Friday, April 14, 2006

Herald Magazine's Overview on the Blog Ban issue

Supreme Court ban silences Pakistani bloggers
by Salman Siddiqui (Appeared in Herald magazine April issue)

Here's the unedited version:
"On 27th February, Pakistan’s Telecommunication Authority (PTA) issued instructions to all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in the country to block 12 websites that contained material that was termed blasphemous. Ten of the sites showed the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), while one had lampooned Jesus and the other satirized both religious figures. However, following this action millions of websites other than the original 12 were blocked in the process.
This was caused mainly due to the blocking of one particular site address in the PTA list that was hosted on a popular server owned by Google called BlogSpot on which millions of people from around the world including Pakistan maintain weblogs or blogs. Instead of banning just that one particular address hosted on BlogSpot, Pakistan’s Internet Exchange (PIE), a subsidiary of Pakistan Telecommunications Limited, which filters 90 percent of the country’s Internet traffic, blocked all sites that ended with ‘’ in the site address.
With ISPs not divulging any information to confused bloggers in the days following the ban, speculations on the timing of this action, which was taken just a week before President Bush’s visit to Pakistan, was rife especially as many blogs contained anti-Musharraf views with some covering sensitive issues such as the Balochistan insurgency. An example of one such site is, which is openly critical of government policies.
On March 2, it became clear that the issue behind the ban was the row over the Danish cartoons. The Supreme Court, in response to two petitions filed against the accessibility of the blasphemous cartoons on the Internet by Dr Imran Uppal and seeking registration of cases under blasphemy law by Maulvi Iqbal Haider, directed the government to block websites that contained sacrilegious cartoons. The federal government, Ministry of Telecommunication, PTA, PEMRA, Yahoo Inc. USA, and the websites themselves were cited as respondents in the petition.
Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudry is reported to have observed in the preliminary hearing, “We will not accept any excuse or any technical objection on this issue as it concerns sentiments of the entire Muslim Ummah”. In the next hearing on 13th March, PTA informed the court that the list of 12 sites provided by the petitioners had been blocked throughout Pakistan. On 20th March, Maulvi Haider’s counsel also asked the court to prosecute PTA for criminal negligence since the websites remained available in Pakistan for seven months and called for registration of cases under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code according to which the death sentence can be awarded to those using derogatory remarks against the holy Prophet (PBUH) by words, writing or any imputation.
Despite the ban, the 12 websites and any others ending in can still be viewed in Pakistan even now, since the technical nature of the Internet is such that one can use a number of tools such as proxy servers to circumvent the ban. Also, apart from those 12, there are millions of other websites that contain similar if not more offensive material that remain openly accessible; this makes the ban look ironic since sites such as the Church of Satan website which enlists devil worshippers online continues to be accessible to Pakistani netizens.
The truth is that one can’t ban all such sites because once one starts doing that, firstly the Internet speed of the entire country slows down since each website browsed by everyone at any part of the country at any time would first have to pass through a filtering process. Secondly one might ban a million website on one given day but the very next day the same or millions more new websites carrying similar offensive material might crop up and huge resources, not to forget huge funds, would have to be allocated to constantly monitor and update the blocked sites databases. Thirdly, millions of other harmless sites, such as in the current case of BlogSpot, get unnecessarily banned as a result in the process.
The fact is that moral policing, at least in the online world, doesn’t work. Ever since the Internet was launched in the country, the government tried its best to block pornographic material available online and still maintains a database running into thousands to block such sites at PIE’s end, but even now pictures from Amazing Hotties Club and the likes remain just a click away for anyone’s viewing. Unfortunately, as absurd as it may sound, the only way to ensure complete blockage of any such objectionable material online is to ban the Internet from the country altogether. But is that the right solution in the interest of the people of Pakistan? The court case continues and shall rule over that. "

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