Newspaper Articles

The Facebook shame – by Ahmad Rafay Alam

source : The News

There’s a new joke doing the rounds: what’s the difference between Facebook and the Lashkar-e-Taiba? Answer: Facebook is banned in Pakistan.

The Lahore High Court’s un-technical appreciation of social networking sites, the mechanics of the Internet and its order to enforce a ban on Facebook are matched only by ludicrousness of the petition seeking the ban and the offensive prank that started this entire episode.

Here’s another joke doing the rounds: Facebook has nothing to worry about. It can always re-appear under another name (Jamaat-ul-Facebook, anyone?).

In Muhammad Mahboob vs The State (PLD 2002 Lahore 587), Mr Justice Ali Nawaz Chohan, dismissed evidence that had convicted a man of blasphemy as “unbelievable”. While doing so, the court quoted an article, “What is Blasphemy”, by Ayaz Amir on February 27, 2002 (when Ayaz Sahib wrote for another paper): “The greatest blasphemy of all is a child going hungry, a child condemned to the slow death of starvation. The miscarriage of justice is blasphemy. Misgovernment is blasphemy. An unconscionable gap between rich and poor is blasphemy. Denial of treatment to the sick, denial of education to the child, are alike examples of blasphemy.”

My friend Adil Najam posted the following on Pakistaniat.com (“Facebook Fiasco: What would Muhammad (PBUH) do?”: “The one thing I am absolutely positive of, is that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) would not have done what we are doing now: making an international public spectacle of ourselves. Most likely he would have just walked away and ignored (as he did those who threw garbage on him), he might have negotiated with Facebook on the basis of their own stated rules (the Hudabia model), he might have reasoned with the detractors. Nearly certainly Muhammad (PBUH) would have handled it with grace and with composure. Most importantly, the Prophet (PBUH) would have kept focusing on his own actions and proving his point with his own deeds rather than with slogans and banners.”

One thing about this entire banning Facebook ado is the level of organisation displayed across the country. I may not agree with what they have managed to do, but I do appreciate that they could use Facebook (as many did) to organise their protests. Today I learn that the women’s wing of the Jamat-e-Islami is organising a protest against Facebook. Never mind that it has just been reported that a teenager was raped for four months in Lahore, the ladies of the JI (women’s wing) have something to protest on this sunny May day.

We are a country entirely devoid of a sense of irony. Just before the PTA got around to enforcing the ban, someone I know updated her Facebook profile to inform people how pleased she was that Facebook had been banned.

I have used Facebook over the last year and a half to promote a cycling initiative aimed at raising awareness about sustainable urban planning, public transport and the importance of public space. Each week, friends and I would post onto our Facebook page, Critical Mass Lahore, inviting others to come join us for our trips through and around the city. In Islamabad and Karachi, too, urban activists used Facebook to promote similar cycling events in their cities. At the beginning of this year, the Shehr section of this paper’s News on Sunday pages, voted Critical Mass Lahore and Zimmedar Shehri as two of the best things to have happened to Lahore in 2009. Zimmedar Shehri also used Facebook to launch and manage its incredibly popular campaign to get your hands dirty, literally, and clean up the country. Rise Pakistan, another social activism organisation with over 10,000 Facebook members, is also rendered paralysed. Someone I know runs their business on Facebook. Well, her business has been halted by the High Court order.

There is simply no justification – legal, ethical, moral, religious – for the High Court to have ordered a ban on the social network page. Our law is crystal clear: A person’s rights cannot be impinged upon without notice. There are well over 40 million Facebook users in Pakistan. The alleged blasphemy is supposed to be taking place in the United States. Under what legal framework is it permissible for the rights of the overwhelming majority of lawful users of Facebook to be affected in this way? As a lawyer, I fail to understand both the petition and the High Court’s order.

This morning, via a text message sent to me by my mobile phone provider, I was informed that, on account of the High Court decision, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority had also ordered the shutting down of Blackberry’s messenger service. What common sense is being applied here? I have a contract with my mobile phone provider which, to my knowledge, neither my provider nor I have violated. I am at a loss to understand what legal justification exists to deprive me of my contractual rights. And it’s not just about me: what legal sense is there in taking an action that has an immediately detrimental effect to the work of thousands of Pakistanis.

There is now news that the free open-source encyclopaedia Wikipedia, has been shut down. There are also rumours to the effect that Youtube, which is a website which I use to watch television programmes and download the intellectually stimulating Ted Talks, have been blocked by the PTA as well.

Our response to the derogatory and blasphemous acts of others has been to harm only ourselves. The Lahore High Court is party to this shoot-yourself-in-the-foot approach. As someone said, banning Facebook is just like taking to Mall Road with Molotov cocktails. Except, in this case, the protagonists came from the gates of justice.

Manuel Castells once said that technology can be determined by political ideology. He referred to the ENIAC as an example: if Soviet Russia had the same technology as the scientists at MIT, they would not have used that technology to come up with an iPad. They would have used the technology, for sure, but their political ideology would not have directed in the direction of personal communication devices.

Taking Castells’ example, I often remind people that, in Pakistan, we still do not manufacture televisions (we do assemble them, but bear with me). This is despite the fact that we have the technology to do so. The reason we don’t is because we are still stuck in a political philosophy that believes that television is a medium by which “alien culture” is allowed to infiltrate our own. We will never be able to achieve technical capacity unless our political ideology allows us to. Now, with the High Court joining the chorus of misunderstanding on the issue of Facebook, I wonder how we will ever progress.

The writer is an advocate of the high court and a member of the adjunct faculty at LUMS. He has an interest in urban planning. Email: ralam@nexlinx.net.pk