Conference on internet censorship ends on sour note

Samia Saleem May 20, 2010

KARACHI: A press conference on internet censorship ended with heated exchanges between the participants and media personnel present at the Karachi Press Club (KPC), Thursday evening.

The group, Defenders of Internet Freedom who had gathered to peacefully protest against the nationwide ban on Facebook asserted that the current ban on multiple sites is severely affecting people's social and business interests.

“Since yesterday most of the interactive and informational websites have been blocked by the government, including Youtube, Flickr, Wikipedia,” said one of the participants. “When the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority had the authority to block that particular page, why was the whole website blocked?” They argued that Facebook, being one of the world’s most popular websites, has over two million users in Pakistan out of the 400 million across the world. “People use it to stay in touch with friends, family, to get jobs, for research and educational purposes, while thousands of small businesses are dependent on the website for publicity and promotion,” a participant argued.

They quoted an incident in which the Supreme Court of Pakistan had banned the domain in 2006, a ban that continued for over 18 months. “I feel that instead of banning the entire website, people should have been given an open house to do whatever,” the participant opined. However, speakers at the conference were unable to effectively convey their point to media personnel.

In the ensuing confusion, emotionally charged media personnel accused the participants of ignoring people's feelings regarding the issue of blasphemous content on the popular social networking site.

The conference took a turn for the worse when prominent blogger, Dr Awab Alvi stated that the entire issue was being blown out of proportion.

Enraged journalists present at the KPC responded by demanding that the group should present a clear stance, and that challenges against the government should be presented in court.

“A press conference criticising the Lahore High Court’s decision can be viewed as contempt of court,” argued one journalist at the event. “It [the issue] needs to be addressed at the right platform.” Others present at the press conference accused the civil society members of fighting the ban out of business interests. Another panellist said that Muslims had a greater hand in marketing the page. “As soon as such a page was made, we made several groups condemning it, forwarded and reforwarded the message.

It reached more people through us than it would have reached otherwise,” he said. “We need to deal with the issue on an open platform instead of shutting down the whole web service.” The press conference concluded on a bitter note when the speakers called it to an abrupt end. “People have the right to express themselves and to agree or disagree provided that they believe in discussions instead of jumping to hasty emotional conclusions,” one of the four participants said. The civil society members also announced that they will take the issue to court on May 31.

The situation was further aggravated when members of the Jamaat-e-Islami showed up to protest outside, forcing members of the conference to exit the KPC premises from a back entrance.

Tweeting after the conference, Alvi said "Safely home Sad experience, our point we condemn cartoon caricature but Not a blanket ban on websites, became issue of muslim non-muslim."

For more details on the Defenders of Internet Freedom, click here.

Controversy facts:

1. Facebook has 400 million users. Only 2 million are from Pakistan. That is 0.5% of the total Facebook audience.

2. The offending Facebook page that the Pakistan government banned had about 30,000 members 3 days before May 20.

3. Following the complete ban of Facebook in Pakistan, the offending page has 80,000 members and growing as of Thursday evening.