The well respected Pakistan newspaper Dawn reports that yesterday the blogging platform WordPress was blocked (23rd March 2015), and those who wished to either publish their own words, or to read those of others posted on blogs, were thwarted in their efforts. The same newspaper has previously commented (February 8th 2015), on the fact that the media channel YouTube remains inaccessible within the country. A spokesman for the Pakistani government has suggested that there is content on the media channel that may be seen as either blasphemous or in other ways offensive, and that the people of Pakistan need protection from such material. I am aware from friends and students that similar restrictions exist in China and in several other parts of the world, and that this is a particular source of frustration to those who have spent time in the west, and have found such media to be a useful source of debate and information.
It is probably true to say that the use of media channels such as YouTube requires a certain amount of discrimination on the part of the user. There is (in my opinion) an awful lot of material available on these outlets that is insignificant, trivial and in some instances offensive, but should this necessarily be made unavailable. I suspect that my interpretation of triviality may be someone else’s notion of high culture, and why should my opinion be any more valid than theirs?
As is often the case with newspaper items, some of the comments posted in response to an article are almost as interesting as the original (no disrespect intended to the unnamed journalist who posted this particular piece in Dawn). In response to the article on WordPress censorship, one correspondent replied:-
By blocking WordPress and YouTube the govt. has deprived its citizens of knowledge, of education, of a basic right the constitution of Pakistan gives us.
This commentator makes a valid point. When used appropriately both WordPress (which is incidentally the platform upon which this blog is based) and YouTube can act as useful educational tools. I have on several occasions used film from YouTube for teaching purposes both here in the UK, and when teaching in other parts of the world. Similarly, I have posted items on this blog with the specific intent of enabling students to continue debating issues discussed in class, and know that others have used it for the same purpose. Does this therefore mean that there should be no censorship of materials posted on the internet?
This is far from a straightforward matter. Censorship when appropriately applied is designed to protect those who are potentially vulnerable or suggestible from potentially harmful influences. The British Board of Film Classification was established in 1912 as an independent body to classify films and give them a rating of suitability to a broad range of audiences. There is a general consensus that this organisation does a good job in ensuring that materials that are unsuitable for children, are classified in such a way that parents are aware, and cinemas restrict access to young viewers. Similarly, most computer systems have safety mechanisms whereby parents and schools can inhibit access to programmes and materials that may be deemed unstable for children. The notion of protecting the young and vulnerable is certainly one with which I have no problem.
The blanket censoring of WordPress and YouTube is a different matter. Those who have made decisions to restrict the availability of these media outlets have not been discriminating in terms of protecting the young and vulnerable, but have rather made a decision that nobody should have access. This surely conveys a message that the censors do not feel that the general populous has either the ability or the right to make up their own minds. Adults are being treated as children, and regarded as incapable of making informed decisions.
I have no difficulty with control that is designed to protect the individual. It is a good idea to enforce laws that mean for example, that in England everybody must drive on the left hand side of the road, or to ensure that alcohol is not sold to children. These are laws with good intent and a deal of common sense. However, I am unsure about who the censorship of media outlets is designed to protect. It seems to me that most adults are quite capable of policing the media for themselves. If an item comes on to the television that I dislike I can change channels or switch off the set. If I disagree with the sentiments or political association of a newspaper or magazine, I choose not to purchase them.
The students with whom I work are intelligent and discriminating individuals. In my experience they make good use of media such as WordPress and YouTube as yet another source of information to be used alongside the other, more traditional sources such as books and academic journals. But maybe here is the nub of the issue. Censorship is not about the platform upon which information is conveyed, but about the power of the messages that may be contained within. After all, throughout history that wonderful, though relatively low tech product the book, has been subjected to censorship or outright banning in many countries, including my own.
I do hope that my friends in Pakistan may have an opportunity to share these thoughts today.
Ulysses by James Joyce, published in France in 1922, banned in UK and USA until 1930s
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, banned in Russia until 1988
The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank, remains banned in Lebanon
Lolita by Vladimir Nabikov, published in 1955 then banned in UK until 1959
Wild Swans by Jung Chang, remains banned in China