Mobile phone service providers across the country must, under orders from the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA), prevent the texting, over the vast network system, of some 1,600 words and also submit a monthly report on this. The idea is to control morality. This, of course, is absurd and the entire exercise is also an obviously futile one. It boggles the mind to consider how this collection of ‘offensive language’ was compiled and by whom. We are under threat of becoming the laughing stock of the world. Some of the ‘banned’ words — such as ‘idiot’ or ‘fairy’ or ‘deeper’ can, of course, be used in an entirely innocuous fashion.
But this, of course, is besides the point. The problem we face here is not the ludicrousness of the measure taken, or the choice of words placed on the list, but the fact that such a measure has been taken at all. This is the first time the PTA has made any effort to control the content of text messages on grounds of controlling obscenity. The organisation has lately also made an effort to ban internet access to sites it deems pornographic — even though such material can be obtained in many different ways. The issue that arises here is the effort to bar free speech, free choice and impinge on the privacy of persons communicating between themselves. It is also a fact that what one individual sees as objectionable, may be perfectly acceptable to another. The judgment on this cannot, and must not, be dictated by an outside authority whose actions threaten to turn our country into an Orwellian State. Instead, communications authorities should focus their efforts on providing better and more efficient services to consumers rather than acting as a moral policing force.
We need more civil society protests. Some campaigners, such as the group, Bytes for All, have objected to the clampdown on freedom in cyber space. They need to be joined by other groups so that the basic principle of free expression can be upheld and we retain the right to call ourselves a full-fledged democracy.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 22nd, 2011.*