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Understanding the Motives Behind the Internet Bans in Pakistan

Repressive societies often turn to an outright opposition of ideologies which they think can undermine their close-minded -- and closely guarded -- way of life. Pakistani government is doing the same by banning Facebook and YouTube but this time, it is the courts that have taken the first lead. In fact, the recently liberated Pakistani judiciary has emerged as the biggest proponent of curbs on the internet and free speech.

Pakistani government has merely added fuel to the fire, taking it as a gratuitous victory. It all started with the Lahore High Court asking the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, the internet watchdog in Pakistan, to impose a ban on Facebook. It is but an interesting fact that LHC has jurisdiction over the Punjab province and not over the entire country. Nevertheless, PTA complied with their orders and banned it across Pakistan.

PTA did not just block Facebook but also axed access to YouTube, Flickr, Wikipedia and other video and photo sharing websites. They cited the 'obscene' and 'sacrilegious' materials available on these portals as the reason behind their banning. Google was blocked for several hours and many WordPress and TypePad blogs are banned along with Blogspot.com links. There were some reports that YouTube ban has been lifted but it was banned again. As of now, it is inaccessible from Pakistan. BBC website was also blocked for a couple of hours but it is up and running again.

There was a global YouTube blackout in February 2008 when Pakistani network engineers tried to block some objectionable content on the website. They ended up blocking the whole website for the entire world. There was a major backlash against that blockade. Interestingly, the panicked network guys restored all the banned links in order to save their face.

Pakistan Supreme Court banned Blogspot.com in 2006 owning to some blogs that had the caricatures of Prophet Muhammad. The ban remained in effect for almost 18 months. Musharraf regime banned Baloch nationalist websites during the same time. They are still banned.

It is interesting to note that how Pakistani courts and the government have used the religious frenzy of some Pakistanis as an effective way of imposing their ideologies on common Pakistanis. There have been some videos on YouTube that mock President Zardari and the ruling Pakistan People's Party. There have also been videos that question the integrity and motives of the Pakistani judiciary along with those satirizing other political leaders and parties.

The ruling party contemplated imposing ban on YouTube some months ago and banned the text messages about their president. It did not work. Flaming messages about Zardari still ride the cellular waves in Pakistan though some people have started using metaphorical injunctions to avoid the wrath of the dreaded intelligence agencies. Similarly, there are many videos that raise questions about the impartiality of the judges and whether they have embarked on the path of judicial activism.

It appears that both the Supreme Court and the ruling junta would be happy with this ban. Interestingly, Pakistani courts have no objections to the proliferation of pornographic websites. None has been banned and anyone can access any genre of porn. If they can allow pornographic sites in a supposedly Islamic Republic then they should not have any objections to the above-mentioned websites.

It all smells of bigotry and prejudice. Islamic-minded lawyers, which are actually quite many, and religious parties in Pakistan are rooting for an eternal ban on social networking sites and YouTube. They cite the examples of Iran and China in their support while also harp on the tunes of democracy. This dogmatic approach is nothing but laughable especially if they are real supporters of democracy.

When a few bloggers in Karachi held a press conference and tried to speak against this ban, a crowd gathered outside the venue and threatened the organizers of this event. It all ended in mayhem with the bloggers holed up inside the building to avoid being thrashed by the angry mob. They had to use the back door with police escort to ensure safe exit.

The bloggers did not say anything that might have been considered sacrilegious. They were only asking for the reopening of Facebook with a ban on the links to caricature pages. Their stance was also flawed as they were supporting partial bans. Freedom of Internet means no bans, et al. Muslims from other countries had the opportunity to voice their concerns and they used it extensively. The 'official' page of this contest was full of comments and counter comments.

Google's chief executive Eric Schmidt has rightly pointed out the main motive behind this bans. He told reporters that he suspects suppressing political criticism as the main reason behind this blockade.

And suppressing political criticism is the real motive behind this blockade. Pakistani politicians and judiciary has to decide what type of democracy they want. Are they interested in following the dictatorial tactics of Iran and China or do they want to follow the democratic models of press and internet freedoms. They can continue with their close-minded approach but it will do them no good. And to the millions of internet users in Pakistan.

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