Freedom House: Study enumerates Islamabad’s bids to control cyberspace

Published: April 20, 2011
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Iran received the lowest score for internet freedom, while Estonia got first place.

Iran received the lowest score for internet freedom, while Estonia got first place.

KARACHI: 

Attempts to file a lawsuit against Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, blocking access to YouTube and Blogspot and surveillance of activists in Pakistan are highlighted in a global study released by Freedom House on Tuesday.

The report, titled Freedom on the Net 2011, features a study of internet freedom in 37 countries.

“These detailed findings clearly show that internet freedom cannot be taken for granted,” said David J Kramer, executive director of Freedom House. “Nondemocratic regimes are devoting more attention and resources to censorship and other forms of interference with online expression.”

It assesses that successive Pakistani governments have “adopted various measures to exert some control over cyberspace and the sharing of information online.”

The report notes that despite the growth of the internet and telecom sectors, constraints such as poor infrastructure, literacy and economic conditions have limited their development, and that the rural areas have no access to broadband.

Internet censorship is also a key issue. In 2006, as the controversy over the Danish cartoons raged, the Pakistan government blocked a number of websites. In 2008, it blocked the video-sharing website YouTube which inadvertently resulted in access to YouTube being blocked in several parts of Asia and the world. Last year, controversy over a website and Facebook event asking people to draw cartoons of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) led the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to block Facebook and YouTube, as well as specific pages from news websites, Wikipedia, Twitter and Google search results.

“There’s always that thing hanging over your head that the government can shut off the internet at any time,” Ashail Rizvi, who heads a group of Karachi-based technology companies said.

The report also highlights the block on the websites of Lal Masjid and The Baloch Hal (which focuses on news from Balochistan). However, it says the website of the World Sindhi Institute is blocked, which was accessible in Pakistan at the time of the filing this report. Other websites to which access has been blocked off and on include thepersecution.org (focused on issues of the Ahmaddiya community).

Interestingly, the report details the submissions by the Ministry of Information and Technology in the Lahore High Court to explain the reasons for blocking certain websites, highlighting the workings of a committee that recommends blocking them.

In comparison, the report notes that India has also placed blocks on information and communication technologies, such as during the Kargil war in 1999.

There were also cases in Pakistan, the report recalls, of blocking online content that would be damaging to government and military officials.

It highlights that “by contrast, Facebook and Twitter postings by banned Islamic groups such as Hizbut Tahrir, including comments inciting violence against the Ahmedi religious minority, have been allowed to circulate with few restrictions.” A recent report published in The Express Tribune Magazine said: “In the space of 10 clicks, a Facebook user can access, for example, the Jaish-e-Mohammad’s Facebook page, cross over to their website to learn about militant jihad and then return to browse the page’s list of followers to connect with. Similarly, one can access the Sipah-e-Sahaba page, watch the latest posted video titled, “Allah’s azaab on Shia” and then befriend SSp Zindabad whose favourite pages include ‘Chelsea,’ ‘Lahori girls’ and ‘Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) ke sipahi zinda hai.’”

Freedom House’s report points to the problems with legislation, including the now-lapsed Prevention of Electronic Crimes Ordinanc and broad definitions in the Pakistan Penal Code, including that on the blasphemy law, which have been used to file cases against Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

The report highlights the positive use of social networking websites by citizens to create awareness around certain issues, highlight alleged cases of brutality by the police and military and fundraise for the victims of the floods.

It also points out that “government surveillance is not a significant concern among most bloggers and online activists in Pakistan, with the exception of individuals in Balochistan. Nevertheless, the Pakistani authorities and particularly intelligence agencies have some monitoring capacity.”

The report mentions a 2009 Der Spiegel story which stated that Germany’s intelligence agency had committed 2,500 acts of espionage by remotely searching computers abroad, including that of Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan.

As far as open communication is concerned, in India it is “understood that certain topics must be approached with caution” online, including religion, Kashmiri separatism and hostile rhetoric from Pakistan. The report says Pakistan’s online commentators “exercise a degree of self-censorship when writing on topics such as religion, blasphemy, separatist movements, or human rights protection for women and homosexuals, given the sensitivity of both the government and non-state actors to these subjects.”

