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Why is the Ban on Wikipedia a Far Greater Issue Than It Seems on the Surface?

Story Highlights
  • Background
  • Wikipedia
  • The Right to Free Information
  • The Absurdity of the Decision

The Pakistan Telecommunication Agency (PTA) banned Wikipedia access in Pakistan between the 3rd and 7th of February. The ban has become a cause for a great deal of debate and widespread disappointment amongst Pakistanis.

PTA has banned online domains before, but to understand why this ban is particularly ridiculous, we must consult the Constitution of Pakistan and look at what Wikipedia is.

Background

The PTA gave the Wikimedia Foundation a notice to remove certain sacrilegious content from Wikipedia without specifying what the content was. They gave them 48 hours to respond; failing to do so, Wikipedia was banned across Pakistan. The PTA has been given this power under Sections 4 and 5 of the PTA Act 1996, which mention the responsibilities and the powers of the PTA.

The Wikimedia Foundation responded on Twitter, suggesting against the action as Pakistanis would be deprived of the world’s largest free knowledge repository. Similarly, the world would not be able to learn about Pakistan’s culture and heritage.

The ban has since been removed after Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif ordered the PTA to do so immediately on the 6th of February. 

Wikipedia

Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia run by the Wikimedia Foundation, which also runs many other services like Wikibooks, which provides free textbooks, and Wikiversity, which provides free university course material.

Wikipedia is a non-profit platform. It does not even run ads; it is crowd-funded, which means it runs on donations. The website’s purpose is to allow everyone to access free information on any topic under the sun, hidden from the sun, or within the depths of the cosmos.

Anyone with an account can add and edit information without restriction, which makes Wikipedia unique. It is run and maintained by everyday internet users for the benefit and information of other netizens.

The Right to Free Information

Article 19 of Pakistan’s Constitution provides the right to free speech, with 19A providing freedom of information. However, the free speech clause has been limited regarding “the glory of Islam” and the security and relations of Pakistan. Similarly, 19A only deals with information of public importance, so for the most part, information about political, judicial, and policy matters.

The issue with these limitations is that they need to be made more concise and clear. No one knows where to draw the line regarding blasphemy and threatening the country’s security because the vagueness of the wording allows anyone to issue a fatwa alleging such blasphemy. It also allows any government official or, for the matter, members of the establishment with any amount of power to enforce this article to further their ends.

That, however, is an issue for another time. It must be understood that the Wikipedia ban is a knowledge repository above all else. It is a place where people go to have their questions answered. These questions may be regarding simple everyday objects and tasks, matters deeply rooted in culture or science at any level of complexity and nuance, and even simple definitions of words we use daily.

Wikipedia has become so deeply ingrained in our everyday lives that we do not even notice that the first special boxed-off answer that google gives us regarding a process, concept, personality, and even movies and books, almost all come from Wikipedia. The ban from PTA would deprive everyone across Pakistan of all this wealth of information, and if the right to free information is to be taken at face value, Pakistanis need to understand that this ban is in clear violation of one of their fundamental rights.

The Absurdity of the Decision

As already mentioned, Wikipedia is run by the people of the internet. Anyone with an account can add and edit the information on the site, including anyone sitting at PTA. Should anything on the site be considered incorrect or unreasonable by anyone, they may change it accordingly. The Wikimedia Foundation has nothing to do with any of the information on the site, which makes it even more ridiculous that a respected organization of the government would publicly blame Wikimedia and expect them to fix a problem that has nothing to do with them in the first place. This shows how primitive the system and, more importantly, the minds in our highest organizations are.

Specifics aside, it needs to be understood that the trend of removing access to these platforms entirely due to certain triggering aspects (or even perceptions of such) is, at the end of the day, hurting none other than the people of our country. The world is advancing at an ever-increasing rate, and all the platforms that we find so convenient to remove from our lives—YouTube, Facebook, TikTok, and now Wikipedia—are all part of this growing world, and if we are to be a part of it, we must take the utmost advantage of all these facilities.

More importantly, the more we continue to shun conflicting views, the more extremist our views become. There needs to be a certain amount of healthy pushback to our ideas so that we can reinforce them and bring them back stronger. Silencing the opposition is not a sign of strength or intelligence; it is the exact opposite. The only ones that silence any conflict are those who do not believe in their ability to win fair and square. Our religion is not so easily defeated. Our beliefs are not so easily challenged. But how we deal with the opposition only weakens our stance in every conceivable way.

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