April issue 2006

By | News & Politics | Technology | Published 18 years ago

The much talked about ‘illustrations’ published in Denmark recently have had repercussions other than the rioting and wanton destruction of property. The Pakistani government has imposed an internet censorship policy banning all ‘blasphemous content’ from being accessed over the internet within Pakistan. On March 2, 2006 the Supreme Court of Pakistan directed the government to adopt measures blocking all websites displaying blasphemous material. Consequently, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) and the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), despite disagreements over whose jurisdiction it was, speedily responded to this demand, and within days implemented an internet censorship policy.

Notwithstanding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which firmly states that ‘everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’ The Pakistani translation of this clause differs slightly. According to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan (1973), ‘every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court or commission of or incitement to an offence.’

The number of clauses that follow reduces the freedom of expression clause to being purely farcical as far as Pakistan is concerned, giving the government the legal right to ban any material they deem blasphemous or against their interests. However, this clause does not provide any justification for banning websites which do not display material even remotely blasphemous. Perhaps this must also be accepted as a casualty of war.

One such casualty has been the restriction of access to Blogspot, a Google- based domain which allows online publication of millions of web logs. For those who may not be familiar with weblogs (commonly referred to as blogs), these are free, individual web page spaces available to anyone who wants to set up their own web page — be it for personal or professional purposes. The activity of writing a blog is known as blogging and anyone who keeps a blog is a “blogger.” Blogs are typically updated daily, using software that allows people with little or no technical background to do so easily. Due to its easy and convenient structure, Blogspot in particular is the most popular such domain among bloggers.

Over the last few years, due to easy-to-use service provided by domains such as Blogspot, MSN spaces and others, weblog usage has transcended from only the tech-savvy to the average Joe. This rapid increase in the popularity of blogs can be attributed to the large market they appeal to — these blogs, as Blogger.com describes them are, ‘A personal diary. A daily pulpit. A collaborative space. A political soapbox. A breaking news outlet. A collection of links. Your own private thoughts. Memos to the world.’ With this diversity come varying users, ranging between students, people of different professions, and even housewives.

In the west, blogs have revolutionised the exchange and generation of information, serving as an alternative to the mainstream media, with the US already home to 15 to 30 million bloggers. In China, blogs have succeeded in becoming the new mainstream media, overstepping censorship, while exploring this newly-found freedom of speech. Blogging, essentially the merging of technology and media, has succeeded in awarding the previously passive consumer, with a much more interactive role.

Although blogging has not gained such momentum in Pakistan, the blogger viewership has increased, with internet surfers reading registered blogs. The blogs that do exist, ranging from confrontational to mundane, politically and socially charged to plain silly, to those simply sharing pictures and jokes with friends, have become perfect avenues for the youth to express opinions and share lives. At the same time they have also become a huge source of information, where one can find blogs written on almost every topic imaginable, each sharing a different viewpoint from the next one. Although currently not that blog crazy, the potential social and political gains to be had from blogging are enormous in Pakistan, a country bursting at the seams with views and opinions.

The Blogspot ban immediately spurred an online movement by the name of ‘Don’t block the blog,’ initiated by Dr. Alvie, a prominent orthodontist in Karachi, and Omar Alvie, a Dubia-based humourist. Another group was also formed, the Action Group Against Blogspot Ban in Pakistan. They have both devised a structured plan on reviving this domain and, with it, the Pakistani bloggers.

Due to the decision to block websites at random — regardless of whether they display blasphemous content or not — a large number of very innocuous websites have been banned, adversely affecting young bloggers in Pakistan.

