Three days ago, Pakistani musicians Adil Omar and Ali Gul Pir released a song protesting Internet censorship that has received 18,500 views on Vimeo. However, on YouTube, by far the more popular site, it had only 4,000 views. The numbers are a startling reminder that Pakistanis have been blocked from accessing YouTube, the subject of Omar and Pir’s track, ‘#KholoBC’.
YouTube has been banned in Pakistan since September 2012, when a clip titled ‘Innocence of Muslims’ began to do the rounds. The video sparked outrage across the globe for its portrayal of Prophet Muhammad as a womaniser. Violent riots in reaction to the clip left hundreds of Pakistanis injured and at least 20 dead. When YouTube refused to remove the video from its site, Pakistan’s Information Ministry was ordered by the Prime Minister to block the world's largest video-sharing website, within the country.
‘#KholoBC’ is the theme song for Pakistan For All, an organisation opposing state censorship and content regulation on the Internet. It kicked off its campaign in November, 2013, with the launch of a video entitled ‘Hugs For YouTube’, depicting a YouTube mascot merrily marching down the streets of South Karachi brandishing a placard that reads, "If you want me back, hug me."
Adil Omar and Ali Gul Pir, who made ‘#KholoBC’ , have been fans of each other’s work since 2012, but it was the ban that made them decide to collaborate. “‘#KholoBC’ was very fitting as it applied to both of us,” said Omar. “Things just evolved from there – it all happened within a two-week window, including the release.”
The battle against the ban is also being waged in the real world. In January 2013, a petition to lift the ban was submitted to the Lahore High Court by Bytes for All, Pakistan, a human rights organisation, and a network of Information and Communication Technology professionals, led by digital security expert Shahzad Ahmad. Just over a year-and-a-half and 16 hearings later, the frustrating message "Surf Safely...prohibited for viewership from within Pakistan!" still pops up on computers screens of Pakistanis trying to watch YouTube videos.
“This video came timely, a day before the YouTube case hearing in the Lahore High Court,” said Annie Zaman, a contributor to Global Voices, a site bringing together 800 citizen journalists from across the globe. “It has reminded us all once again that we have no YouTube, we are living in dark ages.”
Omar, a rapper and singer-songwriter from Islamabad, still manages to use YouTube – via a proxy server. But the ban has hurt his popularity: he doesn't have a tenth of the viral presence he did before the ban, he complained.
Like Omar, many internet users in Pakistan circumvent the ban by using proxy servers (web services that allow users to bypass internet blocks) and hotspot shields (software applications that allow users to surf the internet privately). But it's evidently a very frustrating experience, overrun with pop-up advertisements and limited to lower resolution options. This is why Pakistani content, including recent music videos, short films and documentaries, continues to go to Vimeo.
“Every artist deserves a global platform and the damage our government has done not only to our music industry, but also countless businesses, students, video directors and editors is appalling,” said Omar. “We can't give up or afford to alienate ourselves any longer. The long term effects this ban can have on various industries, individuals and even our culture, in general, could be very damaging.”
However, Haseeb Asif, a writer and blogger from Lahore, didn’t believe that the protest video would induce any real change. “The debate is far too mired in religion and the general hijacking of mainstream Pakistani discourse by the religious right,” he said. Asif said that the ban should have been opportunity to intensify the debate about freedom of speech and freedom of technology. But the authorities "have been happy to sit on the ban because YouTube was a source of great embarrassment and much too candid." Asif added, "It will take a brave judge and a court order to tackle the debate on the Islamic front.”
The hearing on the ban scheduled for February 25 was held nearly four months after the previous one, and it was the first hearing before a divisional bench. However, the Federal Minister for Information Technology, Anusha Rehman, failed to show up yet again.
The Lahore High Court has summoned Rehman again on March 11.
However, Pakistani campaigners received a shot in the arm on Wednesday, when a US court ordered YouTube to remove the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ clip after an actress said she had been tricked into appearing in it. With this, said Bytes for All, the Pakistani government had no reason to maintain the ban.