First Published on DAWN.com
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Global Voices is an international community of bloggers who blog on social issues, current events and other topics from around the world. It was an overwhelming experience to be a part of a community of over two hundred and fifty citizen journalists from sixty countries. But more importantly, it was an honour to represent my country at a globally-recognised forum. The panel of speakers included also citizen journalists from Sri Lanka, Russia and China, and the topic of discussion was “The Rise of Citizen Media” in our respective countries.
When I received the invite to be one of the speakers at Global Voices, I decided to use the opportunity to highlight the positive aspects of my country and my people, some of whom have been doing great work through social media and by using Information and Communication Technology (ICT) tools.
Despite the twenty-eight hour flight and being severely jetlagged, as I had landed just a few hours before the summit, I couldn’t help but think about the damage internet censorship has caused in countries where it is practised. As I heard my fellow panelists from China and Russia talk about living under strict censorship, it was hard to imagine living in a country where internet was being monitored and authorities tracked every online activity – it was baffling. It certainly must be one hell of a challenge to survive in a country with such strict laws.
As part of the panel of speakers, I spoke about the civil society and how activists and bloggers had moved away from their virtual world and worked on ground in times like the IDP crisis and helping the earthquake victims. But mostly, I spoke about the role of citizen media in Pakistan during the crackdown on media when Pervez Musharraf was in power. Towards the end, I requested everyone to look beyond the Taliban and the war in the country and to look at Pakistanis as individuals and appreciate the positive and bright aspects of the country. Once I concluded my speech, the audience applauded and I felt as though all of them felt the dire need of changing perceptions and breaking boundaries. Although I spoke for just ten minutes, I felt that I had done little, if not a lot, in helping people think differently and change their perceptions of Pakistan as depicted in the media.
Citizen media in the country is a diverse community of individuals, connecting, sharing and campaigning and fighting for different causes. Unfortunately though the Lahore High Court has decided to silence these voices by passing orders that will allow the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to monitor online activities on search engines such as Yahoo, Google, MSN, Hotmail, YouTube, Amazon and BING, and block over 10,428 websites.
The reason behind the monitoring websites is to look for blasphemous and un-Islamic content. When a few of us advocated our rights to self-regulation and took a stance against internet censorship, only a handful had joined in or understood the underlying fears. We feared that the ban on Facebook would eventually become a blanket ban on internet in Pakistan. Such a ban gives authorities the ability to sabotage our freedom even if it is in the virtual world. Pakistan now stands in the same league as China and Russia, and I now face the same dilemma as my fellow-speakers from the summit.
Do we, as citizens of this country, have the right to even hold an opinion? Will we have the opportunity to engage with people without being scrutinised? Will we ever be able to truly respect the right to self-regulation as a nation? The crackdown on the internet appears to be more of a political ploy than a religious one. But like all other things, we love using the religion card to strengthen our stance and to silence opposition. For all those bent on moral-policing the internet in the name of religion, please pay some heed to the thousands of child porn websites that are still accessible in Pakistan, none of which have been mentioned in 10,428 sites to be banned. When will we learn to prioritise?