Focus on internet and human rights in Pakistan: Interview with Bytes for All

By Alan Finlay

“The media in Pakistan has been tardy to address threats to internet freedom. This has especially been the case with the Urdu media. There is little to no coverage of internet rights violations and bans imposed by the government of Pakistan on the electronic media,” says Bytes for All in an interview related to a forthcoming report the group wrote for the Global Information Society Watch.

APCNews: You point out in your report that Pakistan faces crisis after crisis, relating to a host of factors, including politics, religion, economics, its strategic position in the US’s “war on terror”, and so on. Does the Pakistani government see the internet as a threat to its ability to hold onto power in this context?

Bytes for All: Censorship is not new in Pakistan; there is a history of censoring the newspapers, magazines, public opinion (speeches and articles), songs and other such material a long time before the internet was introduced in Pakistan. Repeated martial laws and constant intervention of the military in the affairs of democratic governments lent the Pakistani government a culture of controlling the flow of information. Over the last decade when the youth of Pakistan adopted a new medium in the shape of the internet, government authorities started trying a futile exercise to control it too by deciding what one can see or say on the internet. Excessive controls on the internet and increasing use of the “Kill Switch” on communications – especially in the Balochistan province – shows that they feel threatened by open communications channels.

APCNews: As in many countries, religion plays a strong part in governance and policy-making in Pakistan. The internet is no different — to what extent does the Pakistani government take human rights seriously in policy-making when it comes to the information society? Or do the ethical codes of Islam take precedence over certain human rights requirements, such as freedom of speech and expression?

Bytes for All: Unfortunately, religion is used and abused in several ways in day-to-day life in Pakistan. The government of Pakistan is also aware of the high level influence religion enjoys in the society. This is why all the dictators in the past, and the current government as well, have tried to exploit it by starting a wave of censorship on the basis of banning anything which they consider goes against religion. This approach lets them sell the idea of censorship to the masses. This is how we have seen censorship as a policy get popular acceptance in society and then gradually widened its scope to control political discourse. This proves that the ethical codes of religion take precedence over constitutional provisions and certain human rights, such as freedom of speech and expression in Pakistan.

APCNews: In many countries the mainstream or traditional media seems to largely ignore internet rights issues. This is curious, given the rapid convergence of media industries happening. One would think, with a history of struggling for independence from state interference, that they would take online rights issues more seriously. Why do you think they lag behind in advocating for internet rights in the way they might for other media rights?

Bytes for All: The situation is the same in Pakistan as well; mainstream and traditional media is ignorant about internet rights issues in Pakistan. The media in Pakistan has been tardy to address threats to internet freedom. This has especially been the case with the Urdu (national language) media. There is little to no coverage of internet rights violations and bans imposed by the government of Pakistan on the electronic media. The print media as a whole also ignores these issues, but at least a few individuals are able to get op-ed columns published on the matter in different newspapers. The main reason why mainstream media is ignoring this important platform is that they are not aware of its effectiveness as yet. While the print and electronic media is very proactive when any threat of censorship looms on them, they ignore internet censorship.

APCNews: You make the following interesting argument in your report: that restricting internet rights not only adversely impacts on other rights, but “reduces the overall quality of life for citizens”. I think that these are important links which concretely make a case for taking internet rights seriously. Can you elaborate on your argument here?

Bytes for All: Internet rights have become a key indicator to gauge the situation of civil liberties that a society enjoys in a country in the modern day world.

As we stated in the report, the importance of internet rights is no longer limited to freedom of expression and opinion. Restricting internet freedom now adversely affects many other rights – in areas such as education, economy, health, women’s rights, participation in policy-making, freedom of association and peaceful assembly – and reduces the overall quality of life for citizens. 

It’s a well-established fact that societies where you are not allowed to access the desired information or express yourself on any platform are generally oppressive and this oppression doesn’t end there but affects the other basic human rights as well. The internet is now a platform which not only houses a huge resource of information, but people are doing small business through social media, political parties are starting to use this medium to spread their agenda, and it is used for education, e-governance, economy, health.

APCNews: In Pakistan, civil society needs to be proactive in lobbying for a free internet. What are the most important things it should do now?

Bytes for All: Raising awareness should be an essential duty of civil society about the importance of freedoms on the internet in the country by linking it with other basic human rights. This can be done by campaigning actively in the print and electronic media to educate the masses about their rights and how the government can distort the basic rights of free expression and opinion by blocking content on the internet. Other than that active lobbying is very important, by engaging with progressive voices present in Parliament, to streamlining the agenda of internet freedom by using the existing system and educating parliamentarians about the importance of the essential right of free expression and opinion.

Most of all there should be an active and unapologetic condemnation of every government action which goes against the basic right of free speech guaranteed to the citizens of Pakistan.

Note: The full GISWatch 2011 Update I report will be released mid-October.