Appeasing terrorists, blocking progressives – even on the internet!

 

State enforced internet censorship in Pakistan targets the secular, progressive and liberal content while gives free space to hate mongering, fascist and terrorist organisations. internet-censorship-in-pakistan

Pakistan has one of the largest internet consuming community in the region which has grown to 30 million over the years. The social network users in the country range from anywhere between 6 and 10 million according to various estimates. Although majority of internet content published in Pakistan is in English language but recently a lot has been made available in Urdu and some content in regional languages as well. With the growing popularity of internet which provides free access to information and acts as a tool to disseminate alternative opinions, it is not surprising that the state considers at it a threat. Although Pakistan’s mainstream media is widely believed to be independent, but the state attempts to control through tactics like installing mouthpieces in print and digital media and occasionally curbing free journalism with tactics as brutal as abduction and killing of journalists – Saleem Shahzad being the prime example of this strategy.

Pakistani state has over the years developed a discourse on history, nationalism, religion and society; and has communicated that discourse through textbooks and all forms of media. On the internet as well, we have seen mouthpieces like Ahmed Quraishi, Zaid Hamid, Pakistan Ka Khuda Hafiz doing their bidding. On Facebook, the most popular pages in the country remain those touting the line of the security establishment – case in point, a page named My Ideology is Islam & My Identity is Pakistan which has well over half a million users. It is operated by a team which publishes content on a regular basis all of them propagate a taka-tak mix of Islam, jingoism, war monger-ism, pro-Taliban rhetoric, propaganda against democracy and political institutions and served with glorification of armed forces while defending the security establishment by all means possible.

 

While the state continues to use new media and internet to propagate its discourse, it has not stopped there. The state of Pakistan has been curbing freedom of speech on the internet by blocking websites and social media initiatives which propagate an alternative opinion, going against the discourse of the state. According to a report, “Netsweeper technology is being implemented in Pakistan for purposes of political and social filtering, including websites of secessionist movements, sensitive religious topics, and independent media.” In addition to using Netsweeper technology to block websites, it was found that local ISPs also use other less transparent methods such as DNS tampering to block content. Bolo Bhi, a Pakistani NGO wrote to western surveillance technology companies informing them that selling the technology to the Pakistan government would be a human rights violation and demanded a commitment. Despite protests and campaigns by Pakistani groups like Bytes for All and Bolo Bhi claiming these censorship tools are an attack on human rights and freedom of speech; technology companies which create and sell internet censorship products refused to cease their relationship with Pakistani state.

A social media initiative named Roshni – which became Pakistan’s most popular progressive Urdu Facebook page was blocked by Pakistan Telecommunication Authority without any notice. The page stands for equality of all Pakistanis irrespective of their caste, color, creed, religion, class, gender and status. It has raised voice for Ahmadis, Baloch, Shia, Hindus, Christians and other minorities calling for equal rights, pluralism, tolerance and a secular Pakistan. PTA did not bother respond to complaints on why the page was banned. Similarly, a watchdog website and facebook page named Shia Killing was also banned by PTA - again without notice. This website acted as a watchdog reporting all incidents of violence against the Shia community in the country. The founders of the website claim they have had to change the servers several times as PTA would block the website every time they launched a new one. I have also received reports by several other progressive Facebook page managers telling me their pages where taken off Facebook by PTA although it only had a few thousand followers. Clearly, the state is monitoring the activity on the internet in Pakistan and blocking all dissenting voices or any voice which does not align with their discourse.
On the other hand, many websites, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts remain active disseminating hate speech, propaganda against democratic institutions and more importantly – those run by terrorists calling for annihilation of minorities specially Shia and Ahmadis. Some examples of these can be seen on screen grabs available at this link, while more are archived at this Flickr account.

 

An example of anti-Shia propaganda by Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ, formerly Sipah Sahaba) on internet in Pakistan

An example of anti-Shia propaganda by Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ, formerly Sipah Sahaba) on internet in Pakistan

The facebook presence of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan remains active. Countless pages operated by Ahle-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (formerly Sipah Sahaba) continue their propaganda against the Shia often openly calling for killing them. Case in point, a page named Ulma e Deoband glorifies terrorists of ASWJ, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Taliban. YouTube is stuffed with propaganda videos by ASWJ/SSP/LeJ beheading the Shias, calling for their genocide or footages of bombings or Shia processions or mosques with Jihadi anthems in the background. One shocking example can be seen in this video. The state or PTA has made no attempt to block these pages and websites, just like it has not made any attempt to wipe out these organisations to save the minorities in Pakistan.

 

An example of anti Ahmadi hate speech on internet

An example of anti Ahmadi hate speech on internet

The PTA is a state institution and it is no surprise if they block internet content in Pakistan to implement the state’s propaganda but what is more troubling is the fact that apparently the state has a working relationship with companies like Facebook. The said page Roshni was not only blocked by PTA but was also country restricted by Facebook in Pakistan. Several complaints and emails to Facebook received no reply. In a shocking development, a senior Pakistani state official told the Lahore High Court that the state has a covert working relationship with Facebook. It further revelaed that Facebook has agreed to a secret working relationship in which its staff work directly with government officials to swiftly remove content that transgresses official content policy.

 

In the past, Pakistani blocked Blogspot ( a portal for hosting blogs ) during Musharraf era when bloggers were using it to get organised and power up the struggle for restoration of democracy. Facebook and Twitter were also blocked for a short period of time following protests by radical Islamists belonging to groups like Jamaat-e-Islami claiming these are used to host anti Islam blasphemous content. YouTube remains blocked in Pakistan since September 2012 following the release of a film which many claim to be blasphemous. Pakistani state gave in to the protests of radical Islamists, blocked YouTube and announced a holiday titled ‘Youm-e-Ishq-e-Rasool’. Some claim the state is only using the religion card as an excuse while the real motive is to curb freedom of speech and block tools like YouTube which provide an opportunity to disseminate alternative opinion. Whatever the case be, neither should the state curb freedom of speech which is a fundamental human right, nor should it give in to demands of radical Islamists.

 

What the gullible defenders of the citadel of Islam not realize is that internet is not their usual media. The new media can not be controlled as they have controlled textbooks, print and digital media over the years. With one way of blocking the content, comes another technical way to override it. Many Pakistanis know how to access YouTube overriding the ban. However, restrictions put by hosting providers, like those by Facebook on progressive pages like Roshni are critical to the cause of free speech in Pakistan. Such restrictions leave no technical solution to be availed to override the ban. Pakistani human rights organisations and civil society need to do more to push back on companies supporting the state of Pakistan in curbing free speech through technology solutions.

 

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