The web on trial

The Friday Times, May 28-June 4, 2010

Who knew a social networking could cause so much trouble. Below is a chronicle of how events unfolded in the last two weeks.

It all started in April, when Molly Norris from Seattle, suggested that May 20 be “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” and drew a cartoon for this purpose. According to her apology last week, this was a satirical suggestion made in response to the threats received by producers of the show “South Park” when they offensively depicted of the Prophet (PBUH) on the show. Her idea was to “water down the pool of targets” by having people draw their own images. She even posted a link to the “Against Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” Facebook page on her webpage.

After an order from the Lahore High Court on May 19, the government through the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) banned Facebook in Pakistan indefinitely. The PTA publicized an email address and phone number, requesting users to report to them of sites carrying offensive content.

The PTA was responding to an action by a group of lawyers offended by the Facebook page. Azhar Siddique, a representative of the Islamic Lawyers Forum filed the petition and the lawyers succeeded in getting the government to block the Facebook group itself on May 18. However they requested a full block whole Facebook site, boycotting Facebook itself for permitting the page to exist in the first place. According to Saama TV, they argued that unless the entire website was blocked, it would be difficult to stop the campaign on the site. Justice Ejaz Chaudhry of the Lahore court issued the ruling, and the government was ordered to block Facebook until May 31 (when the court will hold a hearing on the matter).

On May 19, the Facbook was not accessible, but smartphone users could access the site. By May 20, internet services on these phones were disabled. It did not end here; the ban extended to include the video-sharing website, YouTube due to blasphemous content. Additional websites including Flickr were blocked in Pakistan on May 20. According to Reuters, the PTA had first tried to block separate pages on YouTube, “but the blasphemous content kept appearing so we ordered a total shut down.”

Wahaj-us-Siraj, a spokesman for the Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that “at least 800 individual web pages and URLs have been blocked since the government’s orders to shut Facebook and YouTube.” Dawn News reports on May 22 that these remarks came hours after the Facebook user who organised an “Everyone Draw Mohammed Day” competition to promote “freedom of expression” took down the page along with a separate blog about the campaign. Minister of Religious Affairs, Hamid Saeed Kazmi, said the country wide ban was only a temporary solution. He suggested the government organize a conference of Muslim countries to figure out ways to prevent the publication of such images.

In Islamabad there were protests outside the Parliament on May 19, and on May 20 many students supported the ban outside Hamdard University. Lawyers protested in Lahore on May 19 outside the Lahore Court and on May 20, both Swedish and Danish flags were burned in a protest (although the Norwegian News Agency reports that the Norwegian flag was burned mistakenly as protesters thought it was Danish!). According to the Associated Press on May 19, approximately 2,000 female students protested in Karachi. Protests against Facebook were also organized in Kasur, Narowal, Gujranwala, Rawalpindi, Hyderabad, Multan and Peshawar; all by religious parties including Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam. On the other hand there have been anti-ban protests like at the Karachi Press Club on May 22 in favour of free speech. Generally, bloggers in Pakistan have also been vehemently pro-free speech as has a large section of the printed media.

On the international front, Eric Schmidt chief executive of Google, said he was suspicious of the ban, “In every case there is an official reason then another reason. There is an awful lot of political criticism they are blocking at the same time.” There have not been extensive protests or prohibitions in other Muslim countries. The website remains accessible in Saudi Arabia, though local Arab news reports say that the page with the caricatures was blocked. There have been some protests in South Africa by the Muslim community as reported by The Guradian last Friday. However, these were not in direct response to the Facebook page but due to a cartoon that depicted the Prophet (PBUH) appearing in a local newspaper in response to the Facebook page. On May 22, Dawn reports that Pakistan’s outrage spread to India last Friday and Muslim protesters in Mumbai demanded a ban on the Facebook website.

There have been some suggestions for creating a Pakistani, or Muslim forum for social networking. The Express Tribune reports of an alternative site called Pakfacebook.com coming up on the May 19 that has become the 488th most active site in Pakistan. It has however been down due to too much traffic, and people are suspicious of it since it is hosted in Canada Muslim, and even Pakistan chat forums, discussion forums and networking sites do exist, but the popularity of sites like Facebook, Orkut before it, Twitter, or Flickr among Muslim internet users outstrips any other networking sites. The arena of social networking on websites is of course an area of private choice and personal opinion; something the broad ban on Facebook and Youtube has ignored.

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