even the popular Internet Movie Database faced a temporary ban in November after a directive from the government. The same month, the government also banned the online short film, ‘The Line of Freedom’ by American filmmaker David Whitney, that criticized the Pakistan army for human rights atrocities in Balochistan. The government employed focused censorship by specifically targeting pages with discussions, reviews and information associated with the film.

In addition to this, the Pakistan government is preparing to acquire net regulation technology to effectively monitor content on cyberspace. Last month, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority submitted a proposal to the Ministry of Information Technology to import the tech from China. Last year in May, the Canada based think tank Citizen Lab released a report which indicated the Pakistan government bought net surveillance technology from the Canadian firm Netsweeper. According to the report, the technology has been installed on the Pakistan Telecommunication Company Ltd network, the country’s largest telecom network for “political and social filtering, including websites related to human rights, sensitive religious topics, and independent media.” The report also alleged that ISP’s in the country were resorting to DNS tampering to block websites.

This is a dire situation for the netizen community of Pakistan. The social media has created a niche for itself in many spheres including communications, economics, activism, and education. Across the world, it has expanded the public sphere, liberating voiceless masses in many countries. It has offered a platform and medium for citizens to engage with democratic and societal narratives, clashing with mainstream ideas to negotiate and re-negotiate public opinion on a range of issues.

Such restrictions indicate Pakistan’s struggle to fully embrace democracy.

For those like myself who yearn for India-Pakistan brotherhood, the free social media is essential for one side to understand the other. No filtration, no packaging, the constant sharing and exchange of information and opinion is key to building bridges after decades of jingoism and propaganda. I have learnt so much about Pakistan from my friends across the LoC through the social media which has led me to believe that it is our destiny to be strong, cooperative neighbours. While Facebook and Twitter are still untouched, curtailing content on those platforms would be a serious blow to that vision.

The Pakistani government must cease to make the mistake of testing the sanctity of Islam and nationhood against the opinions of citizens. God and the freedom to express are equally sacred as they are both chapters of a universal humanist doctrine. For the nation to fully shed its dictatorial past, it cannot negotiate with the freedom to express and most importantly the freedom to disagree. It is essential not just to protect an ideal, but to preserve and embolden the conscience of the citizenry.

Pope Francis: Grounding God in Humanity

ImageWhen Pope Francis was named TIME Person of the Year in 2013, I was skeptical thinking the title was a giveaway to the man who had just made headlines. With the extensive coverage of the Conclave last year, the Pope grabbed global attention becoming the first Latin American Pontiff and then taking the humble yet noble title of Saint Francis of Assisi. A people’s Pope is the message that reverberated throughout the Catholic world as people looked to him to bridge the gap between the 21st century and the more controversial tenets of the faith.

Pope Francis’ acceptance of homosexuality was the first reformist leap by the Pontiff, as he distanced himself from the theological conservatism espoused by his predecessors, most recently Pope Benedict XVI who called it an ‘intrinsic disorder’. Francis’ words branded magazine and newspaper covers across the world, as he became the first Pope to splice out the sin from homosexuality to say, “If someone is gay, and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?”

Francis’ latest statement on the internet calling it a ‘gift from God’ comes as another significant move to give the Catholic Church a much needed reformist makeover. The history of the Catholic Church is rife with the persecution of science and a comfortable ignorance of scientific philosophy. The Catholic Church has maintained that science and technology is an unfulfilling means of understanding the world and God. Like many other faiths it has believed that God can only be understood beyond the spatial temporal boundaries of the world.

In my opinion, the Pope of the modern world should be someone who acknowledges how the advances in science and technology have nurtured the human spirit, unlocking its capabilities to do great and noble things in the service of mankind. In this regard, spiritual reflection on the internet is a significant concept as the World Wide Web has become a part of almost every aspect of 21st century life, altering the nature of social communication, commerce, education, even faith.

Previous Popes like John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI took the snobbish old school Catholic view. Even on the internet, Pope Benedict XVI said in 2011, “Even when it is proclaimed in the virtual space of the web, the Gospel demands to be incarnated in the real world and linked to the real faces of our brothers and sisters, those with whom we share our daily lives. Direct human relations always remain fundamental for the transmission of the faith”

But Pope Francis set himself apart from his predecessors.

He said, “Our world suffers from many forms of exclusion, marginalization and poverty, to say nothing of conflicts born of a combination of economic, political, ideological, and, sadly, even religious motives. In a world like this, media can help us to feel closer to one another, creating a sense of the unity of the human family…the internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity. This is something truly good.”

More importantly, Francis played his role as a spiritual leader by raising the social concerns surrounding the rapid progression of the internet. He raised the point how greater transparency and freedom brought forward by the internet can cause greater friction between communities when perpetuated in an unprepared society, an argument regularly made by scientists, philosophers and historians. He said, “The speed with which information is communicated exceeds our capacity for reflection and judgment…the variety of opinions being aired can be seen as helpful, but it also enables people to barricade themselves behind sources of information which only confirm their own wishes and ideas.”

But Francis ended his statement saying that such a drawback was no reason to reject the internet. While he joined the chorus of commentators on social media arguing that connections developed need to grow into real world encounters, he left the pursuit of faith to the faithful, not proclaiming the apt medium to spread the word of God. “Connections need to grow into true encounters. We cannot live apart, closed in on ourselves. We need to love and to be loved,” he said.

Pope Francis has realized that the world has become more spiritual than religious. The link between Man and God has become more direct, where people feel they do not need conduit of temple and priest to express their faith. Many of the major religions are grounded in moral values but branded as medieval due to the prevalence of ritual and dogma, and a resistance to philosophies emerging from the evolution of human society. Such statements by Pope Francis are essential as it grounds the Christian faith in the essence of its humanist doctrine, and indicate how one of the largest of the Abrahamic faiths are moving towards a reformist worldview. In age of information explosion, greater human connectivity, awareness and expression, Man and God was bound to become a direct line and the fight for universal human rights the greatest sign of devotion. As the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has come to respect this spiritual pursuit, and I salute him for grounding God in free will and humanity.