Pakistan’s Web of Censorship

In
our day and age, cyberspace remains the most promising outlet for the exercise
of the most elemental of all our rights: the right to free expression. At
little cost and with much more freedom than is possible in the real world, the
internet provides a space for one of the most profound expressions of our
humanity: the need to speak out. One unique aspect of the internet is that it
can be a great equaliser, connecting beyond the traditional divides of power, money,
class, race, gender, religion, thus making it possible for us to interact, like
never before possible and to build virtual communities of citizens engaged in
conversations about things that truly matter to the future of their community,
their nation, their planet.





The
internet’s existence is an expression of its apparently decentralised and
unregulated nature. However time and again, governments and authoritative
bodies have endeavoured to censor and regulate cyberspace in accordance to the
officially approved moral and political standards. Proponents of free speech in
cyberspace have criticised such measures, underlining the inefficacy of
conventional censorship paradigms normally used to monitor and control the flow
of information in traditional mediums, in cyberspace.



Yet
states, particularly some repressive regimes, continue to explore and
appropriate the net's ability to censor and stifle reform and debate. A recent
report by human rights group[1], Reporters
Sans Frontiers labelled 13 countries as the ‘Enemies of the internet’ on
account of their attempts to suppress freedom of expression on the internet.
Although Pakistan is not included in this list, yet the country has had its
share of random websites being banned by the government.





Internet under lock and key



The
initial major attempts to censor and regulate Pakistani cyberspace surfaced in
the form of Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited’s (PTCL’s) endeavours to
ban Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services in October 2002. The justification
for this measure was stated to be the loss of revuenue to the state owned telecom.
In early 2003, there were [2] abortive
attempts to block [3] pornographic
and ‘other objectionable’ websites, when the Information Technology minister,
Awais Leghari, under pressure from powerful religious parties, ordered the PTCL
to filter pornographic websites. In a repressive environment, the internet
often proves to the only way for curious young men and women to explore issues
that are considered a taboo. The PTCL ban did little to turn away people from
accessing and visiting pornographic websites.





But,
perhaps the most profound instance of internet censorship in the country to
date has been in the form of [4]banning
of the blogspot domain. The move came amid protests, both peaceful and violent,
in several Muslim countries against the publication of the twelve editorial
cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten
on 30 September 2005. Followers of the Muslim faith deemed these images as
Islamophobic and blasphemous as Islamic tradition prohibits depictions of the
Prophet.





Given
the pervasive and expansive nature of the internet, these images soon found
their way on to the Web. On 28 February 2006, Pakistan Telecommunications Authority
(PTA) issued instructions to internet service providers across Pakistan to
block about a dozen websites of various origins, featuring cartoons of the
Prophet Muhammad. One of the banned websites happened to be hosted on blogspot,
a popular blog hosting tool. Since the ban was implemented on the IP level,
banning one blogspot hosted website, culminated in a blanket ban of all Web
journals hosted on the site. PTA’s orders came after a petition calling on the
government to ban the spread of “blasphemous content” through the Internet, was
submitted to the Supreme Court on 13 March 2006 [5]. The
court on 2 March 2006 formally asked the government to take such a step.





Considering
the past attempts of the Pakistan telecom to police internet traffic, calls for
an understanding of the technical setup in place to carry out this task.
Initially PTCL had established two National Access Points (NAPs) in Karachi and
Islamabad intended to block internet telephony and pornographic websites. The
aim of these NAPs was to direct all internet traffic in and out of the country
through two PTCL-controlled gateways. The NAPs were later replaced by the
Pakistan Internet Exchange (PIE), a subsidiary of the PTCL, and PIE is now the
internet backbone provider for Pakistan with their three gateways at Islamabad,
Lahore and Karachi. Nearly 90 per cent of the country’s Internet traffic is
filtered through PIE.





