The decision to ban the online game PUBG has been the source of significant comment in the press and media, both broadcast and online. Opinions and exchanges have been heated to say the least.
At the time of writing the matter of the ban is sub judice before the Islamabad High Court and judgment has been reserved. Its entirely possible that the decision will be handed down before this article goes into print, making any such article outdated. However, the clash of new forms of entertainment enabled by technology, parenting and the law have been occurring in Pakistan for decades and this is not the first time the Courts have had to deal with such bans. As we shall see, they have till date invariably come down in favor of permitting such entertainment.
This scribe labours under a disadvantage that he has never played the game in question so will be avoiding any comments on the specific merits of that game. Rather this piece will be restricted to an examination of judicial treatment of such bans.
The first recorded case where video games were banned was in Muhammad Quyyum v Rana Warris Ali Khan 1992 PCrLJ 2641. In that case, several parents had approached the Assistant Commissioner Kamalia sub tehsil, District Toba Tek Singh with an application against the operating of several video game arcades in the Tehsil. The claims of the parents were that these clubs (along with similar establishments for carrom and billiards) were causing their children to waste their time and “spent most of their time in the dark and unhealthy atmosphere of the clubs”. The AC agreed and passed a ban on such establishments. The order was challenged before Lahore High Court (Ausaf Ali Khan J), which set it aside. While primary reason for this was predicated on Article 18 of the Constitution (the right to undertake business), the Court discussed and dismissed the parents claims. It was noted that there was no evidence of an increase in criminality or truancy attributed to these establishments. Nor could parental objections about the relative value of such pastimes be considered legallysufficient ground to take such a drastic and wide measure.
5 years later, the Lahore High Court would once again have to deal with a ban on video games justified by concerns for the well-being of the nation’s youth. In 1997 the District Magistrate Muzaffargarh restricted the operation of video games (and again, billiard and snooker halls) on the grounds that excessive playing was causing “moral deteriation amongst youngsters and lead to frequent absences from academic institutions”. Unlike his Kamalia counterpart in 1992, the DM Muzaffargarh did not impose an outright bad, but only permitted them to operate from 2 pm to 10 pm each day. When the case came before the High Court in Muhammad Akram v Government of Punjab1997 PCRLJ 1820, the presiding judge, Mr. Justice Munir Ahmed Mughal, struck down the order, in more or less the same terms as in Muhammad Quyyum. Once more, the Court found the concerns for the morals of the Districts youngsters to be misplaced. Echoing his colleague, the judge found no evidence of any actual absences from academic institutions to be linked to such activities.
The 1990’s would close out with protracted litigation on video game arcades in the NWFP. Once again parental apprehensions would lead to complaints to executive authorities and once again the arcades were banned, this time in Peshawar, although only for a limited period of 2 months. A petition challenging the same to the Division Bench of the Peshawar High Court ended in the 2-member bench being split. The matter was then referred to a third judge for final decision and this (Ismail Khan v Kamran Ali Afzal 1998 MLD 1340) came down in favour of striking down the ban. The judge, Mr Justice Mian Muhammad Ajmal, like the Lahore High Court Justices before him could not find any justifiable reason for the measure.
As we see, Court decisions in the 1990’s consistently upheld the right to play video games in a lawful manner and rejected counter-arguments about deleterious effects on the moral fabric of the younger generation.
All of these decisions relate to video game arcades. Technology has moved on substantially since then, and so has the culture of gaming and the methods by which they are played. Yet, the decisions made over two decades ago, have more relevance today than might be appreciated. In all cases, the Courts refused to accept claims of harm when they were not shown any evidence of harm. In our time, such claim and more general fears of adverse impact are commonplace however evidence for them remains limited. I do not suggest that it is absent, merely that the proponents have not yet presented it in a clear and convincing manner. Bare assertions and apprehensions are not evidence, as our Courts have established.
These questions are not going to go away. Parents and the Governments are right to worry about the effects of new technology and novel forms of entertainment they bring, on the young. No one can deny that the potential for harm is not there. Restrictions and bans are blunt instruments, constitutionally suspect if applied arbitrarily, and should be last resorts, not measures of choice, The Peshawar High Court decision noted that the Government could absolutely regulate this activity through proper legislation. Regulation, guidelines to parents and guardians will almost certainly be far more effective than simple wide-ranging bans.
Afan Khan is an advocate at High Court, He is currently practicing in Islamabad for the last 10 years. He completed his LLB (Hon) in 2007, Bar at Law in 2009, and LLM from City University in 2011.