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Cutting off the nose to spite the face

Censorship fuels hatred and simply doesn't work

  • Silent Thinker, Lahore
  • Pakistan
  • November 6, 2012
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Pakistan authorities have maintained a ban on the video-sharing site YouTube for more than a month.

The move followed international outrage and protests among Muslim communities over a short film trailer for Innocence of Muslims, produced by American Nakoula Basseley, which depicted Mohammed in an offensive light.

Much has happened in the world since the low-budget trailer made headlines.

Bangladeshi Muslims torched Buddhist temples and homes in reaction to a photo posted on Facebook allegedly showing a burned Qu’ran.

Assad's Syrian regime intensified airstrikes on rebel strongholds.

Hurricane Sandy brought devastation to parts of the eastern United States, causing billions of dollars of damage and killing nearly 100.

In less tragic news, the West Indies took the T20 crown and Korean rapper Psy’s Gangnam Style broke the 300 million-viewer mark.

Not that most people would know any of this, since a majority of Pakistanis have been cut off from a much relied on source of news, entertainment and just plain fun.

Criticism of Innocence of Muslims was swift and aggressive. Rows of banners reading “Behead the blasphemers” hung from gas stations across Lahore. Anti-American rhetoric has escalated as political parties attempt to cash in on hate to bank votes ahead of next year’s general election.

Leaving aside the impact of censorship on Pakistan’s political process and the damage it does to any hope of a democratic state, the YouTube ban has cut Pakistanis off from a vital communication tool.

In a country of frequent and lengthy power cuts, crumbling infrastructure, rampant poverty, suicide bombings and other targeted killings, home-based entertainment has thrived as families turn to YouTube for their beloved Indian television programs, for video blogs posted by family members, even for the viral silliness of the Gangnam dance.

I was prevented from posting a video of my son’s recent school performance – his first such experience – for the benefit of family members living abroad.

In recent remarks, the chairman of the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority said the YouTube ban would be lifted in a few weeks’ time, following the removal of sacrilegious materials.

For a small group of enterprising hackers, the ban has already been lifted.

In a recent meeting, the group boasted about unlimited access to YouTube via a readily available program that allows users to access US-based websites usually restricted to people outside the country.

This small band of “outlaws” has demonstrated an important point. The will of people desperate for information is always stronger than a government’s desire to suppress access.

Examples of this are easily found in China and Myanmar, where for decades people have found or invented alternative ways around state curbs on information. One might also point to the so-called Arab Spring.

Until Pakistan, and indeed many other nations, takes a more equitable approach to offensive material or religious dissent, the all-or-nothing approach will only fuel hatred and violence by allowing it to spread unchecked.

Silent Thinker is the pseudonym of a Lahore-based Catholic commentator
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