Since
last February, although the blanket ban on blogspot was intermittently lifted
for few days, it continues to remain inaccessible to the Pakistani surfers.
Persistent Pakistani bloggers and surfers have had little choice but to access
blogspot.com through anonymous proxy sites, simply to read something on other
blogs. Measures like these demonstrate that censorship of the internet is at
best, a futile exercise. Simply adding a few words to a black list and
filtering out the pages does not prevent access to these sites - it merely
serves to hinder people from accessing the sites by forcing them to access them
through slower, more indirect means.





However
gaining access to blocked website via proxies does not trivialise the social
impact of censorship. The government’s move to block the blogspot.com managed
to create an uproar amongst the relatively principled internet youth who have
grown accustomed to the freedom of expression offered by the Web.





Blogging
largely tends to be the domain of the educated, internet savvy citizens, who
use the internet as a venting space, as well as individuals who impelled by
cultural and social restraints, turn to the internet to assert their right to
free speech. Compared to their male counterparts, Pakistani women bloggers tend
to fall into the latter category. Conservative cultural norms mostly do not
allow women to express themselves freely and in certain situations restrict
them from mingling and exchanging views with the opposite sex. In such
circumstances, the freedom and anonymity offered by internet is a welcomed by
internet savvy women — paving the way for blogging to be embraced as a channel
for creative expression and a platform to voice their views.





The bloggers speak out



Zainub
Razvi is an avid cricket fan and enjoys blogging about the game. She initially
started blogging at a blogspot hosted blog in 2005, but eventually migrated to
a different bloghost. Just how important is blogging to her? “Although I am
currently studying to be a dentist, I was initially interested in pursuing a
career in journalism, but due to family restraints I did not. Besides being a
creative outlet to voice my thoughts and opinions, blogging is quite important
for me as it makes me feel that I have not given up on my dream of being a
journalist. My blog has acquired a regular readership, which is quite an
interesting experience” says Zainub.





Zainab
admits that although she did not change her bloghosting service because of the
ban, nevertheless it is a source of frustration to her. “Blogging online and
reading others blogs make up an important part of my online activites; it is
almost as important as reading a newspaper. 
Due to this ban I have had to miss out on a number of my favourite
blogs, just because they happened to be hosted on the banned blog hosting
service.”





She
feels that, “Although these blogs can be accessed via proxy servers; it is
still quite a frustrating to resort to these workarounds. I fail to see the
logic behind banning the websites hosting the blasphemous cartoons. Simply
blocking the IP address of the offending websites and trying to control what
one can read or write does not achieve much. There are 101 ways to get around
the ban and access the blocked websites. I find the government’s censorship
measures quite insulting and absurd. I felt that the government’s step to block
access to blogspot and the other websites conveyed the idea that it thinks that
we as Muslim’s and as Pakistani’s lack the sense to desist from visiting such
websites.”





Urooj
Zia, young journalist at a daily newspaper, perceives blogging as a medium of
communication. “Working for a daily newspaper, I have some restrictions on the
kind of writing that I can do, professionally. A blog has no such restrictions.
I blog whenever there's something that I feel I need to speak out about. I also
use my blog as a brainstorming medium for the news stories I may be working on.
Writing stuff out helps put my thoughts in order, and it usually shows me what
direction my articles should go in,” she says. 
Urooj finds the ongoing blanket ban on blogspot quite annoying.





According
to Urooj, “The internet was the only ‘free medium’ left, and now the government
has gone ahead and started to control that too -- for no reason whatsoever. It
all started after the Danish cartoons came out, and some bloggers put them on
their pages inviting discussion and debate them. There is nothing wrong with
rational discussions. Most of these blogs were on blogspot and blogger, and
hence they got blocked. I lost two blogs due to the ban but I managed to
transfer some of the material from my old blog on blogspot to a new wordpress
blog.





She
feels that the measures taken to censor Pakistani cyberspace have been
ineffective. “There are always proxies to get around the blocks. However, it
takes some time to look for these, or to come up with them from scratch. And
even then, everyone doesn't know about them. So although the blocking isn't
effective, thanks to alternate routes and proxies, but it is a major
inconvenience, nonetheless”. 





