Pakistan’s Web Censorship Guidelines to Go Beyond ‘Blasphemy’

Patrick Goodenough | June 30, 2010 | 4:25am EDT
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Pakistani students protest a Facebook page, which encouraged users to post images of Mohammed, in Lahore on Wednesday, May 19, 2010. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

( – Stepping up efforts to prevent citizens from accessing “blasphemous” material on the Internet, Pakistani authorities have banned more than a dozen Web sites, are closely monitoring others, and reportedly are laying the groundwork to block any site viewed as meeting such vague criteria as harming “national sentiments.”
The new measures take to a new level Pakistan’s response to the dissemination online of information many Muslims regard as offensive. Beyond its borders, Pakistan is a leading force in the campaign at the United Nations – an effort led by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) -- to have such material outlawed across the globe.
The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) announced that seven major Internet Web sites – Google, Yahoo, YouTube, Hotmail, MSN, Amazon and Bing – would face ongoing scanning and that any offensive material would be blocked.
At the same time, 17 much smaller sites are to be blocked entirely. They include sites monitoring Islamic adherents, practices and theology from a critical perspective (such as Jihad Watch) and some run by former Muslims who have left the religion (including Faithfreedom International and Walid Shoebat). Under Islamic law, apostasy is an offense which leading scholars have declared merits the death penalty.
A PTA spokesman, Khurram Ali Mehran, said the latest directive arose from a meeting of a government inter-ministerial committee, which assessed sites regarded to carry material contravening the fundamental principles of Islam.
The moves are the latest in a controversy triggered by the appearance last month of a page on the social-networking site Facebook entitled “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day,” which invited users to submit cartoons depicting Islam’s prophet on May 20.
Following an order issued by the high court in Lahore, the PTA then temporarily barred access to Facebook, as well as to YouTube, citing “sacrilegious” content.
The ban was lifted at the end of May, but the court ordered authorities to determine methods to permanently bar “blasphemous” content.
A subsequent court hearing brought a development which free speech advocates in the region fear will usher in a much more pervasive online censorship regime.
According to a South Asian online Internet rights network called Bytes for All, on June 15 the government submitted to the Lahore high court a document detailing the government’s new policies to control the Internet.
The Ministry of Information Technology document, marked confidential and entitled “Policy guidelines for effective monitoring and control of blasphemous/offensive content over Internet in Pakistan,” lays out types of material that the government may order the PTA to block.
It goes far beyond content relating to Islam, also covering material that is “objectionable,” that could provoke contempt of the state, the government or the armed forces, that “contains propaganda in favor of any foreign state,” that violates the constitution, that promotes “sedition, terrorism, anarchy or violence,” or that “hurts national sentiments.”
Jahanzaib Haque, Web editor for Pakistan’s Express Tribune newspaper, said Wednesday the leaked document revealed plans for “a draconian system of monitoring and controlling the Internet.”
If implemented, he said, “it would mean a blanket ban on potentially millions of websites.”
“We, as a nation, have to determine whether we are willing to hand over our freedom to the government in order to protect ourselves from information we construe as dangerous and harmful,” Haque said.
At the U.N., Pakistan is a driving force behind a push by the OIC, the bloc of 56 mostly Islamic-majority states, to outlaw material, speech and acts regarded as insulting to Islam.
The OIC has shepherded through the U.N. General Assembly and its human rights agencies almost a dozen annual resolutions on “combating defamation of religions,” most recently at the Human Rights Council session in Geneva last March, when Pakistan introduced the draft text.
Although the resolutions are non-binding, the OIC is exploring an alternative strategy that would be legally enforceable – amending an existing anti-racism convention to incorporate religion.
A U.N. committee is examining the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) in order to identify and rectify any “gaps” in the text.
The OIC argues that the most evident “gap” in the ICERD is the absence of language covering religion. It is demanding a legal prohibition on the publication of insulting, offensive or negatively stereotyping material dealing with “matters regarded by followers of any religion or belief as sacred.” The committee next meets in November.
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