Pakistan’s government on Sunday morning blocked the social mediawebsite Twitter, saying the micro-blogging platform refused toremove blasphemous content against Islam. The offending tweets, according to Pakistani officials, involved acontest to draw cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Many Muslimsconsider any depiction of the prophet to be blasphemy. Pakistan’s newly-appointed Minister for Information Technology,Raja Pervez Ashraf, issued a blanket ban on the site inside thecountry, upping the pressure on Twitter as negotiations continue. Censorship is nothing new in Pakistan, but often it surroundsmatters tied to the country’s powerful security establishment.
Inthis case, activists suspect the democratically-elected civiliangovernment is using the sensitive topic of blasphemy as cover forconstricting the space for political debate ahead of nationalelections. “The government is trying to test the waters to see what theresponse on such censorship is. We foresee more control on accessof information, like we have seen in the past, when elections arenear,” says Shahzad Ahmad, head of Bytes for All, an organizationthat monitors Internet freedom in Pakistan. He doubts blasphemy is the real reason for blocking Twitter, sayingthere are several such pages with similar content on Facebook andYouTube which remain accessible. Twitter has emerged a key forum where subjects once thought to betaboo could be openly discussed without fear, says social mediacampaigner Nukhbat Malik.
According to her, the mainstream media inPakistan has avoided discussing issues like sectarian violence,criticism of the military establishment, and sensitive socialissues like rape and child abuse. Authorities have pounced on the blasphemous cartoons as “a lameexcuse” to rein in the much broader, free-wheeling discourse onTwitter, says Ms. Malik, who works for Internews, an Americanorganization focusing on empowering local media in Pakistan. “Pakistan has always been a security state whether there isdemocracy or not,” she adds. Flap Barrier
The chairman of the Pakistan Telecom Authority (PTA), MuhammadYaseen, says the IT minister is in negotiations with Twitterofficials. “We are trying to resolve the situation but I cannotgive a timeframe of when the ban will end.” Until then, the country’s Internet service providers (ISPs) havebeen directed to block the site. That order drew criticism fromWahaj-us-Siraj, spokesperson for the ISPs Association of Pakistan,who argues the government could have chosen more limited blocks. “[The] public in Pakistan is very sentimental about religion, but[the government] could have asked us to block particular pages, ifthere was any such content. Folding Barrier Gate Manufacturer
But we have to follow law of the land,”says Siraj, adding that blasphemy is a punishable offense in thecountry. This is not the first time the country restricted Internet freedom,with Facebook being blocked for similar reasons in 2010. Contentcriticizing the Pakistani military on YouTube and on Rolling Stonemagazine’s website have also drawn bans, as have websites callingfor independence for Balochistan Province. According to independent sources around 13,000 websites are currentinaccessible in the country. Traffic Barrier Gates Manufacturer
The PTA puts the figure much lower,stating that around 2,000 sites are banned in Pakistan. Mr. Ahmad, the Internet freedom activist, has set up a team of ITprofessionals who are helping people bypass the Twitter ban. “We want people to continue using Twitter in protest of blockingit.
Also, journalists, human rights activists, and other suchprofessional need Twitter for their work and we want to help themmaintain the access,” he adds. While activists are calling an end to the ban, elected officials inthe parliament say they were not even taken into confidence overthis. “The ban on Twitter is outrageous,” says Bushra Gohar, who is amember of the National Assembly of Pakistan and belongs to acoalition partner of the federal government of Pakistan. “This is in violation of human rights, and the state is acting asif the public are delinquent children who need to be controlled,”Ms.
Gohar adds. She tried reaching government officials to register her protest,but to no avail. “Pakistan has a democracy, not a dictatorship. Butit feels like the latter,” Gohar says.