According to Saad, 24, an avid blogger, the Blogspot ban is extremely unreasonable. According to him: “I’m not posting anything against the government, or Islam, I haven’t posted the cartoons on my blog. My blog is absolutely personal and although I can understand the government wanting to restrict access to blasphemous cartoons, banning all Blogspot websites is a ridiculous, dictatorial and repressive way of going about it.” Huma, 20, says the Blogspot ban makes her feel like she’s “living in Iran or China, in a regime that does not permit freedom of expression. Not only is it a violation of our rights but it is also another step taken by the government that goes completely against their enlightened moderation policy. Hypocrisy is what I would call it.” Mina, 22, is of the opinion that the ban was uncalled for: “Where are the blasphemous blogs they are so afraid of? Why are they banning websites when the cartoons were in the newspapers? Censorship in this manner is lop-sided and does not accomplish much.” Umer, 23, feels that the ban is not only wrong it is also impractical as “people will simply find ways to get around the ban, it does not achieve much except to frustrate Blogspot users.”

And people have found ways of getting around this particular restriction through proxy servers. However, this is a solution only for the computer savvy, and essentially defeats the concept of convenience of writing on and easy access to, blogs.

Ali, 23, puts the problem in a larger perspective. According to Ali, the ban is more than simply an inconvenience. It reveals two much larger problems. Firstly, it confirms that the government is more than willing to ride roughshod over citizens, completely disregarding their preferences. “Whether it is confiscating land or banning blogs, this shows that the state has little respect for private property. To me it seems like a bitter aftertaste of communism.” Secondly, it reveals a fundamental weakness in the government’s modus operandi when they dabble in the private domain: material of all sorts is available on the internet — the freedom to access it, or not, should rest entirely with the mature adult. In this way the government is interfering in the individual’s private domain. Ali elaborates that this is evident not only in the blog ban but in the autocratic way that the government banned the festival of basant this year, instead of cracking down on the vendors of illegal metal-lined kite wire. “It just shows that the government is looking for the easy way out!”

While most believe the inclusion of Blogspot in the list of 12 blasphemous websites that have been banned by the Supreme Court to be an error, its persistence even after almost three weeks is cause for concern. Some argue that Blogspot is, firstly, not a website (but home to many millions of websites), and secondly, this ban is in violation of the constitution of Pakistan, as the majority of the blogs on Blogspot can by no means be considered blasphemous. While the more hopeful are waiting for the government to rectify their mistake, others believe that this ban is a conscious decision made to monitor public interaction. Some others believe that this is the ruling coalition paying lip service to demands made by political pressure groups and the ban will be maintained only temporarily.

Another key complaint against the ban stems from the fact that not only are the banned blogs wholly innocuous, they are an important part of bloggers’ lives. Huma’s blog, for example, is “a purely personal space related to my life, job, activities, friends, movies I’ve seen and places I’ve been to.” Mina’s blog on the other hand “consists of poetry and prose along with personal observations. It’s a place where I showcase what I write.” Ali Hasnain uses his blog as a way to stay in touch with family and friends in Pakistan “my blog is about my life as an Economics PhD student in America.” Similarly dozens of other bloggers use their personal space in order to put up pictures, art work and voice their opinions.

The blog ban has affected bloggers’ lives significantly. The issue, they feel, should not be taken lightly as it is yet another civil liberty that the government has impinged upon. According to Huma, “blogging is important to me. It’s one of the avenues I have to communicate what I feel and what I believe in. The government has no right to take that away from me.” Saad also feels that “blogging is very important to me. Not only can I write what I feel but I can also catch up with lives of other friends via their blogs. Bloggers in Pakistan form a community of their own and being part of this community has a significantly strong meaning for all bloggers.” According to Umer losing access to his own and other blogs has resulted in a deterioration of the quality of his life. Mina sees it as an inconvenience, and she “values her blog as a platform where she can share her work with a significant number of people.” The blog ban makes a difference to her personally as well as professionally as a writer.

Banning all Blogspot URLS because of perceived blasphemous content on certain (non-Pakistani) pages is as unreasonable as burning Korean buses in protest against Denmark. It seems that the creed of those in power is truly, hear no evil, see no evil and consequently do no evil. Not only does the public not have a choice in the matter, but the message is loud and clear for all to see: Access Denied. Consequences be damned!