Censorship, the establishment’s best friend, made yet another appearance in Pakistan on Monday, April 1. Pakistan’s Central Board of Film Censors (CBFC) has banned the release of the movie "G.I. Joe 2: Retaliation." Starring big names such as Bruce Willis and Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson, the movie was scheduled to be released across theaters in Pakistan on April 5. The CBFC banned the movie under the pretext that it portrayed Pakistan as a failed state and that the fictional depiction of an infiltration of Pakistan''s nuclear installations was unacceptable. Government officials also objected to a scene depicting the assassination of the Pakistani president.
Censorship of this kind is not a new manifestation in Pakistan. Over the previous decade numerous films, websites, magazines and press releases have been either officially or unofficially banned by the Pakistani authorities. Tere Bin Laden, a satirical film that depicted a young Pakistani who shoots a video with an Osama Bin Laden lookalike to garner fame, was banned in 2010. Agent Vinod, an Indian film that depicted Pakistani spies and army generals as evil conspirators, was banned in 2012. Slackistan, a Pakistani movie, starring Pakistani actors and made in Pakistan, captured the lifestyle of the rich and affluent youth of Islamabad and was banned due to a whole host of unfounded and dubious reasons in 2011.
Freedom of access to the internet has also witnessed continuous interference by government authorities. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and a whole host of other websites (including the Rolling Stone website, the Toronto Sun website etc.) have suffered from continuous on-again off-again bans due to alleged blasphemous content posted on these websites. (YouTube still remains banned in the country).
While the government authorities have shown a renewed zeal and fanaticism in cracking down on movies and websites they consider detrimental to the Pakistani state and society over the recent past, their aims, ends and degrees of effectiveness remain unclear and highly questionable.
The massive market for pirated DVDs in existence in Pakistan means that government efforts to ban movies are merely limited to movie theatres and cinemas. It is virtually impossible for the government authorities to stem the proliferation of pirated DVDs across the numerous Pakistani movie stores. Pirated copies of almost all banned movies are easily available at movie stores across the country. With regard to the banning of certain websites, government efforts have again enjoyed very limited success. Almost all Pakistanis who access the internet have now gained the know-how of using proxy software and other clandestine means to access any of the banned websites.
A more pertinent and fundamental issue arises with regard to the questionable material — blasphemous, anti-cultural, anti-state etc. — that the banned websites and movies contain. This issue needs to be addressed more broadly. It needs to be realized that government efforts to curtail exposure to such material is counterproductive. It is high time that the Pakistani authorities realize that there will always exist entities around the world that do not conform to their culture, tradition, religion or interests. There will always remain elements that manifest these fundamental differences in ways that are offensive to us (be it via comedy, satire, or pure slander). Rather than adapting to this undeniable reality by building toleration the government, via these bans, has supplemented intolerance and a resistance to modernity and adaptability. It has succumbed and allowed itself to be dictated to by the demands and threats posed by radical right-wingers within Pakistani society, which ultimately reduces the government’s own authority and control while simultaneously propagating a culture of intolerance.
The censorship rationale of the Pakistani authorities requires a massive rethinking in favour of promoting greater tolerance. They need to generate policies that will be beneficial in the long-run, rather simply curtailing short-term opposition.