Has Pakistan’s project of shutting down the Internet ceased? After the ‘Draw the Prophet’ fiasco in June, the usually stubborn Facebook made conciliatory noises to the Pakistani authorities, promising that this kind of thing won’t happen again. The authorities in question quickly pronounced their victory, and lifted the ban. While clearly a face-saving dénouement for all involved, contrary to what’s been reported, Facebook has not actually removed any of the ‘offensive’ content. Instead, it has simply blocked access to these pages for Pakistani IP addresses, something the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) had done even before the case was brought before the Lahore High Court. The PTA also quietly restored service to the sites it had blocked early including YouTube and Wikipedia. This rollercoaster just goes round and round. Now, one ‘Muhammad Siddiq’ has petitioned the court to ban old targets like YouTube, search engine sites like Bing and Google, and – here’s a new one – Amazon, as well as the anti-organised religion site In the name of Allah.
Just how much ill-will had Facebook garnered, anyway? MillatFacebook (or MFB), a Pakistan-based social-networking newcomer that targets the ‘more than 1.57 billion Muslims and sweet people from other religions’ is betting ‘a whole lot’. Whether it will make a dent on the giant is questionable, (Facebook’s credo: ‘You can sign-out, but you can never leave’), but MFB has already attracted a few hundred thousand members. New users are greeted with ‘We are Listening you carefully’ – words that CP swears by. In an interview, CEO Omer Zaheer Meer of Global IT Vision, the company behind MillatFacebook, says that Islam has a ‘branding problem’. True, but not helped by calling the other Facebook ‘Mark Zukerberg’s Zionist FB [sic!]’ on the MFB site. Meanwhile, advocate Mohammad Azhar Siddique (why does that name sound familiar?), the chair of the Judicial Activism Panel and part of the MFB team, has filed a police case in Lahore against Zuckerberg for blasphemy, a crime that carries the death penalty. Sweet people, but this is business!
Once burned, Facebook is now also blocking access to the same pages for all users in India. A Facebook spokesperson stated that was being done in accordance with ‘local regulations, standards and customs’, implying that it was done at the request of the Indian government, though Indian officials have denied this. Not that New Delhi does not block sites deemed offensive or politically disagreeable, or that ban-happy groups have not made their own vociferous complaints to the government. The Mumbai-based Catholic Secular Forum, for instance, recently took some time off from their vital work of protesting Dan Brown franchises (gotta them credit: they take their pulp seriously) and blaming gays for molesting priests (and they have an article from a Catholic journal to prove it!) to join the fun. The Forum has officially requested New Delhi to block all Facebook pages critical of religion in general. But given that the content is still out there, though not accessible in Southasia, couldn’t the easily offended simply have avoided the pages in the first place? All very mysterious, at least to Chhetria Secular Patrakar, who’s pretty much a holey zero on all matters religious.
Kantipur is by far the largest-circulated daily in Nepal, and there is reason to believe that the Indian Embassy did not really see eye to eye with the paper’s focus when it came to India coverage – recent matters having to do with the attacks on Nepali-speakers in Assam-Meghalaya and the canal works on the Kosi said to be endangering Nepali villages. There may even have been issues related to coverage of the Nepali Maoists, in the context of the growing battle between New Delhi and the Indian Maoists. Or, as one Indian paper suggested, is it the daily’s position against the India-backed Madhav Kumar Nepal government? But, surely, none of this could be reason enough for the Indian government to work overtime to deny newsprint to a Nepali newspaper?
Apparently India’s Department of Revenue Intelligence is involved, blocking the passage over three weeks of several tons of newsprint that arrived in Calcutta port, headed for Kathmandu. The transit arrangements between the two countries allow sealed containers to arrive straight at a dry port in Nepali territory, unless there is evidence of misuse of the facility. Kantipur lost no time in making the most of the matter by making it the lead story two days running in late June. The Indian Embassy issued a belligerent note, saying that this amounted to imputing motives to a routine customs examination, and that ‘the distorted manner in which the issue has been publicised is hardly helpful in bringing about an early resolution to the customs investigations.’ At press time, it was Kantipur vs India.
