Pakistan, a country with
around 20 million internet users, is now heading towards a move to install a
firewall and filter ‘undesirable’ websites and content.
On Feb 22, 2012, the ICT
R&D Fund under the Ministry of Information Technology announced through
newspapers and their website a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a national
“URL filtering and blocking system”.
The $10 million project
has sought national and international proposals to block and filter internet
to make all ‘undesirable’ and ‘restricted’ sites inaccessible for
internet users under a sophisticated censorship mechanism on networks of all
operating companies in the country. The system aims at blocking up to 50
million web addresses without defining and explaining what is
‘objectionable’ and ‘undesirable’.
The rather transparent
advertisement reads: “A national URL filtering and blocking system is,
therefore, required to be deployed at national IP backbone of the country.
The system would be indigenously developed within Pakistan and deployed at
IP backbones in major cities like Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. Any other
city could be added in future.”
As the debate on
censorship heated up after this advertisement, the National ICT&RD Fund
extended the date of submission of proposals for the internet blocking
The social media, believed
to be the major affectee if this move materialises, has already initiated
damage control measures. Sana Saleem, chief operating officer (COO) of Bolo
Bhi (Speak Up) blog, has initiated a peaceful international campaign against
this silently-planned filtration of firewall. “Historically, this country
has witnessed authoritarian attitudes, specifically in terms of internet
censorship in the name of ‘national interest’. We have a loose
definition of national interest and it is easy to misuse it for certain
purposes and blocking other peaceful opinions,” she tells TNS. She says
the governments do it around the world and this is happening even in
countries like America where the civil society is protesting.
“We are campaigning
against such policies and, with the help of international civil society, we
are asking the global companies to refuse such bids by the Pakistani
government,” says Saleem.
Sana Saleem and other
civil society groups have managed a global campaign in collaboration with
US-based group Access, Global Network Initiative, Business Human Rights
Resource Centre, Electronic Frontier Foundation and others to pressurise the
government to stop this plan.
New York-based NGO Access
has launched a public petition which has already been signed by over 17,000
people (till the writing of this report) from around the world who publicly
denounce the Pakistani project. In an email exchange with TNS, Access shares
its views about how this campaign is unique since the Pakistani government
has been public about building a censorship system. But, by doing so, it has
allowed the world to witness a government trying to impose censorship and
rally to oppose it.
As a consequence of this
activism, five Western IT companies have already refused to participate in
the requests for proposals.
“We believe in
protecting an uncensored and open internet, and that open access to the
internet is a means to free, full and safe participation in society and the
realization of human rights, “ says Mike Rispoli, the spokesperson from
the Campaign and Media Strategy of Access. “Filtering of the internet
suppresses direct citizen engagement. In this instance, it is clear that a
national censorship firewall in Pakistan would inflict serious harm on its
business, cultural, and educational communities.”
Rispoli says once a
filtering system is in place, it is more likely the current and future
government will be prone to using the increasingly sophisticated
technologies to silence speech. He adds that they understand the need of
governments to safeguard the morality and security of their societies,
blanket filtering of content is a misguided and dangerous strategy. “We
have campaigned all over the world and will continue to do so against such
censorships. We have run campaigns in USA, India, Egypt, Iran, Colombia,
Australia, Burma, Canada, Syria and many other countries.”
Even before the recent
move, Pakistan has been active regarding internet censorship. The country
ranked 151st out of 179 on a ranking of media freedom by the Paris-based
group Reporters Without Borders in 2011. Pakistan has reportedly blocked
13,000 websites having “indecent” content since October 2011, whereas it
has also blocked thousands of websites in the past with blasphemous content.
There is a ban on most Baloch websites. Not too long ago, Pakistan
Telecommunication Authority (PTA) ordered cell phone companies to block text
messages containing more than 1,500 English words which, it said, were
announcements by the government have created panic among the citizen
journalists and bloggers in Pakistan. If implemented, the plans to muzzle
the social media will be realised,” says blogger and writer Raza Rumi.
“Since the Arab spring,
the social media is looked upon as a suspicious ‘facility’ that ordinary
citizens have. In Pakistan, the social media has raised issues of missing
persons, state excesses in Balochistan and other issues which the
traditional media has been hesitant to address,” says Rumi. “Apart from
hurting people’s democratic rights, it would badly affect business and
this should be the last thing that the government should do in times of
Javed Jabbar, former
information minister and noted intellectual, says it is fairly
understandable that states want some degree of regulation. “However, this
regulation varies in different countries. Societies considered developed and
educated and free also have their own regulations and restrictions and ban
on certain contents on firewall or media. Like other states, if our country
invites such bids without curbing freedom of expression, there is no harm
but only after thorough consultation with civil society and mass media
editors and experts and elected legislators.”
