As Pakistan continues to restrict access to social media platforms such as YouTube and Facebook, activist band Laal discusses the silencing effect that these bans have on artists, and speaks to the future of free expression.
By Anushe Noor Faheem, with additional reporting by Annie Zaman
Still from Laal’s video for the song ‘Inqalab’ – one of many videos rendered inaccessible by the ban on YouTube
Laal, Pakistan’s most vocal social-justice oriented band, has built a career around using their platform as musicians to advocate for change and spread social awareness through their music, often through the Internet. As Pakistan continues to block the corners of the Internet which were critical to Laal building an audience, Global Voices spoke to Dr. Taimur Rahman, Laal frontman and academic, for his perspective on the censorship crisis in Pakistan.
Laal, whose name means “red,” in reference to their socialist politics, came into the spotlight during the Lawyers Movement in Pakistan by joining the campaign and providing a soundtrack to the movement. When Pakistan issued a YouTube ban in 2012, Laal was one of the many bands that felt the effects. Additionally, Laal’s Facebook Page has been banned a few times – a noteworthy blow, considering that the band has over 400,000 Facebook Likes and reaches many of their followers specifically through social media.
Laal: ‘Jaago’ – a motivational song for the Lawyer’s Movement
Published on YouTube.com in July 2009.
The Facebook page ban
In June, Laal’s Facebook Page was banned, along with 162 other pages. Taimur quickly took to social media, tweeting and posting Facebook statuses about the ban, which were quickly picked up by fans.
He also posted this picture to his Facebook profile:
Taimur told Global Voices that the ban was an attempt to demotivate Laal’s efforts to spread awareness about freedom of speech and social justice. He said that the ban was ordered by the Pakistan Telecom Authority (PTA) which he jokingly referred to as the Pakistan Taliban Authority in a tweet.
Eventually, the PTA backed off and claimed to have nothing to do with the ban, and the ban was lifted.
“It’s very shadowy and Orwellian,” Taimur said in conversation with India Post Live, in reference to the ban being levied suddenly, without giving an explanation or any particular party taking responsibility for it. “There has to be some sort of process.”
Although the PTA claimed to have nothing to do with the ban, PTA has a hidden contract with Facebook according to Pakistani lawyer and blogger Yasser Latif Hamdani.
The ban ended up being an asset for Laal, as it called attention to their cause, brought them more followers, and put them back on the news. Laal is currently using the momentum to plan a tour of rural Punjab, Pakistan.
Unfortunately, bands with less Internet notoriety who have had their social media presence banned have not been as lucky – bands who were fairly anonymous to begin with are now even more anonymous, as their access to social media continues to be blocked.
YouTube ban in Pakistan
Laal, which gained a lot of popularity through YouTube, knew that its reach would be affected when YouTube was banned in Pakistan. The ban was imposed in 2012 after ‘Innocence of Muslims’, a 14-minute long video featuring virulent anti-Islamic content, caused an uproar in the Islamic world. Although other Islamic countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Bangladesh also initially imposed the ban, it currently remains in effect only in Pakistan.
Many oppose the bans – for example, this Facebook community was made in reaction to the ban:
Still, others express public support for Internet censorship. A poll on the YouTube ban on propakistani.pk, a popular tech blog, found that readers would only support opening YouTube with certain restrictions, or not opening it at all. [Editor’s Note – the site has previously published articles in support of Internet censorship, and led polls that overwhelmingly supported banning Facebook.]
Taimur said that the ban had a great impact on musicians, as YouTube was a major platform to promote their music. When Global Voices asked Taimur whether he thought that has the youth lost interest in music after the ban, he answered that he thought they did, since YouTube was a major source of entertainment and a platform to find new music. He said that attempts are being made to keep the music going, but thinks that the ban needs to be lifted so that people could post new music and again have a place to get discovered. He thinks that the only way to revive the beauty of progressive music is to open YouTube in Pakistan.
In the meanwhile, citizens are still waiting for access to return. Some are able to open YouTube through proxies, but most proxies are unreliable and face connection issues. Those who do not have the patience to wait for the proxies to load are content to wait for the ban to be lifted.
There are other sites for artists and musicians to upload and promote their work, including Vimeo and Dailymotion. However, these sites are still much less popular than YouTube, and enjoy less viewership.
Now that the controversial video is no longer on the site, people question the reason for the ban. According to a story in the Daily Times, Pakistan’s National Assembly unanimously voted to lift the YouTube ban on 6 May 2014. However, at the time of publication, YouTube remains inaccessible.
Tech-savvy entrepreneurs have had more creative reactions to Facebook bans as well. After Pakistan placed on ban on Facebook in 2011 following a “competition” calling for caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, Omer Zaheer Meer created MillatFacebook – a Facebook clone that called for users to ‘respect humanity’, ‘respect beliefs of all people’ and ‘not disrespect anyone’.
The site currently has nearly half a million users, but, according to a 2013 post by the Express Tribune, recent attempts to fundraise have caused some critics to question its longevity.
Krishnan Unni, a professor at Delhi University called for future generations to take a radical stance and form underground networks of resistance. “Multiple sites of resistance can come together and propose – this is where we are, this is where we can interject our peculiar kind of politics,” he said, in conversation with India Post Live. “The new music which is coming up from all third world nations is an antinomy against any kind of established structure like the Information Broadcast Ministry. All of us need to realize that we are not living within a totalitarian regime, but snooping and surveillance against each and every individual is happening right now. We need to organise ourselves.”
This story was commissioned by Freemuse, the leading defender of musicians worldwide and Global Voices for Artsfreedom.org and freemuse.org. The article may be republished by non-commercial media, crediting the authors – Anushe Noor Faheem, with additional reporting by Annie Zaman – as well as Freemuse and Global Voices, and linking to the origin.