Once again, Internet users in Pakistan have been slapped with a ban.
Early in the day on May 20, 2012, Twitter users in Pakistan started encountering problems logging into their Twitter accounts. At first, Twitter was mostly inaccessible through browsers but accessible through applications on phones. It varied from one ISP to another as well as mobile networks, but by mid-afternoon Twitter was no longer accessible across Pakistan.
Speculation that the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) had ordered ISPs (Internet Service Providers) to block the website proved true. Speaking to the Express Tribune, PTA Chairman Dr Mohammad Yaseen said the Authoirty had been instructed by the Ministry of Information and Technology (MoIT) to block Twitter after the administrators of the website refused to entertain their request “to stop a discussion on Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), which was considered derogatory.”
Speaking to Dunya TV, Minister for Information and Technology, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf said Facebook complied with the government’s request to remove blasphemous content, but Twitter refused. According to Yaseen, PTA simply passed on the orders to the ISPs and has no knowledge of how long the website is likely to remain blocked. Ironically, this ban comes hours after assurances by Interior Minister Rehman Malik that no such thing would happen.
Is this the first time a blanket ban has been imposed? No. Will it be the last time? Probably not.
Time and again, the government has blocked websites supposedly to protect ‘public sentiments and emotions’ and to prevent blasphemous material from circulating within Pakistan. This is being cited as a reason for the Twitter ban too. But this is akin to hitting your own foot with a hammer. Firstly, each time blanket bans are imposed, more attention is actually drawn towards such competitions and discussions. Secondly, what does banning the website in the country achieve?
As established at the time of the Facebook ban, banning such websites in Pakistan does not in any way hurt them monetarily. Trying to make an impact by taking away a minuscule percentage of users are delusions and nothing more. The increasing trend to engage with the administrators of these websites and ask them to remove certain content and subsequently blocking them when they don’t comply communicates one message: the government wants to make it clear that the website can operate in the country on their terms only and not otherwise. (See: E-regulations Timeline)
The more important question is, how long are Internet users in Pakistan going to put up with these bans? Why should the authority to make such decisions unilaterally reside with any state institution? Where do the end users figure? Where is the forum to engage and discuss to thresh out such issues and devise a plan of action? Where is the legislative framework to deal with such incidents? Calling shots unilaterally is dictatorial, not democratic, but that is all that is ever done. Then why harp on, “we are a democracy” … “we are committed to saving democracy in the country.”
Nobody intends any disrespect for religion or seeks to hurt the sentiments of the masses. There are ways to manage situations and banning certainly is not it. Visibly, the attitude of the authorities as evident through blanket bans is: “you do this or I do this.” And not only is this the tone adopted when dealing with the ‘aggressors’ so to speak, but also with one’s own people. Those who seek to oppose the ban are talked down to much in the same manner. The retorts are, “You want us to do nothing about blasphemous content” … “Are you supporting them?” Basically, if you are not with us, you are with them.
What is urgently required is the following:
Dialogue: A platform for all stakeholders to raise their concerns and be heard.
Framework: For a legal and policy framework to be constituted and put into place with the consensus of multi-stakeholders, in order to devise a proper system to respond to incidents of this nature and others.
Democracy: The power to unilaterally order blanket bans be diminished.
The ban on Twitter should be revoked and all plans of banning other websites in the coming days should be scrapped. It’s time enough that this issue is addressed properly once and for all instead of being up in arms every few months.
About The Author
Farieha Aziz is a Karachi-based, APNS-awardwinning journalist. She is a co-founder and Director at Bolo Bhi. She has a masters in English literature. She worked with Newsline from July 2007-January 2012 and taught literature to grades 9-12. She served as an amicus curiae in a case filed in the Lahore High Court in 2013, challenging the ban on YouTube, and is currently a petitioner on behalf of Bolo Bhi in a case filed in the Islamabad High Court challenging government's censorship on the Internet and the powers of the regulator. When she is not raging over Internet censorship or poor Internet connectivity, she chooses to turn to cricket, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and qawwalis for sanity. She can be found on Twitter: @FariehaAziz and reached via email: email@example.com