The IT Ministry declines
to comment on the issue. However, PTA officials say that blocking the system
is aimed to meet the aspirations and demands of Pakistani public to ban
“blasphemous” and “objectionable” content.
“The only way forward is
a properly-defined legislation, transparent and proper debate and
consultation that include businesses, civil society, entrepreneurs, and
every other stakeholder,” Sana Saleem says.
“We appeal to the
judiciary to uphold the rights of people,” she says referring to an open
appeal sent to the Supreme Court asking it to support the public in
demanding the government to put an end to blanket censorship immediately,
give a complete list of innumerable websites already blocked by them, and
explain the rampant crackdown.
She agrees that the
government is silent but it’s time for them to think what they did wrong
and how to correct it.
law imposes restrictions over types of expression like incitement to racial
hatred or child pornography,” says I.A. Rehman, secretary general HRCP.
“But restrictions on expressions and opinions on the mere ground that they
are critical of the government or objectionable to prevailing social norms
is not compatible with Pakistan’s obligation under international law to
protect freedom of expression.”
He says such decisions
should not be left to the whims of bureaucrats. “An independent judicial
body should come up with its role to ensure freedom of expression.”
Photography has often been described as “the art that freezes the moment”. However, walking into Koel Gallery on March 9, at the opening of the two-person exhibit titled ‘Between Pictures and Words’, I stood frozen in front of Aasim Akhtar’s snow-scapes. The images, which at first struck me as black and white, were actually photographs in colour.
The sub-zero feeling had less to do with the subject itself than it did with the beauty of the landscapes captured by this Rawalpindi-born art critic, artist/photographer, curator, and author of three books, who teaches Art Appreciation at the Fatima Jinnah Women’s University in Rawalpindi.
Lali Khalid, the other photographer whose work was on exhibit is, like Akhtar, also a graduate of the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore.
After a Bachelor´s in printmaking from the NCA, Khalid acquired a Master´s degree in photography from the Pratt Institute, New York. She has exhibited previously in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, New York City and New Jersey. She is currently based in Ohio, but keeps returning to Lahore to be with her family.
“What lies between words and pictures is a journey — of charted and uncharted terrains; of moments – embraced and lost that meet in a twilight zone. We are strangers to one another. May my journey illuminate your journey,” reads the text written by Akhtar in the invite for the show. And illuminate it did, as the pristine beauty and mysteries of the mountain trails and gullies in the northern areas of Pakistan, Changagali, Nathiagali and other scenic snow-covered mountains of the southern Himalayas unfolded in the 16 photos presented by him at this show.
Akhtar has captured these images during January — this winter of 2012. The photos, mostly in sizes 11” x 16”, are all inkjet prints on Archival paper, editions 1/1.
Having grown up seeing calendar images of snow-scapes shot in Switzerland, Japan, and such other far off places, Akhtar’s works did not remind me of those photos hidden somewhere in my memory. His translucent, brightly lit snow pictures fascinated me as if they were openings through which I could peer and wonder about the countrymen missing in them.
For example, an abandoned handcart, its wheels submerged in snow, and some snow piled on it together with the ware for sale, (hard-frozen socks, and more socks and a single glove hanging from a rudimentary wooden frame fixed over the cart) presented me with the question of the absent peddler. Did he have enough woolies to protect himself and his family from the vagaries of the weather? Similar thoughts crept up on viewing the picture of a ‘frozen’ table with a pile of corn on the cob with husk. Did this poor hawker have a fire to keep warm, and food for himself? Or the one that had a small table, a few battered chairs placed on frozen ground, and snow piled all around. It appeared to be the outside of a dhaba, perhaps a teashop, which was not doling out any tea during that unrelenting weather, as the tea too had frozen!
There were other untold stories, but I must mention that the artist’s eye and the photographer’s lens that captured these seemingly mundane scenes in the snow have an intriguing quality. My personal favourites were two photographs, of slender branches and twigs jutting out from the snow on the ground. The leafless branches appeared to be struggling, yet a closer look revealed that, despite being engulfed by several feet of snow, a few leaves dared to bloom.
“Where I end and you begin,” states Lali Khalid in one of her works, for which she says she used her younger brother as a model. Her emotive images, 19 in all, were shot in various cities in Pakistan and in the US.
Unlike Akhtar’s, Khalid’s pictures are not devoid of people, neither are they untitled. She shares that her “active practice of reading to isolate and capture brief sections of prose” led her to use a selection of those choice phrases to document the images in “Between Pictures and Words” which, she declares, “portray the way my life looks as it is happening.”