The study found Estonia to have the greatest degree of internet freedom among the countries examined, while the United States ranked second. Iran received the lowest score, and eleven other countries received a ranking of ‘not free,’ including Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and Thailand. (WITH ADDITIONAL REPORTING FROM CHEREE FRANCO)

Published in The Express Tribune, April 20th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (8)

  • abbas akthar
    Apr 20, 2011 - 9:22AM

    that the cyberspace is dominated by hatefilled religious bigots was sadly evident in the aftermath of the murder of salman taseer when thousands of our youth celebrated his cold-blooded murder on facebook.This exposed the myth of the moderate muslims forming the silent majority in pakistan.The silent majority that don’t go out on the streets killing non-muslims & secular people are just as rabid & fanatical in their religious beliefs as mumtaz qadri.

    This fallacy of only a fringe of the population is extremist has to be buried now.We face a public that was brought up on religious hate,fed a steady diet of homophobia,how women are inferior to men & how all non-muslims are to be discriminated against.

    we have seen the results of what this has done to our society.Recommend

  • arsalan saeed
    Apr 20, 2011 - 9:28AM

    why is that people in our country want to keep others muslim by force & coercion??
    i’ve heard supposedly well educated people screaming that anyone who leaves the fold of islam has to be killed immediately.why this mentality of intimidating ex-muslims into pretending to remain muslim??

    everyone has a right to believe in or not believe in something,if a muslim has become athiest or agnostic that’s his/her right,no maulvi or ulema have the right to force him/her to remain muslim with violent threats of cutting off his head like a goat.

    one’s religous beliefs should not be imposed by intimidation & threats on others.Everyone has a birth right to believe or not believe in whatever they want,it’s time our public starts respecting the fact that athiests & agnostics have as much a right to live & enjoy life in pakistan as the muslims,christians & hindus have.Recommend

  • nasir jamil
    Apr 20, 2011 - 10:34AM

    @arsalan saeed:

    This extreme persecution of ex-muslims is sickening common all over the muslim world.The mullahs have brainwashed people into thinking that it’s a good deed to kill someone,to spill blood.The hatred directed towards ex-muslims,athiests & agnostics is most disturbing for any sane & rational person.

    This incitement of hate & violence towards ex-muslims must stop.Recommend

  • faisal ikhlaq
    Apr 20, 2011 - 10:55AM

    @arsalan saeed:

    yes,this sick obsession with killing apostates is a horrible part of our society.This mentality of keeping people in your religion by threats of violence is most inhumane & barbaric.Anything imposed by force & violence never succeeds,try getting people to stay in a religion due to its inherent goodness,don’t force them to stay by the threat of having their heads cut off like goats & sheep.Recommend

  • T R Khan
    Apr 20, 2011 - 11:20AM

    Selective blocking of websites is counter-productive. People who not heard of the cartoons, get curious.
    Blocking Lal masjid, Ahmadiyya persecution, Sindhi Institute etc has not made Pakistan a safer place?Recommend

  • EA
    Apr 20, 2011 - 3:51PM

    Why does a majority (more than 90%) feels insecure in Pakistan? What threat a segmented, lone, legally marginalized minority can pose to this huge gung-ho majority? Recommend

  • Hasan
    Apr 20, 2011 - 7:40PM

    Well that’s democracy for you. This is being done in PPP’s time supposedly a liberal and anti-extremists party.Recommend

  • John
    Apr 21, 2011 - 9:29AM

    Now all in Pakistan will come to understand what does freedom of speech mean

    Gov all around the world try to curb the communication in the name of peace, religious sanctity, national security etc., but it never worked. By curbing one extreme the censorship automatically advocates the other extreme, and a neutral mind now left with only view.

    In olden days, gov cut off the electricity to printing press, appointed some one to read the newspaper image disk before it went into printing and blackened out areas that gov did not want people to know ( in PAK history, refer to ZAB trial period newspapers to understand the censorship.) In present times, gov propagate false news story (false wiki leaks story as reported in PAK press) or announce lofty achievements with lots of praises for the people’s patriotism and advocate denouncing an enemy. Examples, N.Korea television news (check out You tube, funny to watch).

    Internet changed all that. It is citizens news media and gov has no interest in keeping it free, everywhere. It is the citizens responsibility to make sure that the 21 century medium remains free and fair, and gov does not interfere in this medium of communication.

    Of course, like printing press, it also gets abused by Jihadis and all other idiots, but by blocking them the gov actually looses its ability to monitor them. The sane people are not aware of these guys to make an informed decisions and they get attracted to them when they hear them for the first time in social settings.

    Curbing the Internet is equal to Taliban program in Afghanistan. Only difference was they did not know the Internet then. Recommend

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