June Issue 2010

By | News & Politics | Published 8 years ago

On May 20, a few people organised a press conference at the Karachi Press Club to discuss their views on the ban on Facebook. They were of the opinion that the page with the objectionable content that sparked the furore should be taken down, but not the whole domain. But before the discussion even got underway, some members of the press, who were there to cover the event, started lashing out at them. “You are disrespecting the Prophet (PBUH) by supporting Facebook,” they said. “You are not believers.”

Opposing the ban became equivalent to blasphemy itself.

The press conference concluded without a discussion. But the clash was far from over. Protesters outside the press club gates who were demonstrating against the attack on the Prophet (PBUH) were informed by journalists inside about the press conference organisers who were against the ban. While other attendees made it out in time, this reporter and one of the organisers were left stranded.

Angry protesters made their way inside the club and caught hold of Awab Alvi, one of the organisers, telling him to come outside and speak his mind to the crowd. Upon his refusal, they threatened to forcibly take him. More than once, different groups caught hold of him and pushed and shoved him around, lashing out at Awab for voicing his opinions. We eventually managed to break loose from the crowd and found ourselves hidden away in the press club office, waiting for things to subside and the protesters to disperse. It took a couple of hours for us to get out safely.

Several TV channels were there when Awab was being shoved around — one man against so many others — but was that newsworthy? Did any channel air footage of that? No.

The protesters were content to rely on a second-hand account of what another had said and lynch a man for it. They were so incensed to hear somebody had supposedly disrespected the Prophet (PBUH) that there was nothing they wanted to do but tear the person to shreds. It wasn’t true, but even if it was, why did they consider physical assault or taking the law into their own hands as justified? As far as blasphemy is concerned, although it has been noted time and again that lynch mobs have played judge, jury and executioner, it is obviously the mandate of the courts to decide on the matter after a fair hearing.

As for members of the press, where should the line be drawn between personal beliefs and duty? This is not the first time personal beliefs have infringed on duty, and we have examples of more senior and seasoned journalists committing the same folly. But had it ended there, a general debate could have been raised later; it is what followed that highlights the serious issues at hand: the ease with which people irresponsibly and criminally mislead and incite others to violence and the belief that anyone has the right to question the faith of another.

News of the event never got out except through word of mouth. Traditional media remained tight-lipped for days until different views eventually started filtering out in the print and eventually made their way onto television news programmes. With this, the nation was forced to address the dangerous maelstrom that exists when the tides of freedom of information and blasphemy collide.

The Facebook ban was not imposed through an executive order. It was a judicial one at the behest of a group of lawyers. Zulfiqar Ali, on behalf of the Islamic Lawyers Movement (ILM), filed a constitutional petition in the Lahore High Court to ban Facebook.com to protect the honour of the Prophet (PBUH).

Court action: The ban of Facebook was followed by bans on other popular websites, such as YouTube. Photo: AFP

Court action: The ban of Facebook was followed by bans on other popular websites, such as YouTube. Photo: AFP

The Facebook group “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day!” had angered Muslims across the globe and was reported by the thousands to Facebook administrators. But when no action was taken, many called for a boycott of the social networking site by deactivating their accounts altogether. Others decided to register their protest by simply not using Facebook on the day of the competition.

On the eve of the competition, the court passed a stay order thus sanctioning a blanket ban on Facebook. Some avid users of the social networking site were shell-shocked. There they were, registering their protests in different forms, posting quotes and Hadith on the “We Love Muhammad Page” and then suddenly, they found themselves pulled off the battleground. Their right and ability to protest had been curtailed.

But there was a different tide on the Internet. Most Internet users — and Facebook users — in Pakistan supported the ban. In a poll run by ProPakistani.com, 68% of the voters wanted the ban to be permanent.

Mairaj ul Huda, Ameer Jamaat-e-Islami, Karachi, told Newsline why he felt Facebook as a website should be banned. “The page on the Holocaust was removed within 24 hours, as was the page on Hitler. Not only was that page removed but the registration of the creator of the page was also terminated by Facebook. The reason Facebook gave was that it did not allow any hate material against religion. But if they don’t allow hate material against any religion, then why wasn’t this page taken down, that too when the number of people reporting the page exceeded the minimum required by them to take such action? We want Facebook to operate in Pakistan by its terms of service. We want them to apologise and agree that they will treat blasphemy against the Prophet (PBUH) the same way as they treat anything against the Holocaust. If they do this, then we have no problem if Facebook is reopened. You cannot operate in a country by violating its norms.”

