The scale of the internet censorship imposed in Pakistan is startling. The supposed sacrilege of depicting Muhammad is once more the trigger. The government there has blocked first Facebook and now YouTube in reaction to the popular “Everybody Draw Muhammad” day that took off on Facebook and then went viral. Other social network sites including Flickr have had restrictions put on them.
The provocative idea was itself a reaction to the recent censorship of a South Park episode that had angered some Muslims because it showed their prophet in a bear outfit. The new protest seems to have achieved its desired effect. Escalation seems inevitable.
The Pakistani government’s solution is foolish, not just because it curbs freedom of speech, but also because it will result in far more images of Muhammad in circulation and far more people looking at them (I’m sure I’m not the only one to have Googled “Everybody Draw Muhammad” this morning). Presumably this is the opposite of what they want to achieve.
It is disconcerting that in yesterday’s Guardian the journalist Declan Walsh wrote
At one level, the controversy pits free speech fundamentalists in the west against religious extremists in Pakistan
The phrase “free speech fundamentalists” here is sloppy rhetoric. Presumably a “free speech fundamentalist” would be someone who believed that total freedom of speech was an absolute right that shouldn’t be compromised under any circumstances. He or she would tolerate direct incitements to violence, disclosure of official secrets, false advertising, and much more. But you don’t have to be a fundamentalist in this or any sense to believe that broad brush internet censorship is morally wrong as well as completely counterproductive.
The Pakistani censorship isn’t just an issue for free speech fundamentalists (if indeed they exist), but one for free speech moderates and advocates of openness everywhere.