[Photo Source: Facebook/Bolo Bhi] Also Read - 'Statement Was Twisted’: After Admitting Role in Pulwama Attack, Pak Minister Seeks Good Relation With India
Bolo Bhi—which translates to speak up in Hindi—is an inspirational all-female not-for-profit organization combating the censorship of free speech in Pakistan. They advocate for their rights in government transparency, internet access, digital security, privacy, and gender rights. The organization strives to bridge the gap existing between advocates, media, policy makers and individuals. Also Read - 'Ghus ke Maara': Pakistan Minister Brags About Pulwama Attack in National Assembly, Changes Tone
The organization was a direct response to the Pakistani government’s attempt to mirror firewall policies similar to those expressed by China. This gravitation towards implementing and enforcing policies which aim to strengthen cyber security but in reality only translate to limiting the average individual’s horizons is of serious concern. Also Read - Gen Bajwa's Legs Were Shaking: Pakistan Leader Says Imran Khan Govt Freed Abhinandan 'Out of Fear'
In September 2012, Pakistan banned YouTube due to anti-Islam video. Bolo Bhi was able to obtain international “commitments from businesses” to not bid for a tender that was floated by the government to protest this ban.
Soon after, Bolo Bhi’s greatest adversary became the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2015, which many see to be a “chilling threat to cyber freedom.”
The key issue with this bill is it allows Pakistan’s Telecommunication Authority the ability to block access to information in order to uphold “the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defense of Pakistan or any part thereof.” Evidently, this vague convoluted statement can be interpreted to encompass multiple areas which are cause for extreme concern. Passing this Bill without formally defining the words, “integrity” “security” and “defense” will give the government access to more blocking mechanisms than the people of the nation may realize. Furthermore, a critical notion that must be concentrated upon is “any part thereof.” If the Bill cannot adequately explain what this consists of, it will be extremely difficult to monitor what should be included and where that boundary of infringement of upon a citizens rights exists.
Other aspects of the Bill criminalize minor acts such as messages, “sensitive basic information,” “irritation to others or for marketing purposes,” “website (material) for negative purposes” and any interruption “in sensitive data information systems.” Again, you see a pattern with the language in the Bill itself. It leaves too much to the imagination, leaving the people’s privacy and freedom of expression in an extremely vulnerable state.
These few key areas reveal how censorship will dramatically increase if and when this legislation comes into effect.
Bolo Bhi has campaigned relentlessly against this bill to protect their freedoms because they recognize the issues that this legislation can/will result in. However on April 13, the Bill was passed by Pakistan’s National Assembly. It is soon going to be debated in the Senate of Pakistan, where many remain hopeful it will encounter a tougher battle and possibly a roadblock into its progression into law.
“This struggle will now continue at the Senate stage, and we expect that the upper house of Parliament will give a fair hearing and address the issues in the content of the Bill and problems with the process of its passage,” co-founder of Bolo Bhi Farieha Aziz stated.
Though the organization is far from a clear and decisive victory, the uphill struggle Bolo Bhi is faced with has not gone unrecognized. In April, they received the 2016 Freedom of Expression Award for Campaigning from Index on Censorship, an international organization that strives to defend the right to freedom of expression.
Though the battle has just begun, to some extent, Bolo Bhi reiterates the view that Pakistan cannot prevent criminal activity by blocking websites. “Online crime will need to be dealt with under cyber crime legislation through due process and adequate safeguards. Let’s not allow but we must act against criminals to be connected to an issue that has no relevance to it. And used as an excuse to deprive us of our rights.”
It is important for the government as well as other citizens to recognize the difference between the two themes here: a security concern is not equivalent to the deprivation of rights. The manner by which a security concern must be dealt with must distinguish itself independently of the general public voicing their expressions of freedom. It is unfair and uncalled for, for the integration of both processes.
“Many times in our struggles we get disillusioned because there are no visible results or quick victories, but that shouldn’t be our benchmark,” Aziz said. “What’s important is the process, and that we keep at it.”
It is refreshing to see this approach from an organization such as Bolo Bhi which is continuously faced with backlash and scrutiny from individuals as well as powerful institutions which they continue to battle. It is necessary to support these types of organizations in their efforts to rectify the injustices the average individual faces within their country. It is crucial to acknowledge the work being done to preserve the freedoms each person not only deserves but is entitled to. Therefore, Bolo Bhi plays a critical role in protecting and cultivating support and expression against censorship, a freedom the public must stand up in solidarity for.