The use of light, or the lack of it, is a strong point in Khalid’s photography. A square picture (the only one in her show, as the rest are mostly of 6” x 9”), titled ‘Recollection and Amazement’, is an interesting example of night photography. She uses natural light from the moon together with artificial light, either from a passing vehicle or from a streetlight, as it is a street scene.
Khalid has used a Nikon full frame digital SLR camera and a Hasselblad medium format camera for this collection. Her photos are inkjet prints on Moab paper.
One of Khalid’s photos is titled ‘A World Apart’. It is an eye-catching and sensitive work displaying a snow scene in which two chairs play central characters. One chair has an upright stately quality while the other has fallen down. This picture could easily be mistaken for Akhtar’s imagery in the snow, just as the single bright coloured picture by Akhtar of an orange-red scooter (either a Vespa or a Lambretta) resting against a wall on a slushy, snowy ground could be mistaken as Khalid’s.
These two deviant images could be termed as bridges between the two different bodies of work.
The convergence of the journey taken by the two photographers through their individual interests and focus is the space ‘between pictures and words’ that has come together as profound moments captured for posterity.
When Sindh celebrated its culture by holding a Culture Day, the inevitable question as to why the other federating units did not celebrate their Culture Day was instantly raised. Now it has been partially answered, as Balochistan too celebrated its Culture Day.
Though it has become a routine to observe and celebrate Days, it was not so in the past. In the last few years there has been a plethora of days to-be-celebrated and when a day goes by without it being attributed to a cause or name, there is an element of surprise and even disbelief. There must have been some cause, some issue related or allied with the day, which the ignorant Pakistanis just let go, unnoticed.
It appears every day dawns with either the realisation that something more pointed needs to be done on the day or, if not so, it is an opening not availed, an opportunity squandered. It only points to our attitudes, which are becoming more issue-oriented and purpose-geared. The art of living in which such human issues are taken in the stride have been sacrificed in favour of a slogan inscribed boldly on the sleeve. Perhaps this is the demand of living in times hounded by the two-fold menace of media and advertisement.
The Punjabis are usually held as the arch villains where culture and language are concerned, as the other nationalities in Pakistan accuse them of having sacrificed their language and culture in favour of the larger entity called Pakistani Culture. It is alleged that they are the biggest beneficiaries of this construct. Punjabis do not speak their mother tongue, Punjabi, and they have become increasingly distanced from their literature because of the unfamiliarity with written Punjabi.
Somehow, they give the impression of being more cosmopolitan than the other nationalities in the country. Being Punjabi in certain quarters is perceived to be uncouth, uneducated, and illiterate and not cultured enough. Due to proximity, the Punjabis were in an unfair competition with the Ganga Jamini Tehzeeb, which came to symbolise the Indo-Muslim culture of the subcontinent as it evolved over time.
Due to the exigencies of partition, Punjabis had to lay less stress on their language because it also happened to be the language of the Sikhs who, with their heritage of liturgical literature, held on to it very tightly. Thus, the choice of Urdu was exercised by the Punjabis. Though this language did not originate in Punjab but in the area around Delhi Agra/ Awadh and Hyderabad/Deccan, during the course of the 19th century it was imposed in Punjab and the educated classes opted to make it their medium of communication and even literature rather than their native Punjabi.
A few days ago, the Mother Tongue Day was celebrated in Punjab. It was more of a photo opportunity as seminars were held, music and dance programmes were arranged and a few well-intentioned speeches were made. And it was thought as if the Punjabis have absolved themselves of the sins of the past in choosing another language and acquitted themselves well. The core issues are perhaps more thorny to resolve than making speeches and mouthing homilies because the issue of language, linked to medium of education and employment opportunities, is impossible to tackle without unqualified political will.
The question of culture is also linked to the fear of being stuck in backwaters. Usually the cultural practices are inhibiting and have been seen to be inimical to the idea of development, growth, original and critical thinking. In the name of culture, many of the practices which are antediluvian are being pursued which appear to run contrary to the requirements of modernity. Culture cannot be seen as static nor is everything that has been practiced for centuries sacrosanct. The languages as well as other cultural practices have to evolve over time and this relationship of change embedded in tradition strikes to be a more balanced option.
Pakistan is a federation and it came into being through a democratic process — the federating units were asked for their choice and they opted for a separate country but it would be ironic that the constituent units, the pillars of the new state, should totally negate their own for something which is rarefied. That one should flow into the other as a process — and not as its opposition or its negation — seems to be a more sensible approach to take in the given situation.
