Patrice Riemens on Wed, 17 Feb 2010 00:59:53 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Huma Yusuf: Web of Silence?

Bwo BytesforAll list/ Fouad Bajwa

original to:

Huma Yusuf
Web of Silence?

Pakistanis have always had a taste for delicious ironies ? and we can
always count on our leaders to serve them up. The latest treat comes from
none other than President Asif Zardari.

In a recent speech, while speaking about democracy, Zardari paused, glared
at a heckler in the crowd, and then shouted at him to ?shut up!?

This being the 21st century, the not-so-proud moment was caught on camera
and widely circulated via the video-sharing website, YouTube.

Those who saw the clip were already tittering about the irony of
democracy?s greatest defender shushing free speech in such a literal
manner when the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) decided to up
the ante. Since last Sunday, links to the video have been blocked and
anyone trying to view the clip is informed that the ?site is restricted?.

Moreover, on Friday, the webmaster of the ?Make Pakistan Better? website
reported that the PTA has also directed that the site be blocked on an
Internet protocol level. The webmaster alleges that the site has been
blocked for hosting anti-government content, though the PTA has cited no
reason for the clampdown.

These are not the first instances in which websites have been blocked. In
October last year, websites hosting a video that showed a Pakistan Army
major interrogating people suspected of harbouring terrorists was blocked
? the clip revealed that the major ordered his team to beat the suspects.
In August 2008, the PTA blocked links to a video alleging the misuse of
power by naval chief Admiral Afzal Tahir.

Before that, during the February 2008 elections, links to a video that
showed election rigging by a major Karachi-based political party were
blocked. In that instance, the PTA drew global attention to its censorship
tactics ? as well as the limits of its technical know-how ? by blocking
the YouTube website around the world for a few hours.

The authorities also sporadically block the websites of Baloch nationalist
groups. In fact, online activists have been fighting against Internet
censorship since 2005, when the PTA blocked hundreds of blogs hosted on
the ? domain.

Concerns about online free expression skyrocketed last year after the
passage of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, mention of which is
often preceded by the use of the adjective ?draconian?.

In yet another ironic twist, our civilian, democratically elected
government passed the act even though it was a vestige of Gen Pervez
Musharraf?s regime and encapsulated his increasingly authoritative
attitude towards press freedom.

Much has already been written about this legislature, which aims to curb
cyber terrorism but employs vague language that could be invoked to slap
serious charges on anyone who owns a computer.

Under the act, the PTA can arbitrarily invoke hazy definitions for what
constitutes spamming, spoofing, stalking, ?terroristic intent?, or a
terrorist act to put someone behind bars for years. Indeed, the act is
peppered with words such as ?lewd?, ?obscene?, and ?immoral?, which are
not legal terms and are thus highly subjective. In other words, it is up
to the authorities? discretion to determine what is unacceptable.

For months, there have been calls to redraft the law and to bring it in
line with international legal standards for cyber crime as well as the
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights. The PTA?s decision to block a YouTube clip
and a website recently are reason enough to renew that call.

Admittedly, Pakistan does not have the poor track record of China, Iran,
Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other countries that restrict online free
expression by filtering or blocking content or monitoring activity ? at
least till now.

But it is absolutely essential that the Pakistani authorities do not go
down that route, for it is an affront to press freedom at large and would
be another setback to this country?s newest exercise in democracy.

The fact is, online monitoring and blocking are modern versions of
old-school tactics to rein in a free press, such as detention, harassment
and intimidation. Around the world, attacks against bloggers and other
individuals who post content online is the first front in authoritarian
crackdowns on press freedom.

After all, individuals who go online are more vulnerable to censorship
than professional media personnel because they do not have the backing of
organisations or unions, nor do they have adequate resources such as
money, lawyers or awareness about their right to free speech.

Until now, the PTA has only blocked a handful of websites. But Internet
connectivity is becoming widespread ? according to Internet World Stats,
there are currently 18.5 million Internet users in Pakistan, a 13,716 per
cent increase from 2000.

As more youngsters go online, we are bound to see a new generation of
citizen journalists posting video clips, images or blogs that document
official transgressions such as corruption or torture.

To ensure that their right to do so is protected, we must speak out now
against the PTA?s blocks as well as the cyber crimes act that support such

There is already a push in the US and EU to include violations of online
free expression in countries? human rights portfolios. If we do not set a
precedent for protecting online free speech, the PTA?s activities could
become yet another issue that makes us pariahs among the international

Pakistan has long prided itself on having a relatively free press, and
military dictators and civilian governments ? when flagging their
democratic credentials ? point to the open conversation in the country?s
column inches and on its airwaves. The government should make a policy
decision to extend that conversation into the Pakistani websphere.

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