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Rock Bands, Facebook, And The Crackdown On Digital Free Speech In Pakistan

The Pakistani rock band Laal performs at a concert. The band has repeatedly fallen afoul of government censors. CREDIT: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
The Pakistani rock band Laal performs at a concert. The band has repeatedly fallen afoul of government censors. CREDIT: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

For the truth you are flogged and imprisoned, our lives are trapped in the grip of lies,” croons the lead singer of Laal, one of Pakistan’s most courageous and popular — albeit unconventional — rock music bands. With a name that literally translates to “Red,” the group is known for singing socialist and progressive political songs that invoke the spirit of revolution and appeal for social change. But advocating for such issues is a risky business in Pakistan. The band has repeatedly fallen afoul of the country’s strict censors.

“How can a mere music band be a threat to the state and the nationalist agenda of the country?” Taimur Rahman, the band’s lead vocalist said in an email to ThinkProgress. “The fact is that the banning of Laal represents the extreme paranoia on the part of the state in curtailing any form of dissent, critical thinking, or freedom of expression.”

The band’s Facebook page was blocked in June 2014 at the request of government censors, leaving its 400,000 followers in the dark about its activities. Laal already played many of its concerts in spontaneous and often secretive shows because of security concerns, but the restriction of its Internet profile angered fans. Few believe that Laal was conducting illegal activities through its Facebook page, and many see the crackdown on the band as part of a broader campaign to silence dissent.

A new cybercrime bill is the latest in what many freedom of speech activists see as a systemic, government-led effort to snuff out those critical of it. Recently tabled by Pakistan’s legislature, the bill was introduced as part of a national action plan devised in response to the Peshawar school attack in January, which left close to 150 people dead. Its supporters defend the measure as a way to track the online activities by terrorist organizations — but that notion is contested by civil society groups.

How can a mere music band be a threat to the state and the nationalist agenda of the country?

Shahzad Ahmad of Bytes for All, an Internet freedom organization that’s leading a campaign against the cybercrime bill, said that the bill signals a turn towards the worst.

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“The proposed cybercrime bill is a step towards the Orwellian times that we have been foreseeing for a long time,” he said in an e-mail. “Despite the fact that activists and journalists continue being silenced with impunity as if it were a norm, laws such as this further ensure legalized traps for fundamental rights, just in case there’s still space for free speech, privacy, assembly, association or alternative political or religious discourse.”

Activists have repeatedly come under fire in recent years. Sabeen Mahmud, a prominent women’s and human rights’ activist was shot dead last month after hosting a controversial event on a separatist movement in Pakistan. Earlier this week, Bernadette L. Dean, an education reformer, left Pakistan after she received death threats for her work on a project to rework school textbooks which often promote extremist ideologies. The country is among the most deadly to be a journalist according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“When cybercrime is equated with cyberterrorism — of which the world has seen very few examples — it becomes very easy to subject the Internet and other digital spaces to the fetters of reactive national action plans for counterterrorism in the country. But this also goes on to show the lack of understanding of technology on behalf of the government,” added Ahmad. “Making things worse, the Government’s haste while producing legislation behind closed doors also indicates that the authorities understand that this work may be perceived as too draconian to be accepted by all stakeholders. It is unfortunate that the desire for unlimited controls and power tends to overwrite fundamental rights.”

During the first six months of 2014, the Pakistani government requests to block content on Facebook increased by 19 percent compared to the previous six months. Content removal requests exceeded by far the new content posted to the cite. According to Facebook’s Global Government Requests Report for July to December 2014, India topped the list of countries from where Facebook removed content, followed by and Turkey and Pakistan. Up from the 162 pieces of content removed in the latter half of 2013, 1,773 pieces were censored in the first half of 2014 in Pakistan.

Pakistan completely blocked access to YouTube throughout the country in late 2012, after its hosting of the Innocence of Muslims, a movie that sparked furious protests around the world. The Supreme Court in Pakistan ruled at the time that the site should be banned until a method was agreed upon to block all content deemed “blasphemous.” Government officials recently said that the video-streaming site would remain banned “indefinitely.”

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But not all government officials support such restrictions on Internet access that would only increase with the cybercrime bill. Imran Khan, a popular political leader and chairman of Pakistan’s opposition Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI) is among its detractors.

“PTI has serious objections to the form of the bill and will be introducing amendments,” Khan said in an email. “We have to balance requirements of regularizing cyber activity with basic freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. We must also take the concerns of all the legitimate stake holders into account. The present form of the bill is draconian in nature and liable to massive abuse by the state.”

He takes issue with the fact that the proposed bill threatens freedom of speech through ad hoc censorship guidelines, but in fact also allows invasion of user privacy through unchecked access to citizens’ data. It provides the government with the arbitrary right to block access to “inappropriate content” and mete out punishments including prison sentences to those implicated. Given that Pakistan has witnessed dictatorship for 33 years of its 68-year history, digital activists on Twitter have gone to the extent of dubbing this cybercrime bill a form of e-martial law.

“Whilst the structure and ubiquity that digital platforms lend to extremist activities is a genuine concern, the question to ask is whether passing such a bill will significantly obstruct communication that often facilitates these acts of violence?’ Ali Khan, Associate Professor and Department Chair for Humanities and Social Sciences at one of Pakistan’s top universities, the Lahore School of Management Sciences, wrote in an email. “By institutionalizing the clamp down on freedom of speech, veiled by fragile legal layering, there is a high probability that the impact of this bill on mitigating extremism will be less, rather on violating fundamental human rights and criminalizing online activity in an ad hoc way much more.”

For Farieha Aziz of Bolo Bhi, a civil society organization that promotes Internet freedom and privacy in Pakistan, whether or not the bill passes isn’t the point. She believes that the Pakistani government needs to accept that the passing of such bills undermines the notion of democracy — and proves that corruption and lack of accountability reign supreme.

“The point is not that the law doesn’t pass but rather that it is drafted with input, does not repeat mistakes of the previous version is effective and yet doesn’t subvert due process & trample basic rights,” she said in an e-mail.

Having been subjected already to government censors, Taimur Rahman of Laal has a personal take on the matter.

“I am a Pakistani citizen, and I’m guaranteed certain rights under the constitution, the Government and State should be protecting my rights as a Pakistani.”

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He thinks passing the cybercrime bill would be an affront not only to his constitutional rights, but to more fundamental human rights.

Saba Karim studied anthropology at University of Oxford. She currently works in Doha, Qatar.