Hafsa
Ahsan, pursuing a Masters degree in Mass Communication at the University of
Karachi has similar feeling regarding the blogspot ban. Hafsa’s blogging
activities too have been adversely affected by the ban. “Blogs are a really
important outlet for me to express my thoughts on different things and get
comments and feedback from other people on them. My blogging frequency
decreased a lot after the blogspot ban. It is not easy to switch over to
another bloghost and to redirect readers to it. Plus, I'm used to blogspot.com.
I have tried to keep up with Blogger and blogspot only but now I find Blogger
Beta blogs are not accessible via certain popular proxies”.





Conclusion



Freedom
of expression is the basic right of every human being; irrespective of gender,
religion or race. It is indeed ironic that in this perceived modern and civilised
world or ours, censorship and accumulation of information through the Internet
are taken to be two sides of the same coin. Governments can choose to block
what they don’t want the citizens to see, yet they can demand access to data
from internet service providers, encroaching upon an individual’s privacy.
Globalisation does not mean enforcing unfair decrees or bans and taking away
human rights. True globalisation is a free exchange of ideas and information
and the Internet is an important tool of such an exchange.







Responses to this post

Nice post.<br />web hosting in pakistan
Posted on 11/19/2014 - 06:56 | Reply
As an American Christian of conservative social and political leanings on most issues, i find some things on the Internet, not to mention in advertisements in mainstream computer magazines I read, highly objectionable. None of the content filters readily commercially available work well for me because, in the course of my legal career, from which I am currently retired, and other legitimate interests, I regularly research and deal with issues that include sex offenses against children and related legal cases and issues, etc., and you can wind up on or receiving things you don't want from sites that it is illegal to visit and download from even under United States law with its broad freedom under our First Amendment. If I go to some perfectly legitimate medical sites dealing with sexual and other medical issues, I sometimes start getting highly objectionable Email, some of which further troubles me by using my wife's and my names although hers is not available on my Email or my new blog PetesPosts.blogger.com, whchic doesn't have much content on it yet. Visiting a political site with which I disagree, something I often do, will also sometimes get me mail thaniking me for supporting a position I actually oppose. <br />A retired lawyer with a little First Amendment experience, I happen to disagree strongly with some of the things our Supreme Court has done in the name of the First Amendment, which, by its terms, refers to freedom of religion and prohibits an establishment of religiion here, and guarantees freedom of speech and press. The very idea that this includes commercial nude lap dancing or any manner of sexual activity, or real or virtual child pornography, strikes me as ludicrously dishonest and wrong. The court's decision that the First Amendment prevented a jury award of damages for knowingly portraying a real girl as having gone alone with rape in an article using her real home to promote a fictional movie based loosely upon the invasion of her and others' homes, a so-called parody that says, even in jest, that a famous preacher had sex with his mother, or publishing the name of a child rape victim, etc., are wrong, wrong-headed, and evil, too, and if the Supreme Court or any Justice thereof thinks my saying that is contempt or a violation of some fool rule, I dare them to do anyting about it. But those of you who don't have a First Amendment may envy me for being able to risk saying that here. <br />While I have serious reservations about mocking another's religion in cartoons, etc., as distinguished from making legitimate points about their positions and their followers' actions, a written statement, picture, or cartoon raising the question how someone who claims to be a prophet or religious leader can condone or encourage suicide bombers and other attacks against noncombatants strikes me, and others here, as legitimate. However, nothing anyone says about me, or my religious or political beliefs, or about anyone else or theirs, could possibly justify death threats, stirring up and inciting a violent mob, or encouraging anyone to kill anyone. <br />Now while I certainly can not understand or agree with blocking all Blogger or Blogspot content becuase of any one or more of the thousands of sites displeasing the authorities in a country, let's face it, even here the courts and most people would approve blocking a site selling child pornography, or inciting violence, or communicating plans for war, murder, or sabotage against us..
Posted on 03/01/2008 - 00:09 | Reply

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