“Blasphemy” and Social Media in Pakistan

Laal is one of Pakistan’s most popular bands. To the ire of the Pakistani government, it’s known for being vocally, unapologetically secular—so much that the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA), the country’s governing board for telecommunications, decided to block access to its Facebook page earlier this month. After invoking protest and anger from many netizens, the government lifted the block on Laal’s page.

Similar controversy arose last month arose when the PTA asked Twitter to block access to a number of tweets they cast as unethical and obscene. To the PTA, these tweets defied the country’s blasphemy laws. These ranged from individual tweets, such as ones containing visualizations of Muhammad, to whole Twitter feeds, like that of Duke University pornstar Belle Knox (Knox herself spoke out against the blocks). Twitter complied with these requests.

The company, which reviews censorship requests on a country-by-country basis, justified the blocks by claiming it was more acceptable to block specific tweets than it was to block access to the site as a whole. This past week, after encountering civic resistance at home and abroad, Twitter decided to restore access to the tweets within the country.

Laal performing in Karachi in 2011; via Wikimedia Commons.

Both cases recall a debate that has frightened media activists in Pakistan in the wake of the Snowden revelations. How do Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which date back as far as the 1860s, extend to the Internet? To what extent are these laws, steeped in Pakistan’s history, being used to justify censorship?

The answers to these questions have escaped Pakistani netizens for years now. Pakistan’s Penal Code defines blasphemy in broad terms, and the laws have gone through many iterations dating as far back as the 1860s. For decades, though, civic opposition to the laws has remained strong, especially beginning in the 1980s. As Pakistan’s citizens have moved online, these blasphemy laws have been used as justification for restricting access to tweets, Facebook posts, and YouTube videos. They’ve also been used to justify arrests, assassination attempts, and murders.

The initial decisions to block social media content ignited furor and criticism from civic groups both within and outside of Pakistan. Press freedom NGO Bolo Bhi questioned the legitimacy of giving the PTA power to call for restrictions of content. Activists both within and outside of Pakistan launched a hashtag campaign, #TwitterTheocracy, to mobilize against this censorship. Some netizens criticized Twitter for abandoning its fundamental ethos of protecting free speech, while others, like Richard Dawkins, found it curious that Twitter would side with the country’s age-old blasphemy laws.


The campaign worked.  In a statement reposted on Chilling Effects, Twitter explained that a re-examination of requests prompted the restoration of access on June 17.

To media freedom activists at home and abroad, Twitter’s explanation wasn’t enough. The decision to reverse the restrictions has been hailed, by Bolo Bhi, as something of a minor victory—minor if only because of the ambiguous terms under which Twitter blocked access to the content in the first place.

Media practitioners within Pakistan fear that restrictions of this kind may be due to a new cultural stigma engendered by the Snowden revelations. Snowden’s leaks have led many Pakistani conservatives to cast freedom of expression as a sort of undesirable, neo-colonialist Western conceit. In a letter published by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Sana Saleem of Bolo Bhi explained the damning effects Snowden’s revelations have had on netizens in Pakistan, where the government is trying in earnest to replicate NSA’s model of censorship and surveillance. Pakistan’s government has drafted provisions for an allegedly draconian Cybercrime Law, while the country’s Supreme Court has suggested merging the PTA with Pakistan’s Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), meaning that social media now be understood as broadcast media. This would subject social media to the same monitoring restrictions as those governing broadcast media. This is the precise justification the PTA used in 2012 when it blocked YouTube, after the controversially Islamophobic Innocence of Muslims made its way onto the sharing site.

To activists and media freedom advocates like Saleem, the Snowden revelations have had the opposite desired effect upon freedom of expression in Pakistan. The state and its actors are now more inclined to monitor what its citizens do online, particularly on social media outlets headquartered in the Western world. If Twitter is the least of many evils—some activists point out that Facebook and YouTube regularly comply with more pervasive government censorship calls – its country-by-country censorship process is still cause for alarm for many of Pakistan’s media freedom activists.

