To speak or not to speak

Express May 20, 2010

KARACHI: A press conference called on Thursday to protest the government’s ban against several websites ended in a bitter dispute at the Karachi Press Club.

Civil society members and bloggers protested against the ban that was put on Facebook and other popular websites such as Youtube on orders of the Lahore High Court. According to them, the ban that had started as a reaction against the ‘Everybody Draw Mohammad Day’ page on Facebook had extended to other websites in just one day. The Facebook page has angry people protesting on the street. Four civil society members held a press conference in this regard.

“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. These remarks were not well received by the journalists attending and covering the press conference. They took them as irreverent and some of the statements angered those present in the room. Cross-questioning took a particularly fervent direction when some of the mediamen accused the press conference holders of ignoring people’s feelings.

The journalists pressed the civil society members to present a clearer stance and asked them to take their case to 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 have decided to take the issue to court on May 31.

Published in the Express Tribune, May 21st, 2010.