Some people believe that Facebook needed to be taught a lesson and that it should be made to incur financial losses as a result of millions of people no longer using their accounts. “Just as Danish companies lost millions due to the[m] being banned by Muslims, similarly banning Facebook from Pakistan will have substantial effects,” argued one Internet user in a comment posted on a blog post. The extent of the financial impact on Facebook, though, is questionable (see “Logged Out”).

Another citizen saw the ban in line with the injunctions of Islam. “Pakistan is an Islamic State in which Islam is enshrined in our constitution and the people of Pakistan will have to be governed according to Islamic law. When it came to choosing between the Internet and Islamic law, our government chose Islamic law. What is wrong with that?”

This seemed to be the position of the majority.

However, according to Khalid Zaheer, a religious scholar, “Whenever Muslims are confronted with a situation where their religion in general or their Prophet (PBUH) in particular is ridiculed or disrespected, their only obligation is to remove themselves from it, so long as the insulting attitude continues.” When the offence ends, claims Zaheer, the problem for Muslims also ends and they are free to rejoin the platforms that they were forced to shun.

Anger and barricades do little to help the ummah in the long run. “I keep telling people that the world at large doesn’t know our Prophet (PBUH),” says Zaheer. “It doesn’t know who he was. They are only ridiculing or criticising a prophet of the Muslims of the present time. Their image of our Prophet (PBUH) is the image of someone who was our religious leader. The sad thing is that they form an opinion about him, the great man, looking at our conduct and behaviour.”

It is extremely important for the sake of the same Prophet (PBUH) that we keep our cool, and remain decent and measured in our response, continues Zaheer. “We have a more important message and objective to achieve, and that is to communicate to the world at large the message our great Prophet (PBUH) brought from the Almighty. When we overreact, the casualty is that great ideology — because people stop listening to us.”

Instead of a complete ban, several citizens reasoned that protests should be registered through other channels. Apart from setting up pages in praise of the Prophet (PBUH), for affirmative action, the United Nations or IGF (Internet Governance Forum) could be approached, proposed Awab Alvi, an online activist and blogger. “You cannot cut yourself off. That is not a solution. You have to be out there fighting against this. This is also a form of jihad.”

And many did fight against it. Various citizens blogged against the ban and many, as a result, witnessed their inboxes flood with hate mail, while many comments posted on their blogs were abusive and profane. Charges of blasphemy were levelled against them and their blogs were reported to the authorities as blasphemous.

But the venom didn’t stop there. Some writers began receiving death threats via SMS, MMS and phone calls from unknown numbers. One text message read: “Your naked dead body will be found by your family on the footpath.” Another’s family was threatened: an MMS was sent displaying where and how they would be executed.

In the days that followed, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) went on to block nearly 800 websites on the grounds that they contained “anti-Islamic” content. There were objections that more than just anti-Islamic content was taken down. Certain blogs became inaccessible. But the general provisions of the constitution were used to justify the censorship and blanket bans (see “In the Name of the Law”).

Censorship is not new to Pakistan, and it has often been justified for the larger good and in the best interests of the people. Pakistan’s history is littered with examples of different governments — whether military or civilian — exercising controls through various means. Ayub Khan’s National Press Trust, Bhutto’s Press and Publication Ordinance, Zia’s pre-censorship policy and the subsequent governments’ use of the ministries of information — and presently the Ministry of IT and Telecommunications — all were used to censor the press in their own ways, for their own motives.

As and when different mediums of communication and information exchange have emerged, regulatory bodies have been established. While that is necessary for licensing purposes, e.g. PEMRA for issuing licenses to the electronic media and the PTA to telecom and Internet ISP providers, more often they have exercised controls over content.

Shutting down the tools of activism: Social media like Facebook and Twitter are fast becoming tools that threaten those in power. Photo: AFP

Shutting down the tools of activism: Social media like Facebook and Twitter are fast becoming tools that threaten those in power. Photo: AFP

With the Internet emerging as the new medium for the voice of the people (see “Who’s Afraid of Citizens’ Media?”) and a critical tool for activism and disseminating information that is sometimes ignored in traditional media, it most definitely also threatens the clout of those in power. This is the fear with which many are viewing the situation: that censorship will be exercised indiscriminately in the name of religion for political gains. ProPakistani.com reported that Baloch separatist websites were taken down among the 800 websites shut down by PTA. There are others who allege that YouTube was actually taken down because of the “Shut up, Zardari” video that had been uploaded (though after YouTube was unblocked the video remained).