#IMWeekly: June 20, 2014

Hong Kong
On the eve of a referendum about voting rights this week, Hong Kong’s digital voting platform was hit by a massive DDoS attack. Today is the first of three days of voting for Hong Kong citizens, who will decide whether to offer universal suffrage, seen as a move that would weaken the influence of Beijing-sponsored candidates. Now in its fourth day, the DDoS attack is being called “one of the largest and most persistent DDoS attacks in the history of the Internet” by the company CloudFlare, which has been contracted to defend the voting platform and said that the attack reached a scale of 300Gb per second today. The attack is widely suspected to be the work of pro-Beijing groups, who oppose the referendum. The vote is unofficial, meaning that its results will have “no legal effect,” according to a statement by the Hong Kong government. More than 200,000 ballots have already been cast. For more information, see our earlier post on the attacks.

The spiraling violence as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) sweeps across Iraq prompted the Maliki government to cut Internet access in the country. Last Friday, sites including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube were blocked across the nation. Two days later, the government issued orders to ISPs to shut down all Internet access in five of the country’s 19 provinces. The Atlantic reported this week that ISIS is particularly effective at using “gaming Twitter” to push its message and recruit new followers. More information can be found in our blog post about the shutdown.

Twitter announced that it would no longer censor tweets deemed “blasphemous” by the government. In a statement, the company said that it had “re-examined the requests and, in the absence of additional clarifying information from Pakistani authorities, [had] determined that restoration of the previously withheld content is warranted.” Though hailed as a victory for freedom of expression in Pakistan, the decision drew attention to Twitter’s murky takedown policy, which it has declined to make public.

Reporters Without Borders reported that YouTube has been blocked and Google is only partly accessible in Tajikistan since June 12. Blocking has surged in the country over the last two years, usually around times of political tension like last November’s presidential election. On Monday, a Global Voices contributor and the publication’s former Central Asia Editor, Tajik-born Alex Sodiqov, was detained while conducting academic research in the eastern part of the country. The government has allegedly shown him on national television “in an apparent attempt to discredit both him and an opposition politician.” More information can be found in our earlier blog post on Sodiqov’s detainment.

United Kingdom
Revelations emerged this week that the British government has been using a legal loophole to scrutinize its citizens’ social media communications. Charles Farr, director general of the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism, revealed that posts and other communications made on platforms like Facebook and Twitter are considered “external communications” because they’re routed through foreign companies. This means that even missives traded by British nationals in the UK, who are usually afforded significant privacy protections, are fair game for government interception—without a warrant—because the data leaves British shores before reentering.

#imweekly is a weekly round-up of news about Internet content controls and activity around the world. To subscribe via RSS, click here.

#IMWeekly: October 21, 2013

A new measure proposed by European lawmakers could require American companies to get clearance from European officials before “complying with United States warrants seeking private data.” A vote on the new measure, which was proposed in response to recent revelations about American spying by the NSA, is scheduled for October 21.

Le Monde reported that the NSA collected 70.3 million French telephone records during a 30-day period. In response, the French government summoned the US ambassador to demand an explanation for the NSA operation and to renew requests that the US cease its surveillance and enter into talks regarding protection of personal data. The report in Le Monde was co-written by Glenn Greenwald, the same reporter who originally revealed information about NSA surveillance based on leaks from Edward Snowden.

A new report by Der Spiegel found that the NSA has been systematically eavesdropping on the Mexican government for years, including hacking into the public email account of former president Felipe Calderon. A statement by the Mexican foreign ministry condemned the US surveillance operation, calling it “unacceptable, illegitimate, and against Mexican and international law.”

On October 19, the Moroccan government began blocking a number of websites and social media platforms, including Lakome, one of the country’s main independent media outlets. Lakome was believed to be the primary target of the government’s blocking efforts, as the site’s editor, Ali Anouzla, was arrested on September 17 after publishing an article containing a link to a video by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Many journalists and advocacy groups have called for Anouzla’s release.

Pakistani activists are using Twitter to voice their opposition to a three-month ban of messaging apps—including Viber, WhatsApp, Tango, and Skype—implemented by Pakistani’s Sindh provincial government (the province includes Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city).

#imweekly is a regular round-up of news about Internet content controls and activity around the world. To subscribe via RSS, click here.

#imweekly: August 12, 2013

After multiple employees of Hong Kong-based company Phoenix Satellite Television accused the company’s former Washington, DC bureau chief of sexual harassment last week, nearly all mention of the scandal was scrubbed from the Chinese Internet. Foreign Policy reports that videos about the story have been blocked, while articles on the case have been taken down from China’s state-run news agency. FP notes that the current CEO of Phoenix’s US subsidiary is the son of China’s former Vice Premier.

