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We ignore Pakistan’s struggle for freedom at our own peril

pcf censoredBy Simon Davies

The global outpouring of public support over the Turkish government’s latest incursion on freedom of expression has been breathtaking. International media have extensively covered the issue, providing fuel for citizen-led initiatives to oppose or circumvent the Twitter ban.

This support, however, throws into sharp relief the dearth of activity around ongoing censorship in other nations. Current events in Pakistan should be of particular concern, both to media and to rights defenders.

Indeed the BBC news site, which proclaims balanced coverage of international affairs, has in the past three days published more stories on the Turkish Twitter ban than it has on the entirety of Pakistan’s communications censorship since 2012.

Sadly, such is not the case – or at least, not so much the case as we’ve witnessed in the Middle East. While international civil society support for Pakistan rights groups is extremely strong (for example through active involvement by the Association for Progressive Communication and Index on Censorship) news coverage of the nation’s struggles is thin. According to both Nexis and Google News, mainstream news coverage of the Turkish ban of Twitter outstripped coverage of the Pakistan ban on YouTube by more than thirty-fold.

Indeed the BBC news site, which proclaims balanced coverage of international affairs, has in the past three days published more stories on the Turkish Twitter ban than it has on the entirety of Pakistan’s communications censorship since 2012.

In some respects, this disparity of reporting isn’t surprising. Turkey’s geographic location on Europe’s border provides a point of reference. Pakistan, in contrast, is frequently seen as isolated – and is thus both out of context and irrelevant.

Pakistan, however, is anything but irrelevant. Its legal and policy shifts are crucial to developments in the Islamic world, but neither media nor many philanthropic bodies have embraced this reality.

It is often argued that the West has institutionally ignored Pakistan’s development. Evidence of this situation can be seen merely by searching through the databases of grant-making bodies. For example, the world’s wealthiest philanthropic body, the Ford Foundation, does not even include Pakistan among its listed regions.

According to the foundation’s grants list, only three Pakistan-related projects have received support since 2010 (two of these being filmmakers). Even accounting for population difference, this is a tiny sliver of the funding, for example, to Indian grantees. Other bodies such as the MacArthur Foundation exhibit the same dynamics.

This is not to say there isn’t support for Pakistan or its struggle for freedom and development. Of course there is. The inescapable reality however is that the disparity is glaring, and  – unlike growing institutional support for civil society in Arab Spring nations – appears not to be improving.

A renewed support for freedom in Pakistan should not come at the price of reduced support for other regions, but it is certain that unless the international community shows a greater interest in this critically important nation of 200 million people, the implications for freedom in the rest of the Islamic world may be severe.