My story: Shahzad Ahmad, Bytes for All

My story: Shahzad Ahmad, Bytes for All

Bytes for All started as a networking group for those interested in the role information and communication technology could play in development. It became more interested in the issue of internet freedom in 2006 after the controversy around the caricatures of Mohammed by the Dutch cartoonist, Westergaard, which also resulted in the first incident of online censorship in Pakistan.

Since then we have been monitoring Pakistani cyber censorship. Faith-based filtering is the most common cause of censorship, but about a year ago they increased the list of banned sites to include any containing pornography, comment about the army or anything posing a threat to national security. Although these are the reasons given, often the motivation is political and even moderate voices are being censored under the new rules.

That is a huge point of concern for us at Bytes for All. We want to be a proud democracy, so we need to uphold democratic principles and for that we want Pakistan to be tolerant and moderate. But Government oppression is rising day by day. Censorship happens because of moral policing, corruption and because the authorities do not want to be transparent. They don’t want to give citizens freedom of information and expression to question them.

People – especially young people who make up 65% of our population – are becoming more aware of censorship because it is affecting their lives in many ways. Small businesses used to make their own small films to advertise. The Virtual University meant that young people who had to work during the day could access 1000s of lectures in their free time and continue to learn. Since You Tube was blocked in 2012 all this has gone.

You Tube was shut down to try and control the news. In Pakistan breaking news usually first comes on citizen journalism platforms, not on mainstream news sites. From a human rights perspective these channels are very important to us. You Tube has helped spread stories of abuse, such as when women have been attacked for refusing the sexual advances of border guards or when police have broken into houses. From a human rights perspective these channels are very important.

The Pakistan constitution includes the right to freedom of expression. Being the organisation that pioneered digital freedom in Pakistan we felt that Bytes for All had a responsibility to seek help from the courts to uphold the Constitution. MLDI has helped us understand how we can approach the case. They have not given us money, they have given us expertise. They have provided advice on how to argue the case, what case laws are available to us and what are the other issues we should consider.

MLDI enjoys a reputation as being a very brave organisation that is supporting the issue of freedom of expression all over the world and we are benefiting from the collaboration. Having MLDI’s support has raised the international profile of our case. We now have access to wider international support network and there are people all over the world who would stand for me if anything happened. When we started we thought this would just get thrown out but there will be a decision on constitutional ground. Either it will negate the constitution or they will uphold the constitution. In turn, other countries can learn from us. These are things that wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for MLDI. This support is priceless.

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