January 6th, 2021
By Hamid Riaz
On January 6, Wednesday, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) heard a petition seeking a ban on Netflix across Pakistan, especially if the movie streaming platform did not pull off the allegedly ‘sacrilegious’ film called “The Lady of Heaven” from being aired in the country.
The petition which was filed by an advocate of the Supreme Court, Tariq Asad, also asserted that the government should ask internet giants like Google, Facebook, and Twitter to establish licensed/registered offices in the country, a clause which has already been mandated in the controversial “Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content Rules 2020.”
Pakistan Telecommunication Authority’s (PTA) counsel told the learned chief justice Islamabad High Court Justice Aamer Farooq that a request had already been made to these companies to open their franchises in the country within the next 6 months so that the country’s social media regulations can be enforced effectively.
But Advocate Tariq Asad believes that the PTA is not doing enough “Netflix aired the trailer of this movie on December 28th yet no action was taken by the PTA until I filed a petition on January 3”. Tariq opines that if the streaming airs the film then the entire platform should be banned.
“There is legal precedence for such a ban. When Youtube refused to remove “The innocence of Muslims” – another Blasphemous film- from its website the government banned it for four years (2012-2016),” he said. “If Youtube can be banned why can’t Netflix?”
While discussing his motivation behind filing the petition Tariq says that “When I found out about the film it just broke my heart. It’s a propaganda movie aimed at tarnishing the image of the Sahaba, the companions of the Prophet S.A.W. The movie has been written by an Iranian Shia and is pushing a certain sect’s (Shia) historic narrative about Islam not aligned with Sunni values. The movie is an attempt to create sectarian strife in the country so I filed the petition as a concerned citizen.”
**(there are unconfirmed reports that the screenplay of the movie has been written by a Kuwaiti Shia cleric based in London) **
Tariq who is associated with the Shuhada Foundation (an organization for the martyrs of the Lal Mosque operation) has a long history of filing frivolous petitions in courts and has reportedly been reprimanded/fined for it in the past. He is what is known popularly as a ‘conspiracy theorist’ and believes in a vast array of unconfirmed assertions. He asserts the government has been lax regarding the issue of blasphemous content online, as the movie in question, because the current government is being headed by a “friend of the Jews”. He also believes that the current pandemic is a scheme created by the Vatican and the Corona Virus Vaccine is an attempt to alter the “Muslim DNA” and has already prepared a petition against the Corona Virus Vaccine.
A broader trend of online censorship in Pakistan
In the mid of November 2020, the government notified the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content Rules to complement the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016. The new rules sparked a severe backlash from civil society organizations, journalists, and digital rights activists within the country and from all major internet companies worldwide. The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), a union of major internet companies including Google, Facebook, and Twitter wrote a letter to the Prime Minister of Pakistan to raise “alarm” over the notification of these laws through an “opaque process” without taking input from all relevant stakeholders. The AIC called the laws “unworkable” because they would empower the PTA to force social media companies to “violate established human rights norms” and warned that the laws “would make it extremely difficult for AIC Members to make their platforms and services available to Pakistani users and businesses”. Apart from this, other things laws mandate that all social media companies operating in Pakistan should open franchises in the country, acquire licenses and save data in local servers, something the social media organizations have hotly contested because it gives the Pakistani state overwhelming jurisdiction over private data of social media users.
The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) filed a petition against the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content Rules 2020 on December 18, 2020, the petition is being heard by Chief Justice IHC Justice Athar Minallah. PFUJ’s legal counsel called the rules “unconstitutional” and an attack on freedom of expression in the country. As a result of the petition, Justice Athar Minallah had directed the PTA to send the rules to all relevant stakeholders and initiate a meaningful dialogue and consultation process to prevent their misuse. “This is public interest litigation. Rules have been broadened to such a degree that there is a chance of their misuse even in case of criticism against a government servant. Article 19 and 19-A of the Constitution cannot be violated,” the judge noted.
Observers speculate that the current petition by Adv Tariq is an attempt to counter PFUJ’s petition against the rules in the garb of the ‘sacrilegious’ film. And considering Adv Tariq’s long history of frivolous petitions the speculation appears very plausible.