Southasian governments overly concerned with what their citizens are looking at seem to be the collective flavour the month. Sri Lanka was already suffering an epidemic of quietly canoodling young couples, forcing the police of various jurisdictions to detain hundreds of youths for kissing, hugging and even holding hands! Now the Colombo government has turned its attention to the highly toxic advertisement hoardings that have been blotting up the capital city. No, these are not the political hoardings that continue to beautify the cityscape from past elections. Instead, a special department of Colombo’s police, the Bureau for the Prevention of Abuse of Children and Women, has decided to clamp down on advertisements and movie hoardings that they find indecent – typically, because they display too much skin. The Bureau has indicated that its members will go after magazine and newspaper ads next, even warning of prison sentences for offenders. As such, CP can see why the Sri Lanka press has been happily quoting President Mahinda Rajapakse’s sound bite in a recent interview to an Indian paper: ‘India … has a duty to look after us – maybe not in a Big Brother sort of way, but perhaps like its little sister.’ The Big Brother role has clearly already been assigned.
India has always been fond of censoring its cinema, and given recent moves this looks unlikely to get better anytime soon. Recently, the Draft Cinematograph Bill has particularly upset documentary filmmakers, who will now require Central Board of Film Certification (aka, the Censor Board of India, aka Little Sister) certification for screening their work. This would apply even to a screening in a private residence, empowering the police to enter such premises on suspicion. Cultural and educational institutions are most certainly covered. Despite the fact that ‘certification’ is a delightful euphemism for censorship, the move has led to consternation among filmmakers, considering the critical content of many documentary films. But to some, even this latest move is insufficient. US-based Hindu activists have been complaining that the proposed amendments don’t do enough to curb the menace of risqué scenes in today’s Bollywood fare. Instead of all these piecemeal efforts, CP thus proposes the insertion of a new clause into the law books of all Southasian countries: Whatever it is, ban it! That’ll keep everyone quiet…
In Bangladesh, the opposition-leaning daily Amar Desh has been going through some trying times indeed, having been shut down and its acting editor, Mahmudur Rahman, being remanded to police custody. In a bizarrely dramatic arrest, 200 police officers descended on the paper’s offices to arrest Rahman on the night of 1 June. Upon hearing rumours of the imminent arrest, opposition political leaders tried to intervene, but police broke through the barricaded offices, seizing both Rahman and copies of the next morning’s paper. Adding to the mystery are rumours that the Amar Desh publisher, Hashmat Ali, has been questioned by National Security Intelligence officers, after which he claimed to have washed his hands of the daily months earlier. In turn, this led the government to revoke the paper’s license to operate, on the technicality that it did not have a publisher. The government also blocked Rahman’s effort to name himself as publisher, while Ali has reportedly charged Rahman with fraud. Is all of that clear?
In fact, what appears to have drawn the government’s ire were stories on corruption and abuses of power. Meanwhile, Odhikar, a Bangladeshi human-rights watchdog, has reported allegations of Rahman being tortured and brutalised while in custody. The editor-under-fire made these charges during his court appearance, at which he is reported not even to have been able to stand up. Thereafter, the High Court stayed both the closure of the daily and the government’s efforts to block Rahman from being named publisher. While playing the forlorn father figure in this farce, the High Court justices even found it necessary to order the government not to torture Rahman while he is in detention.
Finally, a grand welcome back is overdue to Viewpoint (www.viewpointonline.net), which was recently relaunched online as an ‘activist alternative to the corporate-mainstream media’ by a group of progressive rabble-rousers from Pakistan. Viewpoint’s founder, Mazhar Ali Khan, was once part of the Faiz Ahmed Faiz-run Progressive Papers Limited (PPL) group, but resigned when PPL was ‘nationalised’ by Pakistan’s first military ruler, Ayub Khan. Mazhar Ali Khan later launched Viewpoint in 1975, captaining it through the tough years of General Zia ul-Haq’s military regime. The magazine, however, was laid to rest when Khan himself died in 1993. Though available only online at the moment, it is hoped that Viewpoint will continue to uphold the potent, progressive traditions of the print version that preceded it – that soon Pakistan can be home to progressive papers unlimited.