In the past too, similar allegations have been made. YouTube was blocked in 2008 for some days. While the PTA stated it was to filter anti-Islamic videos — some said a movie on the Prophet (PBUH) by a Dutch filmmaker — popular belief was that it had been done to take down videos that allegedly exposed the MQM of vote-rigging during the February 2008 general elections.

Bans in the name of religion are not unheard of, but trying to be reasonable in a highly charged environment is. The Danish cartoon incident was a testament to the notion that murder and vandalism would be the next move by Pakistanis in the absence of strong action in favour of public opinion. One of the rare times when some reason did prevail was the ban on Salman Rushdie’s book, Satanic Verses. At the time, there was debate as to whether all books by the same publisher should also be banned. The court, however, decided that since the publisher printed books such as those on education, the ban should only be placed on the book in question and not extended to its other publications.

The Internet is populated with thousands, if not millions, of websites that are used for educational purposes and are a source of valuable information. And as most people realise, Facebook and YouTube are widely used for purposes other than connecting with friends and family, or hosting dubious drawing contests. YouTube contains video streams of educational content, lectures from MIT and other universities, including the Virtual University of Pakistan, all available for free. Facebook has been used by small businesses to advertise, paying only $1 a day whereas if they were to switch to traditional advertising vehicles, they would pay many times the amount. Online and offline partnerships are an example of how online media is being used to boost sales (see “Logged Out”). Philanthropic efforts and welfare campaigns on Facebook have brought in proceeds by the millions, be it for the IDPs or Shaukat Khanum Hospital. In essence, it has benefited even those who neither use the network nor the Internet, and those who are oblivious to its existence.

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Photo: AFP

The petitioner who demanded the ban on Facebook informed the court that “Facebook … a known website had floated the competition.” Secondly, “a number of Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, UAE etc ha[d] already imposed [a] complete ban on this website due to its immoral and illegal activities,” stating further that even China, despite not being a Muslim country, had imposed a complete ban on the website. Paragraph 2 of the judgment shows both these factors were taken into consideration for imposing the ban.

Of course, Facebook as a company did not float the competition; it was a Facebook user who had. Also, no permanent ban exists on the website in Saudi Arabia and Internet users in the UAE were actively using Facebook. In fact, Saudi Arabia and Iran blocked the page only (see “Defenders of the Faith”). As for China’s example, when were Islam and Communism ideologically aligned? Besides, it is a well-known fact that China went on to ban Facebook in 2009 because the company did not comply with its directives to block ‘anti-government’ content involving Uighur protests.

On May 31, the court, through a second interim order, lifted the ban on Facebook until the next hearing. While the hearing was open to the public, how the crowds behaved on the court premises was shocking. Supporters of the ban brought banners reading “We have sworn to protect the Prophet (PBUH).” In Pakistan, there is no law that specifically addresses this, and it is entirely the court’s discretion to decide what unruly behaviour or contempt of court is. It is not hard to imagine, though, how these angry chanting crowds could be intimidating. That is why, even in the US, time, place and manner restrictions apply in cases of contested hearings to avoid situations where one party might have the intent of intimidating the court and influencing the decision.

Those in the corridors of power have viewed the whole Facebook situation from a distance and with caution, lest their vote bank be affected in taking a stand against public opinion. It was not until several days after that the PM’s cabinet issued an order that the ban on YouTube and Wikipedia was lifted. It waited for the court to decide on Facebook.

From the very beginning, it has been more than just about Facebook. The disrespect shown to the Prophet (PBUH) was not disputed by anyone and there was unanimity that the page should be blocked. But the explosive reactions by citizens and the conduct of the decision-making and implementing bodies have been questionable. Sadly, few spoke up when the issue was boiling, some in fear of the consequences and others to safeguard their public positions. Even members and associations within the IT industry, who were directly affected, laid low because they did not want to come up against the arguments that were typically being made: “you care about money and business more than the integrity of the Prophet (PBUH).”

