By Reem Wasay –
After YouTube ban come restrictions on late night telephone chat and texting services
It is not uncommon to see young Pakistanis lash out at their government and society on social media websites for that truly is the one platform left where they can, unabashedly, blow some steam and say it like it is. For this generation of teenyboppers and twenty-somethings, Pakistan is becoming an increasingly airless and unanimated space, dominated by regressive policies and stunted growth.
The latest ‘ban’ to ruffle some angst has been the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) welcoming itself to police the relatively untouched domain of chat services offered by various mobile companies at specifically targeted cheap rates. This has resulted in an all out stoppage of such chat services leaving many youngsters caught between a rock and a hard place.
The PTA’s draconian scrutiny transgressed into the widely accessible world of cellular packages back in November last year when it left many high and dry after disconnecting them from late night call packages. These call and sms packages were, at the time, advertised as bumper deals at unbelievably low prices, some of the cheapest in the world. This allowed for a majority of Pakistan’s masses, unable to afford the daytime and peak hour rates, to talk and text into the wee hours.
At the same time, such packages were a welcome release for young Pakistanis, devoid of almost all kinds of recreational and dating opportunities, to safely indulge in chatting and texting with the opposite sex without fear of punishment. Now that those packages have been made a thing of the past, it is the turn of chatting services to be beaten back into the realm of ‘unrighteous’ and ‘corruptible’. Needless to say, many people are finding these measures, taken by an organ of the state, as harsh, unnecessary and heavy-handed.
“Most of the conversations I had with my girlfriend were on the phone late at night. We could talk for hours without the glare of watchful eyes but now, apart from snatched minutes to meet once in a blue moon, we hardly talk and have grown apart,” says Shahbaz, a student in one of Lahore’s prominent engineering universities. Such sentiments are common in the country; dating is still seen as part of an ‘evil’ western lifestyle and, in many segments of society, segregation is preferred to free mingling of the sexes. That is why the late night packages were so popular: they provided recreational romance and cellular dating in a country that is facing increased censorship and state control.
The sealing off of late night call packages was hoped by many to be the end of moral policing on mobile phone networks but this latest crackdown on chat services has caught many off guard and left them indignant for a way out. “We are always wary now of what new directive will be thrown our way by the powers that be,” says a senior manager in one of Pakistan’s leading cellular companies,
“Most of our business peaked during the small hours of the morning with more people making calls than at any other time of the day. Besides, we now think twice before launching any new deal, any new package of customer convenience because we don’t know when the PTA will start itching to find something to do and target cellular companies again.”
It seems that the proverbial ‘itch’ has hit the censorship industry hard in Pakistan of late, where everything from YouTube and pornographic websites to chat services and certain words and terminologies used in text messages have been blocked.
There are many theories that exist and many rationales that are posted online, a favoured one being that the government prefers to make freedom of speech defunct on the only forum where it is practiced (online) so that any criticism against it can never really get off the ground. The drive against pornography, dating chat rooms and call packages seem to come from Pakistan’s ever-growing shift towards far-right ideology. In a country wracked by terror attacks by the Taliban, an outfit dedicated to bringing an oppressive form of Sharia law to the country, the state’s forces are beginning to view conservative leanings as the only way to remain safe and ‘godly’.
This is having an adverse effect on the youth who face either of two extremes: join the ranks of the growing Islamist school of thought or engage in ‘illicit’ activities because they have been made illegal by a state that does not take the problems faced by the youth into account. When they choose the latter, as they often do, the psychological effect is cringe-worthy: because of the banned status of many recreational activities, young people feel like outlaws.
Dominated by a culture fervently rushing towards the gilded cage of regressive measures, the citizens are finding it hard to deliberate a middle ground. There is a growing trend of Wahabbi everything, from puffy hijab dos sported by many women who cover their hair and to Al-Bakistan number plates on fresh new cars, a brand of Islam, no doubt, supported by Saudi petrodollars. With an environment monopolized by righteously coined terror attacks and a strict interpretation of religion keenly mixed with hipster Saudi fashion trends, the blockage of entertainment escapes has served to re-dignify the kind of mindset that has been putting black marker to scantily clad magazine images for decades now.
YouTube is still blocked even though it has been over a year since the release of the anti-Islam film, posted on the site, which led the authorities to shut it down. More people in Pakistan use YouTube in Pakistan for information and educational purposes than for entertainment or access to objectionable material.
However, the ban stands, the case against it being referred to the Supreme Court just last week. The closure of late night call packages is still alive and kicking with no hopes for cellular companies to see their profits increase. Facebook comes under frequent fire but has managed to elude the authorities since its two-week ban in May 2011.
News is just filtering in of a prestigious private school in Lahore having to cut short a new subject for high-schoolers on comparative religion because the Punjab government has imposed, you guessed it, a ban on what it thinks is a course designed to ‘convert’ students from the faith of Islam. There is no stopping this megalomaniacal cycle; it seems, the facilities provided by cellular companies are just one more notch on the rung towards misguided sanctity.
The writer is a journalist based in Lahore