Pakistani artists say their country’s YouTube ban is about politics, not religion

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Ali Gul Pir, Talal Qureshi and Adil Omar in a screenshot from from #KholoBC video.

Pakistani musicians and activists have joined forces to renew the push against a ban on YouTube in Pakistan in place since September 2012. Rapper Adil Omar, comedian Ali Gul Pir and music producer Talal Qureshi this week released an edgy new song and video calling on the Pakistani government to end online censorship.

And they posted it to YouTube.

The title of the song, “Kholo Ban Chor” means “Open the ban, thief” in Urdu, but also sounds very similar to a fairly offensive curse. The video shows a stereotypically sleazy politician signing off on what is presumably an order to ban YouTube, followed by scenes of policemen chasing down a man dressed in a box with the YouTube logo on it. YouTube has been banned in the country since September 2012, in reaction to violent protests against the anti-Islam video “Innocence of Muslims.”

Ali Gul Pir first gained national fame in Pakistan after a satirical music video he released on YouTube went viral in June 2012. Adil Omar also relied on YouTube to promote his music. For both artists, the issue of online censorship is personal. In his verse, Omar sings:

We storm the PTA office, bring reporters and cameras
Rocking V for Vendetta masks like anonymous hackers
Was going viral on the web, I was stomping some rappers
But now I have to Hide My Ass with a proxy and password

In his verse in Urdu, Gul Pir mentions an incident in which the bodyguards of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's niece were caught on video beating up a bakery employee in Lahore. Gul Pir believes such incidents are the real reason why the ban has persisted for so long. “It harms their image and exposes them,” he said. “The YouTube ban is political, it's not religious.”

The hook of the song in Urdu is “Give us our rights, We will break down your proxy walls” —  a reference to how people in Pakistan need to use proxy services to access censored sites like YouTube.

This video and song is part of an ongoing campaign against state censorship called #KholoBC, initiated by activist collective Pakistan For All.

They previously released an online game in which players had to knock out bricks bearing the faces of the politicians responsible for the YouTube ban. They have also released a video called Hugs For YouTube in which the man in the Youtube costume is shown hugging people on the street.

“We wanted an anti-establishment attitude and we wanted to have some fun with it,” said Sabeen Mahmud, of Pakistan For All. "We wanted our brand of activism to get young people involved, and should incorporate design and video and multimedia. And we should enjoy doing it ourselves, because how many Press Club candlelight vigils can you do?”

The public reaction to the ban has been relatively mild, but it is growing. In addition to the #KholoBC campaign, human rights groups have also challenged the ban in court, arguing it impedes local business and education.

However, the ban still has many supporters in the country.

“Evil forces are destroying and defaming and damaging the image of Islam and the Prophet Mohammed, and YouTube is becoming the instrument for that”, said Nehal Hashmi, president of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz's Karachi chapter.  “Defaming and damaging the messengers of the Almighty is not freedom of expression, rather it is freedom of evil.”

Comedian Gul Pir disagreed, and insisted that if young people aren't allowed to express and educate themselves with modern tools like YouTube, it will only push them further toward extremism.

“You can't burn down a library just because you don't like two books in it,” Gul Pir said.

The Lahore High Court has summoned the country's Information Technology minister next month to explain the ban, and is expected make a ruling on the case soon after. This week, a US federal court ordered YouTube to remove the anti-Islam film “Innocence of Muslims” because one of the actresses in the film said she was duped into appearing and didn't consent to her image being used in the film.

At least 20 people were reported killed and buildings were set alight in protests against the "Innocence of Muslims" video in Pakistan in September 2012.

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