The year is 2020. A country in South-East Asia is plagued with cases of human rights abuse, multiple rapes are being reported across the country every day, minority rights are being violated and political strife is on a usual high. The government in the country decides to ban digital platforms as a way to curb the dissent. Sounds familiar?
Welcome to Banistan, sorry, Pakistan.
In all fairness, Pakistan has never been a torch-bearer of freedom of press or freedom of expression but the country’s affinity for banning things has reached absurd proportions over the course of the last few months, particularly with regards to culture and entertainment. Let’s take a look.
In July 2020, while the country struggled in grip of the first wave of Covid 19, PTA banned popular online game PlayerUnknown Battlegrounds (PUBG) and associated live-streaming application Bigo until public hue and cry and campaigning by celebrities (Waqar Zaka and Amir Liaquat to be exact) helped reverse the ban on the gaming application. The application was banned because of an 11-page report that cited the game as “wastage of time,” “highly addictive” and “destroying our youth”.
The PTA had said it was empowered under section 37 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016 to remove or block access to information if it considers it necessary in “the interest of the glory of Islam, the integrity, security or defense of Pakistan or…public order, decency or morality”. The ambiguously worded law doesn’t define any of the parameters for decency or morality enshrined in the constitution.
Also in July 2020, the Supreme Court of Pakistan hinted at another YouTube ban for the country, citing ‘vulgar, indecent, immoral, nude content and hate speech’. Even hint of a ban was enough to rally forces within the country, including Federal Science Minister Fawad Chaudhry and the erstwhile special assistant to the Prime Minister on digital rights, Tania Aidrus, to ensure that access to the global video platform remained unfettered.
Memories of Pakistan’s last YouTube ban, lifted merely four years ago, are still fresh in the memories of the public. From 2012 to 2016, access to the website remained blocked by PTA after a slew of blasphemous material was found on it. There’s more to unpack here but we’ll come back to this in a bit.
In August 2020, the teaser of a song by Bilal Saeed, directed by and featuring actor Saba Qamar caused uproar on social media for containing a shot of bridal couture clad Qamar twirling. The video never saw the light of day beyond the teaser that was shared; the artists and the production house are being charged with violating the sanctity of the Wazir Khan Mosque, a heritage site, and the Punjab Auqaf and Religious Affairs Department has banned the shooting of films and dramas in mosques and shrines since the controversy started. Mosques, particularly heritage sites such as Wazir Khan in Lahore, are regularly used as a Nikkah venue, with couples choosing to use the magnificent architecture as a back-drop. Privilege denied. Until some VIP’s son needs to get married there, at least.
In September, a journalist drew the PM’s attention to a woman exercising on the state run PTV and blamed immoral programming for an increase in violent crimes against women, children and minorities. They were, luckily, unable to completely ban the women of this republic from exercising but the clamp down on ‘immoral’ content was well underway.
For chronology purposes it would also serve to add that in September, the Motorway rape case was reported and patriarchy’s old defense was at play; women, through their actions such as exercising or as you’ll read further on, dancing, bring it up on themselves by enticing men. The CCPO Lahore went on record to question why the woman was travelling so late without her husband and why she didn’t check her fuel tank before leaving home.
In October, actress Mehwish Hayat was featured in a biscuit commercial that can at best be described as a cliché or a fine example of cringey aesthetics (which perhaps is a kitsch genre that seems to work for the country’s advertising geniuses) that had to be banned because it was promoting indecency in the country. The commercial? A fully- clad Hayat was dancing to a cheesy tune while several dancers dressed in stereotypical depictions of the country’s four provinces frolic in their scripted, provincial manner. Indecency was the last on the list of offences this advertisement committed, but that’s what they got the biscuits for.
Also in October, Pakistan banned and then reversed its decision to ban TikTok, one of the fastest growing and most democratic global platform, again citing ‘immoral’ content. The country once again repealed the decision, content creators from various age groups and socio-economic backgrounds coming together in favour of the application. It also didn’t hurt TikTok’s chances that the company is owned by our current political best friends, China.
Sandwiched between all of these bans was online outrage against the web-series, Churails, streaming online, the banning of several local productions that were deemed vulgar or corrupt and the filing of defamation charges against claimants of a case dealing with the alleged sexual misconduct of a popular, male celebrity, to say nothing of this country’s men policing the clothes of a Turkish drama star online.
There’s been a slew of films that have recently been banned, most notable out of them being Sarmad Khoosat’s much awaited offering, Zindagi Tamasha, which was eventually cleared by the censor board but never made it to the cinema. Films that did make it to the cinema in the last year include a state-funded and Khalil ur Rahman Qamar written and directed feature, that was furbished with all trappings of a commercial masala movie including an item number by actress Neelum Muneer.
The criteria for what is considered moral or decent in this country depends on the whims of men who walk powerful corridors, men who are unaccustomed to taking responsibility for their actions. The only consistency you can find in this pattern is the sheer absurdness of it all.
It would appear that Pakistani men seem to find a new cache of questionable content on the web every day and their contribution in bringing it all to national attention, repeatedly, should be noted for its due diligence. It can also be said that our government reacts very quickly to these updates by trying to erase all traces of their existence from our digital world.
The lack of innovative local content/entertainment is decried regularly in Pakistan. The Prime Minister himself was found recommending historical fiction productions from Turkey as benchmarks for the local industry to follow. Before Churails was criticized for its content, it was considered unpatriotic for choosing to stream on Zee5, an Indian video on demand service.
There’s a link between the two but the custodians of decency, morality and culture seem to be oblivious to the bitter truth under their nose, fixating instead on a phantom connection that has repeatedly been debunked.
Bans, it turns out, are rather ineffective ways of banning things. People find ways to circumvent restrictions; just look at Pakistan’s pornography search statistics. Despite being banned across the country, access to blocked websites is possible through VPNs and we remain among the top 5 in the world in our quest for smut. It’s unfortunate that the Psychology 101 lesson of human tendency towards forbidden material is still not something the state is willing to recognize. Studies have shown that banning access to social media websites can have unintended consequences among the population; not only are people more likely to seek out what has been blocked but also tend to have a harder time dealing with situations online stemming from misinformation and alienation.
All of these bans, of course, have to also account for the government resources that are being spent to keep them in place. Firewalls blocking out chunks of the internet are costly to put up and maintain, while the brunt of the ban is borne by the public, in both economic and personal spheres. The years of YouTube drought in the country not only pushed our content creators out of the global race and hurt the economy, it also stagnated the growth of original content. Stars like actor Osman Khalid Butt and comedian Danish Ali have repeatedly spoken about how devastating those years were for business and creative development.
Pakistan has incredible content to offer; just look at TikTok and the variety of stars it has produced. Look at the independent art, music, film scenes and you’ll find countless fresh voices that deserve to be heard. Our country and government not only repeatedly fail in providing or nurturing platforms that are present, one could argue it actively seeks to sabotage them.
By curbing freedom of expression, by shunning art and culture, by knocking our nascent entertainment industry on its knees, we are only doing a disservice to our country and economy in an increasingly digitized world. Platforms like Netflix and Amazon have countless original productions with our neighbour, India already up for streaming. Not only does this content represent the country, it also helps portray values or the image India wants to be perceived for. We’d like to see the digital sphere worked to our favour too and banning it cannot be the way on.