It seems that when it comes to religion, everyone prefers to sit it out and wait for the situation to cool — and understandably so. In Pakistan, people can work themselves up into an emotional frenzy over issues of religion. In this type of environment, who would want their faith to be questioned by angry mobs that believe in vigilante justice. As such, the hard-line stance is allowed to prevail and is accepted.

Say "Yes" to a Blanket Ban: According to one online poll, 68% of Pakistanis wanted the ban to be permanent. Photo: AFP

Say “Yes” to a Blanket Ban: According to one online poll, 68% of Pakistanis wanted the ban to be permanent. Photo: AFP

While the final verdict is yet to be delivered, it seems that Pakistan is steering in a dangerous direction: one that involves content filtration. On Shaheen Salahuddin’s show on Indus TV, Sindh’s Minister for IT, Raza Haroon said that if Pakistan is to continue filtrating content it must invest in the adequate filtration software.

In a report submitted to the court, the PTA said this: “The complete stoppage which required blocking of 80,000+ users pages per each group over the Facebook website … was more than impossible to attain while considering the available time and the tendency of the available content to shock and outrage the feelings of Muslims inside Pakistan. Keeping in view the situation, it was decided that a complete ban on Facebook website … would be imposed in order to avoid further visibility of such hateful content inside Pakistan.”

The same argument was stated in defence of the blockade on YouTube.

So to avoid public outrage, blanket bans are the only option at the moment. This is why the government is seriously looking into filtration software to screen Internet content on a regular basis. Obviously, there are many drawbacks to this. And end users are mainly affected in the process.

Over the last week when content was being filtered, Internet speed was considerably reduced. Quoting statistics, Jehan Ara, the president of [email protected] says, “When Internet monitoring and surveillance takes place and when content filtering is being done, service can depreciate anywhere from between 10-75% — and usually at least 35%.” If this slowdown to productivity continues, the financial losses will be devastating for Pakistan and the IT industry. Many citizens are employed in micro and macro level online businesses and have already been directly affected.

“As far as the IT industry is concerned,” says Jehan Ara, “trust deficit and unreliability is something that clients will never stand for. If they do not know when we can have access denied to various portions of the Internet, why would they have faith in our ability to deliver and meet deadlines? The IT and IT-Enabled Services industry is young and has been growing at a good rate, but it is fragile and actions such as this can bring it tumbling down faster than anything else. A strong IT infrastructure and continued and fast access is what we need without the sudden and unexpected brakes.”

Undoubtedly, more than the economy is at stake. Filtration programmes are just another form of censorship. They affect privacy and access to information, and could conceivably be used by the state to track and suppress dissent.

“Internet censorship only shows that we are not ready to join the deveoped nations of the world in using technology for our benefit,” says Jehan Ara. “By blocking access to it or censoring and filtering content, what the government is actually telling the world is that we are a backward country that is afraid of information dissemination. What we are saying is that we are not truly a democracy that is ready to give its citizens the right to choose what they access.”

Sabeen Mahmud, director of PeaceNiche, a social entrepreneurship project, says she is against censorship of all kinds, especially censorship by the state. “I believe in self-regulation and do not trust any external authority or regulator to be my moral custodian. Censorship stifles freedom of speech and individual opinions.”

Mahmud continues: “The Internet is revolutionary — it transcends geographical boundaries and enables conversations and communication like no other medium. A government that censors free speech and attempts to control the Internet is an authoritarian and dictatorial regime. As Voltaire said, ‘Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too.’”

But can there really be freedom of expression when the constitution and the Penal Code of Pakistan subject the fundamental rights of its citizens to the discretion of the authorities who can strip away their rights in the name of religion and state ideology?

Censorship is a slippery slope. The Facebook controversy showed how philosophically weak the strategy of completely shutting down far-reaching communication platforms is. “Tomorrow, if blasphemous content came into your mail, would you shut that down too, and eventually the Internet itself?” asked one young Pakistani. Even from an Islamic standpoint, censorship is a dangerous road for Pakistan. As Khalid Zaheer says, “We cannot continue to erect barriers between ourselves and non- Muslims.”

This article was the cover story of the June 2010 issue.

Farieha Aziz is a Karachi-based journalist and teacher. She joined Newsline in 2007, rising to assistant editor. Farieha was awarded the APNS award for Best Investigative Report (Business/Economic) for the year 2007-2008. She is a co-founder and Director at Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum of Digital Rights.