Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Road to hell

By Yasser Latif Hamdani

Thanks to Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), we are now a pornography-free society. Now our young boys and girls will grow up to be good Muslims unhindered by the evil temptations that the internet provided, especially boys. This is precisely what Pakistan needed — lots more testosterone and not outlet. We are now dynamite-like and on a very short fuse. Soon the whole world will know that we are all ticking time bombs. The porn-free Pakistanis will be a formidable force but for what? That bit we have not determined yet.

Far be it from me to throw a spanner in the workings of our pious and patriotic telecommunications regulator at this moment of a great national milestone. I wish to caution that the PTA’s action poses several legal and practical issues. I know that the great telecommunications regulators do not give a damn about the constitution, as any patriotic Muslim Pakistani worth his salt should not, but humour me. Article 19 of the constitution says: “Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, commission of or incitement to an offence.”

This fundamental right can be curtailed only on the basis of ‘reasonable’ restrictions imposed by law that includes — inter alia — decency or morality. This begs the question: what law has the sovereign legislature of this country passed banning websites that are deemed pornographic? In the absence of such a law, the blanket ban on pornographic websites — whether by rules or regulations — is a curtailment of Article 19 of the fundamental document of this country. As such any rules and regulations empowering the PTA to ban anything are in my opinion ultra vires the constitution. Now I am not saying that we should not ban pornographic websites but that it should be done in a constitutional and legal way.

The present onslaught on personal freedoms in Pakistan is rooted in an ill-advised and misconceived constitutional writ petition filed by a self-styled public interest litigator in Lahore who is asking for a ban on Facebook. Last year the same lawyer had filed a similar petition, which resulted in a temporary ban on the website. Taking the ban as an opportunity, the PTA discontinued blackberry browsing services and has failed to restore these services to this day. All cellular telephone companies are complicit with PTA in sustaining this ban, which is not subject to any judicial order.

This writer has filed an intervener in the current writ petition and has faced threats and personal abuse as a consequence. My reasons for the said intervener were hardly insidious. Before the court I had submitted that Facebook as a platform afforded Pakistanis opportunities to interact and exchange views with the rest of the world, which would no longer be available if Facebook was banned. In my view Facebook is merely a tool that may be utilised for good or for bad and that a proper challenge to blasphemous and hate-filled material lies with the legislature who may pass a law banning viewership of content that is deemed hateful or offensive. Faced with this new situation, the aforesaid defender of public morality who had filed the petition accused me of being an agent of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States of America no less. It seems that there is no room for a counter point of view.

Then there is the question of who is regulating the regulator. For example, the only available online copy of the Justices Munir-Kiyani Report on 1953’s disturbances on the internet has been blocked by PTA. Another website that contained a news report from 1944 on Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s view that he would not declare anyone non-Muslim or expel a person on this ground from the Muslim League has also been banned by the PTA. One wonders how these websites or pages qualify as pornographic websites. When one protests against such blatant misuse of public authority, one is called a kafir (infidel). When one moves the courts, one is abused as a CIA agent.

They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. By allowing the government to interfere in a personal space — and that is precisely what a computer screen is, i.e. personal space — we have opened the door to further restrictions. One may remind these zealous warriors and champions of public morality that in the finest Islamic tradition, personal space is inviolable and a matter between man and God. Indeed the entire edifice of Islamic jurisprudence is based on the impenetrable inviolability of privacy in man’s relation with the Divine.

Therefore, this new moral brigade looks at examples outside the milieu of Islamic tradition and culture. Atheistic China is often thrown about as a model for such restrictions, albeit selectively to suit the ends of a certain section of orthodox opinion, which we respect but which flies in the face of modern realities regarding religion. Is China really a model for us? Our constitution, legal traditions and the Islamic faith do not conform with the system in China. The recent persecution of bloggers, artists and journalists by the state in that country is no example for any civilised society to emulate. Unfortunately, in our misguided zeal and deliberate misuse of the writ jurisdiction of our newly independent judiciary, we have empowered the deep state with new tools of persecution and restriction, which shall be wielded against us like never before. This road leads to the dead-end of a fantastic dystopia that we are now unmistakably headed towards. Let us therefore halt before it is too late.

First published in Daily Times.

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