As an elected government completes its full term and hands power over to another elected government for the first time in Pakistan’s relatively short history, it is safe to say that the nation is well on its way to becoming a functioning democracy. However, Pakistan is still lacking a severely important, and some might even say indispensable, component of democracy — full freedom of expression.
After a long nine-month ban on YouTube — a result of the riots caused in many Muslim countries, including Pakistan, by the “Innocence of Muslims” video — Pakistanis may finally be able to watch and share videos once again on the popular site. The incoming minister for IT and Telecommunications, Anusha Rahman, a member of the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) Party, has said lifting the ban on YouTube would be one of her “top priorities” and that her ministry would start working on a web system which would filter out blasphemous and pornographic content, regardless of how difficult a task that may prove to be.
“We will pump in extra money if needed and do whatever is in our capacity to bring YouTube back to Pakistan without compromising our ethical values,” she said. However, Rahman has also made it clear that she will rely on Google to filter out its content for the country as a whole, and if they refuse as they have done in the past, Pakistan will not only keep its ban on YouTube, but will also block Google altogether “as a last resort.” Instead, she says, they will turn to the “many alternative search engines available on the web.” Where Rahman expects to find a search engine which will filter its content for Pakistan still remains unclear.
On Twitter, Rahman also made a similar statement, saying, “We need technology, but without compromising on our moral, religious and ethical values.” Expectedly, the response to this was less than stellar, with most Pakistanis pointing out the sheer absurdity of the Pakistani government even considering banning Google as a whole based on morality and ethics.
Unfortunately, limited freedom of expression is not a new phenomenon in Pakistan. Freedom of expression has been limited both by government officials such as Zardari, the former president who blocked Geo TV News and Aaj TV in 2009 when he found its coverage of political events unsatisfactory, and by religious conservative groups. In the past, an attempt to block text messages with profanity was foiled when a list of 1,700 swear words that were to be banned was leaked to a very amused yet equally aghast population.
Although Pakistan’s democracy is still in the works, the country seriously risks indelible setbacks if it follows through in its ban on Google. Without freedom of expression, it is highly unlikely that Pakistan will be able to form a real democracy.