Written by Yelmaz Mujtaba

Can Censorship Counter Terrorism?

Can Censorship Counter Terrorism? by Yelmaz Mujtaba

As the world continues to transition into the digital age, globally the fight against terror is being fought on more fronts than just the physical battlefield. As states attempt to balance matters of national security and a democratic way of life, the two are often presented as either-or options.  We are told we can either choose our freedom or our national security—a false dilemma.

Internet regulation in most countries has now become a matter of simply censoring the web to prevent access to content deemed inappropriate by governments. This, however, is far from the only mechanism available to bolster security.

It is an attractive idea because if we don’t think too hard, blanket censorship appears to be a political no-brainer. It allows governments to avoid addressing the underlying social problem—a long and costly process—and instead simply pass the buck to internet providers, who can quickly make whatever content has raised heckles ’go away’. Problem solved. Except, of course, that it isn’t.

Among  the spectrum of issues web censorship is expected to solve are terrorism, child abuse, perceived immorality, and copyright enforcement and trademark infringement. This is a recurrent tactic—employed in vain—used by states around the world.

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In Britain, for example, ISPs have been called upon to block extremist content, with major players such as Google, Facebook and Twitter being enlisted to help carry out the same. The four largest ISPs in the UK in November did agree a deal with the government to block “extremist” content. An action that has come under considerable consideration censure since. Substantial portions of that criticism are down to the fact there has been little disclosure over what mechanisms are to be used to block content, specifically with regards to the definition of the sort of content that needs to be blocked, why there is no judicial involvement over the matter, or what methods of accountability and transparency shall be used to ensure such powers will not be abused.

The situation in Pakistan is worse. We have seen the definitions and understanding of terms such as terrorism and immoral content is at best horribly skewed, and at worst entirely non-existent. When these definitions are used to filter and consciously ban content, the result is a wilful suppression of the rights of specific groups.  Groups which are more often than not working towards eliminating the root causes of terrorism such as intolerance or highlighting excesses by either the government or other groups.

Websites that track the Shia genocide in Pakistan have been banned, while Facebook and Twitter accounts of spokespersons of terrorist outfits flourish out in the open . We saw that sort of callous and hypocritical approach in action quite recently when social activist Jibran Nasir and a group of supporters were protesting the killings of Shias and the refusal of groups such as Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) to condemn such acts. For their protest, Nasir and his supporters were arrested and placed in a temporary holding cell.

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ASWJ Twitter Account
Screenshot of ASWJ's Twitter Account

ASWJ, a banned off-shoot of a banned terrorist organization Sipah-e-Sahaba, still functions without any hindrance and still refuses to condemn acts of atrocities against minorities, instead, it oft encourages and justifies them. The ASWJ continues to protest without any hint of a crackdown against them by the government, despite it being a banned organization since a few years. Such hypocrisy on behalf of the government is ably demonstrated online by the continued presence of twitter accounts associated with banned terror groups. While accounts are suspended, like of @omarkhorasani1 or are discontinued with a change of spokesperson, some continue to exist amid their very public claims of association with outlawed groups such as Umar Khorasani (https://twitter.com/mumarkhorasani) whose Twitter page links him to Jamaatul Ahrar.

 

Facebook pages such as Roshnipk.com, an Urdu language based page that propagated religious tolerance, have been banned and have been repeatedly been clamped down upon by the government each time they attempted to rise from the ashes. Roshni in particular provided a counter narrative to the governance of Pakistan, promoting a more tolerant government and society.

As seen internationally, efforts to effectively censor the internet act to violate individual’s right to access. The Orwellian concept of thought crime is not and should never be criminalized in any democratic state, and that is essentially what the Pakistani Government has embarked upon.

It is clear that the Pakistani government’s claim of acting only to curb violence and terrorism through online censorship remains false. Rather, the censorship policies of the government silence peaceful voices more so, perhaps because those voices don’t fight back with violence. Groups such as banned outfits Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan continue to further consolidate their online presence.

Having established loopholes in justifications offered by the Pakistani state to censor the web, it is imperative to understand online content can never be effectively blocked from access. Justice Mansoor Ali Shah echoed a similar sentiment in his Lahore High Court interim order regarding the ban on YouTube. Legitimate channels such as proxies and Virtual Private Networks exist and circumvent the censorship of material with minimal effort. If an individual wishes to contact the TTP or the LeJ via the internet, it is as easy today as it ever has been, if not easier.

The Orwellian concept of thought crime should never be criminalised in any democratic state, and that is essentially what the Pakistani government has embarked upon. Such a policy is all the more counterintuitive considering the government seems to be more focused on drowning out the thoughts and voices of the more pluralistic segment of society rather than the violent vitriol that has caused our country to end up on the path it currently is on.

Unfortunately, it seems as if our government has decided instead of addressing the root causes of growing social problems, it will embark upon a futile and token mission to appear as if it is seriously attempting to tackle extremism. Not only is censoring the internet ineffective in combating terrorism, it is also harmful as it leads to a point where unregulated, extra-judicial and repressive blocking drowns out all counter-narratives on governance, which will potentially lead to the death of our ‘democratic’ statehood.

Don’t be mistaken, the argument here is not to let terrorism burgeon; it is that to get rid of such a malaise it is absolutely essential to find the point of ignition, the spark or sparks which allow terrorism to take root and flourish. It is high time our government takes serious measures to counter terrorism, but blocking a page or even a million pages affiliated with terrorists on Twitter will not curb terrorism. The government needs to stop using the war on terror as an excuse for conducting arbitrary censorship.

Just blocking TTP on Twitter or Vimeo will not end the threat and the scourge of the Taliban. By saying that it will, the government is doing nothing but attempting to veil its own inadequacies and inability to effectively identify and resolve the issues which gave birth to rampant terrorism in the first place. If such measures are allowed, they will continuously be used as a face-saving tactic while the powers that be dilly dally around actual issues.

Yelmaz Waris Mujtaba is a Program & Research Associate at Bolo Bhi. He has completed his Bachelors in Law from the University of London International Programme. He has represented Pakistan at numerous international youth-based events stretching from the United States of America to Australia. He has an avid interest in sports, writing, and Public International Law.