The year-long saga of the Pakistan government’s YouTube ban has just taken another twist, as a case to unblock the website has been referred to a panel of Lahore High Court justices who will now decide whether the country’s haphazard internet censorship regime is unconstitutional. It’s another reprieve for the government’s IT minister Anusha Rehman, who has overseen an increasingly oppressive online censorship regime in Pakistan.
Yasser Hamdani, the petitioner of the case and lawyer for internet rights group Bytes For All, told TechCrunch the move will deliver a more definitive ruling because the panel of three to five, as yet unnamed, High Court judges has the jurisdiction to issue binding constitutional writs — which wasn’t the case in the previous hearing. It comes five months after Hamdani legally challenged the ban, which was first introduced in September 2012. While disappointed that a seemingly imminent verdict on the lengthy saga has been postponed until next year, he said the elevation of the litigation before a full bench (which only hears about five cases a year) demonstrates the importance of the case.
“We don’t want to win the battle and lose the war. If the court decided to unblock YouTube now, it might have been overturned on appeal in a higher court, which would’ve meant a strategic defeat for the internet freedom cause,” Hamdani said.
It gives him time to hone his legal strategy based on lessons from the hearings over the past year. Originally, their argument was focused on the technical dangers of administering a YouTube filtering mechanism, rather than solely demonstrating how the government’s patchwork ban on YouTube, pornography, and other nominated sites contravened the country’s constitution.
“This is a constitutional issue as it pertains to freedom of speech. We’re not interested in technical solutions and how to manage filtering. The censorship in current form is completely unconstitutional,” Hamdani said.
“I’m kind of happy. While it’s not instant gratification of having YouTube opened, overall, whatever the judgement comes, it will have a profound impact on the freedom of expression in Pakistan.”
It also buys more time for the country’s elusive IT minister. She has already declined two invitations to appear before the previous court case but has previously told the media of her preference for blocking specific YouTube videos deemed insensitive and blasphemous — which activists believe is the start of a wider internet filtering regime. (the IT minister did not respond to requests for interview for this story).