Nearly one out of every two internet users visits YouTube, the company reported last week, after announcing that it now has over one billion users each month. But none of these internet users are in Pakistan, where the government blocked access to YouTube last December, only hours after it had reopened the site following a period of blocking that began in September 2012. The government has also temporarily blocked access to Facebook and Twitter on various occasions.
While many YouTube visitors browse the site for Harlem Shake videos and cute cats, many rely on YouTube for news items. In October last year, millions of viewers watched the first round of the United States Presidential debate on YouTube. The importance of websites such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook as channels for news distribution is underlined both by citizen networks using these platforms to exchange information about local happenings (think of MENA uprisings or citizen journalists in Mexico), and by the substantial presence the established media have on these sites. They are used as a forum to circulate content, be it first-hand information, articles, or video, to a wide audience that can’t be reached by traditional means.
When you cross the border into Pakistan, however, access to content on YouTube and many other news websites is blocked. Websites including the Toronto Sun, Rolling Stone, BuzzFeed.com, pages on Wikipedia, and many others have been placed on a government blacklist. Their URLs are blocked under the guise of protecting morality. However, upon closer inspection these restrictions appear to be mostly politically motivated. In one instance, authorities blocked access to a video of a military officer assisting in a land grab; in another, a video of the President of Pakistan telling listeners to “shut up” in the middle of a public speech was blocked. Morality doesn’t seem to be at issue here.
With general elections forthcoming in Pakistan, this restricted access to independent and traditional news content is alarming. Indeed, elections are a time when people should have access to information that might impact their vote; free political speech and the free flow of information is what makes a democracy function. And access to non-mainstream news is very important in this context. The government of Pakistan clearly understands this, or its continuous blocking efforts, which are in violation of its obligations under both national and international law, would not be worth the effort. Pakistani NGO Bytes for All is challenging the blocking of YouTube in court and, together with the Media Legal Defence Initiative, has requested the urgent intervention of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression.
Bytes for All argues that blanket and arbitrary blocks on URLs undermine the right to freedom of expression and the right to information as protected by Pakistan’s Constitution. Its Constitutional Petition requests that the Government of Pakistan be ordered to (1) make available a list of all blocked websites, along with the motives underlying the blocking in each case; (2) unblock YouTube and all other websites that are currently unavailable to the public; and (3) put in place adequate safeguards to prevent illegitimate future blocking. The court is scheduled to hand down a decision in the first week of April. Hopefully, it will act upon the requests placed before it and restore the Pakistani people’s access to independent news before they make their way to the ballot boxes.