Debate And Rumors About Censorship Swirl
Doug Bernard | Washington DC
On Sunday, May 20th, Pakistani telecommunications authorities suddenly blocked all access to the micro-blogging site Twitter, effectively shutting off the service within Pakistan. Then, just as suddenly, service was restored that evening, leaving behind angry web activists and charges about why access was cut off in the first place. The official reason given: concerns about an event that’s come to be known as “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.”
As background, in 2010, a Seattle-based cartoonist, angered by death threats made by some Islamic activists against the animation team behind South Park, urged people to draw images of the prophet Muhammad on May 20 and post them online. Free-speech advocates quickly turned the idea into a satiric event, which drew worldwide headlines and angry responses from those Muslims who consider images of any of the prophets to be blasphemous.
At the time authorities in Pakistan were so angered that they blocked access Facebook until the social network agreed to remove pages promoting the event for users in India and Pakistan. (The cartoonist, Molly Norris, has since distanced herself from the event after receiving what the FBI called a “very serious” threat.)
This year the event came back, and so did worries about inflamed public opinion. So prior to May 20, the Pakistani Telecommunication Authority, or PTA, requested that Facebook and Twitter remove any pages, images or references to Draw Muhammad Day. This time around, Facebook complied but Twitter did not, and thus Twitter was briefly censored. (For its part, Twitter released a statement saying its policy is to comply with local court orders regarding content, but it received no such notice from Pakistan.)
By now, with service restored and May 20 come and gone, the issue should have faded. Yet some free-speech and democracy advocates in Pakistan are trying to keep it alive, arguing that they see a more sinister motive at work by the government.
“The government is trying to test the waters to see what the response on such censorship is,” Shahzad Ahmad of the group Bytes For All tells the Christian Science Monitor. “We foresee more control on access of information, like we have seen in the past, when elections are near.”
Humor And Outrage Online
Twitter usage is growing rapidly in Pakistan, even though by some estimates only 1 million Pakistanis, out of a online population of around 20 million, use it. Still, the short-lived ban has inspired a fair amount of outrage among those using the service in Pakistan, even if some of that was masked with a liberal dose of humor. “Hurrah! Twitter is back. A ban inspired by a sudden moral awakening followed by the realization it was just gas” read the tweet from Nadeem Paracha. Novelist Kamila Shamsie wrote: “Everyone with a Twitter account in Pakistan is tweeting about the just-implemented Twitter ban in Pakistan.”
But not everyone was laughing. “My gut feeling is that PTA is just testing their URL filtering system,” wrote the Pakistani tech blogger “Teeth Maestro:”
“We had reports of them testing some image servers on Facebook last week, and it disappeared by the evening. PTA choose Sunday to avoid any legal backlash exploiting the courts day off. I also don’t buy into the argument of Express News that the access to Twitter was blocked due to an ongoing “competition” of Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) caricatures. As no one knew about this “in Pakistan” and it was an unknown issue on Twitter to target this portal on Sunday afternoon, there seems to be no evidence to come to that conclusion and feel Tribune should be careful in making such sweeping statements on such a sensitive issue can spark an outlash. I definitely believe they are testing their system.”
Pakistan has blocked a wide array of Internet content before, from websites they brand insulting or pornographic, to dating sites and social media like YouTube, to serious journalism like Rolling Stone’s critique of the Pakistani military’s ties to terror groups. Internet activist Jillian York last year wrote of Pakistan’s increasing flirtations with web censoring, noting:
“While in the past, content considered blasphemous or offensive to Islam has been the target of censors both online and offline, new evidence surfaced by the OpenNet Initiative suggests increased control of the internet by Pakistan’s various information agencies.”
Success or Failure?
This year’s “Draw Muhammad Day” didn’t generate nearly as much media attention, and only attracted 2,100 “likes” on Facebook. Event organizers, such as they are, say they focused more on Twitter than other web venues. That’s in part to protest the recent arrest of Hamad al-Naqi, a Kuwaiti accused by the government of tweeting insulting and blasphemous comments (he denies making the tweets.) The English hastag #MohammedDay drew an anemic 17 tweets on May 20, and Urdu Twitter users report almost no activity. Of course, it’s likely others posted on the topic using a different hashtag or none at all; yet still it was a very subdued event.
Clearly this year’s Twitter ban was fairly short-lived, and provoked a lot of grumbling and bad press. For its part, the Pakistani government has continued to insist the block was strictly about images it considered “hurtful” in the words of Interior minister Rehman Malik. Several hours into the ban, Malik – irony alert – personally tweeted: “Dear All yes I spoke to PM and informed how people are feeling about it.PM ordered to reopen the twitter.”
But that’s cold comfort for Huma Yusuf, a columnist with the Pakistani newspaper Dawn. This week she wrote “With the experiment occurring months ahead of the next expected general election, Pakistanis should take any violation of their right to free speech seriously. The next ban may not be as short-lived as this one.”
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has not yet officially announced a date for the next round of general elections.