Reporters Without Borders deplores the fact that the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) blocked access to the social network Twitter for almost 12 hours yesterday on orders from the Ministry of Information Technology because of “blasphemous content,” namely a Prophet Mohamed cartoon competition.
“Blocking access to a social network, even for a few hours, is an unacceptable violation of freedom of expression and access to information,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Aside from its completely disproportionate nature, this kind of blocking is both ineffective, because it is easily circumvented, and counter-productive, because it has given unprecedented publicity to the cartoon competition condemned by the Pakistani authorities.
“Twitter is becoming increasingly popular in Pakistan and has acquired the status of an alternative platform for free expression and exchanging views on a wide range of political and social issues. The Pakistani authorities should face up to their responsibilities and ensure that this kind of measure, which is unworthy of a democratic government, does not recur.”
A PTA spokesman told Agence France-Presse that both Facebook and Twitter were involved “We negotiated with both. Facebook agree to remove the [offending] material but Twitter did not respond.” As a result, Facebook is accessible but Twitter remains blocked. The Pakistani newspaper Dawn said Twitter had refused to remove the offending content.
There is also a need for transparency about the method used to block access to Twitter. A PTA spokesman said Internet Services Providers were asked to do the blocking but Wahajuz Siraj of the Internet Services Providers Association of Pakistan (ISPAK) said the PTA had blocked the access to Twitter directly from the upstream links, without notifying ISPs.
The blocking of Twitter triggered an outcry from Pakistani Internet users. The Pakistani branch of the NGO Bytes for All set up a “Rapid Response Network” to allow them to circumvent the blocking.
This is not the first time the Pakistani authorities have blocked access to an entire Internet platform because of content regarded as blasphemous. Both Facebook and YouTube were blocked in mid-2010. The blocking of Facebook was imposed on 19 May 2010 because of a “Draw Mohammed Day” competition and was lifted 12 days later on the orders of a Lahore high court judge.
A recent government plan to introduce a nationwide website filtering system was widely condemned by local and international NGOs, including Reporters Without Borders, at the initiative of Bolo Bhi, a Pakistani civil rights group.