Pakistan’s Minister of State for Information Technology said last week that the country is working to develop software that will block “objectionable content” worldwide. Once all such content is blocked, the minister stated, the country could theoretically lift its ban on YouTube. The video-sharing site has been blocked in Pakistan since September 2012.

Zimbabwe held presidential elections on July 31; the resulting re-election of President Robert Mugabe is hotly contested. During and after the elections, DDoS attacks took down several human rights and media websites. In addition, Kubatana.net, which publishes human rights and civic information online and via email and SMS, was blocked from sending bulk text messages by an alleged government order.

#imweekly is a regular round-up of news about Internet content controls and activity around the world. To subscribe via RSS, click here.

#imweekly: July 8, 2013

As of July 3, President Mohamed Morsi is out of office, but much of the Western world is still not sure about what happened in Egypt and why. Was it a coup d’état or not? Wikipedia is calling it the “2013 Egyptian coup d’état,” but whether the term fits is being contested. Foreign Policy blogger Marya Hannun breaks down the Wikipedia edit war surrounding Morsi’s ousting. So-called wiki-wars over acceptable phraseology and editing have been waged before.  Relatedly: viewing events in Egypt from a social media perspective offers valuable insight into how social media and networking sites, namely YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, factor into current political discourse and social change. For example, the opposition group, Tamarod, enlisted a range of media platforms to shape its campaign and gather more than 20 million signatures leading up to demonstration calling for Morsi’s removal.

Saudi Arabia
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is being criticized for harsh sentences recently handed down for seven cyber activists arrested in 2011 for Facebook posts. The men were accused of joining and using Facebook with the intention of starting protests. Political gatherings and public protests are prohibited in Saudi Arabia. The men were charged with crimes including illegal information gathering and “breaking allegiance with the king.” Abd al-Hamid al-Amer received 10 years in jail, the longest sentence. Other defendants—Ali Ali al-Hadlaq, Hussein Mohammed al-Bathir, Mostafa Hussein al-Mujahad, Mohammed Abd a-Hadi al-Khalifa, Hussein Yasin al-Sulayman, and Saleh Ali al-Shaya—received lesser sentences. The men also lost the right to travel freely within and outside the kingdom (rights that men are usually given freely in Saudi Arabia), and restrictions were placed on their future freedom of expression, including bans on public speaking and writing.

On July 1, the Chinese government instituted an online petitioning system intended to update its centuries-old petitioning custom. The website is intended to enable citizens to post petitions and air grievances concerning issues such as forced evictions, pollution, or corruption. However, as soon as the site was launched, it crashed. The response was great enough—beyond government expectations and the website’s capacity—to result in a shutdown that sparked excited debate about the cause. Some Weibo users suggested the crash was an act of censorship. WeiboSuite, a platform created by students at Hong Kong University interested in Internet censorship, reports the government has been monitoring and removing citizens’ posts from the petition site. The official government response is that it underestimated response rates and the website was simply overwhelmed.

A Lahore High Court has rejected an interim order to restore YouTube services across the country. Bytes for All, an NGO dedicated to ICTs for development, democracy, and social justice, filed the petition several months ago. In September 2012, the Pakistan People’s Party government banned the video-sharing site in response to widespread public outrage about the dissemination of a film deemed blasphemous for taking offensive positions against the Prophet. YouTube was banned after its parent company, Google, denied official requests to take down the film. Pakistan’s religious communities and members of the information technology sector remain deep in debate as to how the county will regulate the Internet so as to uphold Islamic values as well as citizen’s rights. Saad Rassol, a lawyer from Lahore, explains in a post for Pakistan Today, “It is not simply a question of whether YouTube should be unblocked because it serves an academic or social purpose. It is a question of whether we preserve individual freedoms, and discourse, even at the cost of being offended by the words of the speaker, from time to time. Or will we descend into becoming a society where subjective morality and religious sensitivities become a sword to silence tongues and stamp out all debate.”

#IMweekly is a weekly round-up of news about Internet content controls and activity around the world. To subscribe via RSS, click here.