It has been noticed that often totalitarian regimes define national identity and national culture precisely. Dictatorships in the past, whether in the name of ideology or dynasty, have laid down cast iron dos and don’ts for culture while in freer societies the concept has been dealt with as an amorphous entity, growing and challenging even those limits of exactness placed on it.
The question of Sindhi Culture assumed added significance because it was feared that the Urdu speaking community would inundate it; in Balochistan, it is again seen in the context of losing its identity and purity of a tradition being swamped by external influences. Many communities have lived for centuries and need to evolve a distinct culture.
The problem has persisted because the Pakistani Culture exists only in the abstract, an idealised form that has links with actual practices and aspirations of the people and the land but just so. What is needed is to work on the links that have a stronger connection with the land and its people, rather than harp on a tenuous wishlist. The definition of culture should be defined in a broader context rather than in rarefied terms which leaves most out and retains very little. If Pakistan has a workable system in place, the political institutions can sort out many issues including culture, peacefully, through a process of understanding and sympathetic consideration.
At the opening of an art exhibition, awoman was curious to know why artists always paint painful themes. She was referring to that very show that had terrorism, global consumerist culture and other local andglobal issues as its themes. None of the artists,curatorsor critics present at the event was able to satisfy her with a convincing answer.
The same week, another exhibition was held in connection with the International Women’s Day, showcasing many works by women (and a few male) artists in multiple formats, scales and sensibilities. Keeping with the traditionof Alhamra Art Gallery, the exhibits did not have any labels next to them so a viewer had to rely on his ability to decipher signaturesin order to know theartist’sname or make wild guesses about the title, medium and year of work.
The only prominent elementwas woman as the subject matter, and that too was probably not specifically made for thisshow (one presumed it was a short notice affair in collaboration with the Government of Punjab). The practice of observing International Women’s Day in our context has been important for various reasons. After the draconian laws against women wereintroduced by the Zia regime, the assertion of womanhood in all realms of life, including political, professional, domestic, intellectual and artistic, becamea significant statement. A number of men also followed the women’scause to affirm their legitimate status in society.
Today, the discriminatory laws may not be in active use but one still comes across incidents of disgracing women, parading her naked in a village, throwing acid on her face, or gang raping, all to pay for the alleged sins committed by her male relatives.When these conditions are discussed in seminars, conferences, print media or privately, one hasclarity of views and strong opinionsbut, in connection with visual art, simple support becomes a critical issue. Creative people are compelled to reflect upon and resolve this matter convincingly when it comes to making art.
This divide — between the purity of position andthe difficulty of discipline — poses a problem for all artists who are dealing with any political or social issue and not just the situation of women. This is acrucial conflict, almost like somebodywith two lovers or aman who keeps a mistress besides his lawful wife. One needs to find a way to maintain an ideal balance between the two even though, in the course of this quest, both areoften neglected.
A similar situation was visible in the current Alhamra show. The artists were more keen on portraying the sorrowful state of women in society than considering the formal aspects; the works thus relied on easily-available imagery and clichés. The threegallery rooms were crowded with women — in crouching positions, bound in chains, drippingin blood and in crying postures.There were images of headless, defaced, mutilated female figures. Somehow these works served to maintain the status quo, giving to the viewer what he expects at this type of exhibition. Any other imagery may have produced shock, if not disappointment, among the viewer.
Therefore, the artists performed this ‘required’ task to the hilt.Most works certified the clichéd notions about womanhood inour society. The component of predictability was extended to the choice of imagery as well, which in a way undermined the basicidea/motive of the exhibition. At the end of the day, it served a purpose opposed to what was intended — conforming to theviewers’ experience and expectations and failing to move them to think beyond the gruesome visuals.
To their credit, a few participants did realise that addressing women’s issues does not necessarily mean to render her as a miserable creature; her independence can be conveyed through celebrating her womanhood, beauty, strength and relation to herplace. So in the works of Rahat Naveed Masud, Maliha Azmi Agha, Mizna Zulfiqar, Maria Khan and some others, one could detect a simple and straightforward approach towards presenting woman, not limiting her to being a victim but as a person withmultiple identities and diverse characteristics.
The show indicated how certain ideas and ideologies, once they are out of popular circulation, lose their relevance and worth. A noticeable number of leading women artists of the country(many of who were in the forefront projecting women’s cause in difficult and turbulent times) were absent from this exhibition. Whether they were not invited or they refused to be a part of it is an insignificant detail because, for these perceptiveartists, the issues of their time keep changing. Thus holding on to a stance thatonehad twenty or fifteen years agomay seem as pointless as dreaming to stay young forever or fitting into clothes from one’s youth.