Must Pakistan – or perhaps one should say specifically its government, its political leaders, its judiciary, its military and its bureaucrats – continue to make an ass of itself? Must it circumvent any attempt to make the world forget that we can be the most absurd cretins in the world?
Graphic by Nick Bilton (Source: New York Times)
Barely had the memory of the Lahore High Court-imposed Facebook ban faded from the collective global ‘News of the Weird’ consciousness that we were struck with the Twitter ban, which the Ministry of Information Technology people told us was because of “blasphemous and inflammatory content” on the site.
(Update: I had almost finished writing this post when news came in that the Twitter ban had been lifted but am posting this in any case in the off-chance that someone within the corridors of policy-making might read and prevent a recurrence of such ineptitude.)
According to this Express Tribune story:
“Pakistan’s government had asked Twitter to stop a discussion on Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), which was considered derogatory, [PTA Chairman Dr Mohammad] Yaseen said, adding that “Twitter refused our request.””
Now, you would have to be totally unaware of what Twitter is and how it works to think the above statement makes any sense whatsoever. Imagine, if you will, the government asking a cell phone company to stop people SMS-ing each other anything derogatory about the Prophet. The only way it would be possible for the cell phone company to enforce such a ‘request’ would be to either read each and every single SMS from the billions that go out from within its network or to simply ban any SMSes that used the word ‘Prophet’ or ‘Muhammad’ or ‘Mohammad’ or ‘Mohd’ or any other possible variation (and there would still be ways to circumvent it), which would of course block all Islamic SMSes as well. Any cell phone company would obviously ‘refuse’ the government’s request, simply because it would not be possible to implement.
Of course I am not even touching upon the concept of ‘free speech’ (and which particularly protects ‘speech’ that one disagrees with or finds offensive) which is integral to rational societies and which would be another reason for Twitter to refuse to censor something even if it could. But this is a concept which is obviously is too lofty an argument for the cretins in officialdom to understand.
In any case, I am more than sure that there is not a single person within the so-called ‘Ministry of Information Technology’ who is on Twitter or even has a passing knowledge of it.
In all likelihood, given the storm of outrage and mocking it has unleashed, the ban will not last very long. But let’s look at what this ban has actually achieved:
1. It has given free global publicity to offensive material that most people – including us – were not even aware of.
2. It has shown that those in Pakistan who are supposed to manage information technology actually have no clue what they are in charge of. They are obviously also clueless about the ease with which such bans can be circumvented (it took us and others a total of five minutes to get around it.)
3. It has made Pakistan a target of mocking all around the world yet again as a country that cannot be rational, trust its citizens or tolerate any opinions that don’t fit in with its own.
4. It has made an issue out of a non-issue (most people were unaware of the material as pointed out above) and in that given oxygen to precisely those obscurantist elements who use these things to fan the flames of bigotry and intolerance, both within Pakistan and abroad. Note that there had been NO protests before the Ministry of Information Technology drew attention to this ‘issue’ but that with its ineptitude it has ensured that it is now on the radar for all rent-a-crowd mullahs and will embolden those racists who enjoy provoking all Muslims.
5. It has shown that any flimsy excuse can be used to censor opinions, particularly political opinions, that the government of the day is uncomfortable with. Because at the end of the day, it’s not alleged blasphemers and pornographers who suffer from Pakistani bans, but common people expressing their personal views, on Twitter, Facebook or on blogs, outside the more easily controlled corporate media.
Let me draw another analogy for our esteemed policy makers. If, on the street, someone were to go around particularly eavesdropping on conversations among random groups of people to check if anyone were using foul language so that he could berate them, or more closely, telling everyone to shut up because he had heard some people using foul language, we would consider such a person a lunatic. Unfortunately, that is exactly what the people at the Ministry of Information Technology have proved themselves to be, overzealous lunatics. It’s about time bureaucrats realize that we cannot police the entire world and, more importantly, that there is no need to.