Access denied: Ebb and flow of internet freedom over 2008-18

Censorship routinely employed to ‘maintain order’


Censorship routinely employed to ‘maintain order’. PHOTO: REUTERS

KARACHI: Better telecommunication standards are attributed to have markedly raised public awareness over the years. Improved flow of information, however, has brought in its wake governmental interventions aimed at curbing access to ‘maintain order’. A cursory examination lends credence to the trend.

2008

Popular video-sharing website YouTube was banned soon after the then Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) ascended to power in 2008. The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) blocked the site following the appearance of blasphemous content. The ban was rescinded after the material was removed.

2009

In 2009, the PTA ordered ISPs to monitor voice traffic. The directive was retracted after service providers cited prohibitive costs.

2010

Social networking site Facebook remained banned for two weeks in connection with an ‘initiative’ encouraging the proliferation of blasphemous caricatures. The move impacted another 10,548 sites including YouTube, Flickr and Wikipedia.

CPNE dissatisfied with state of press freedom in Pakistan

Policy guidelines on content filtration were formulated by the then government in 2010.

Access to The Baloch Hal, “Balochistan’s first online newspaper” was also blocked in 2010, a year after its inception.

2011

The website of noted American monthly Rolling Stone remained inaccessible after it carried an article critical of Pakistan’s defence spending. A similar fate befell Canadian daily Toronto Sun for giving space to controversial intellectual Tarek Fatah.

2012

Micro-blogging site Twitter was fleetingly banned in May over blasphemous content. A widespread outcry led to the move being revoked a few hours after.

In September, YouTube was banned after an anti-Islam film was uploaded. In February, Information Technology Parliamentary Secretary Nawab Liaquat Ali Khan told the National Assembly that 13,000 “obscene” sites had been blocked.

Routine suspension of cellular services continued over the year. Terror threats were often cited on this account by the interior ministry.

June 2013-May 2014

Queer Pakistan, the nation’s first LGBT site, was blocked in September, 2013. In November, 2013 the IMDb page of a satire film on the military was blocked.  VPNs Spotflux and Hotspot Shield met a similar fate in January, 2014. The site of British daily The Guardian was inaccessible in many places nationwide in February, 2014.

The government approached Twitter nine times to have accounts blocked over the latter half of 2013. None of them were entertained. Similar attempts over the first half of 2014 were partially successful, the government claimed.

Facebook restricted 1,773 pieces of blasphemous content over January-June, 2014. In May, 2014 the Facebook page of DeviantArt was blocked. Music band Laal’s page also remained inaccessible fleetingly.

Tech giant Google turned down a government request seeking the deletion of six videos satirising politicians and army men. It was reported that efforts to curb access to pornography had curbed the flow of ‘legitimate’ content.

Cellular services across 80 cities remained suspended on account of Ashura in 2013. Similar measures were taken in January, 2014 in connection with Rabiul Awwal.

June 2014-May 2015

Facebook restricted access to 54 pieces of blasphemous content reported by the National Response Centre for Cyber Crimes and PTA. Twitter was approached 10 times separately on blocking 84 accounts in vain.

A parliamentary committee on censorship was disbanded in March, 2015 with the PTA being tasked with the responsibility.  Cellular services remained suspended across “sensitive areas” on religious holidays.

June 2015-May 2016

The government lifted a much-publicised YouTube ban in early 2016 after the passage of nearly four years. Users can now frequent the video-sharing site with access governed by local law.

One-time leading smartphone vendor BlackBerry was warned of imminent closure in case it failed to share data with the government. The company said it had been allowed to continue operating despite refusing to share data in December, 2015.

The controversial Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill was approved by the National Assembly in April, 2016. The site of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was blocked the same month.

Facebook restricted 31 pieces of content for blasphemy, disrespecting the national flag and questioning the state’s founding. Twitter was approached 21 times separately on blocking 65 accounts. The micro-blogging site said it had not complied with a single request.

In keeping with entrenched practise, security considerations continued to dictate provision of cellular services on national and religious events.

June 2016-May 2017

Digital satire publication Khabaristan Times was blocked on January 25, 2017. “The website has been blocked after reviewing numerous complaints from both, institutions and individuals regarding the content,” officials told The Express Tribune on the condition of anonymity.

Access to nearly 200 pieces of content on Facebook was restricted following PTA and Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) complaints. Access was restricted courtesy laws prohibiting blasphemy and sedition, the social networking site said in a statement. Twitter received over three dozen account-removal requests on 101 users. None of the requests were complied with.

Pakistan's press freedom - a pipe dream

Cellular services remained suspended across the then Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) for over a year. Poor order was cited in relation to the suspension of services in Balochistan over the latter half of 2016 and early 2017. Similar measures were taken over national and religious holidays across the country.

 

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