MEDIA-PAKISTAN: Netizens Argue for the Right to Decide

  • by Farah Zahidi Moazzam* - IPS/Asia Media Forum (karachi, pakistan)
  • Saturday, May 29, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

Whether the government of this mainly Muslim country lifts the ban on Facebook and other online sites on May 31, when the decision is to be reviewed, heated discussions on the topic will continue.

'We are still where we were in 2002. The bigwigs in decision making positions need to understand that not having enough Internet freedom is one of the reasons Pakistan's Internet industry has not progressed at the pace other countries have,' a disgruntled Omair Alavi, media analyst and Geo TV journalist, said in an interview.

It is not the first time that the government has clipped the Internet's wings, says Alavi, recalling that it has blocked blogs that it deemed sacrilegious. In some of these sites, bloggers copied and pasted cartoons of the prophet. Visual depictions of the prophet are forbidden and considered blasphemous in Islam.

The furore began when a U.S.-based cartoonist posted a drawing of the Prophet Mohammad on Apr. 20 and invited people to post similar drawings on May 20 in what was circulated in the Internet as 'Everybody Draw Mohammed Day'.

The page, which at one point attracted more than 43,000 fans around the world, put the Pakistan government into ‘banning mode’ because it invited members to draw and post pictures of the revered prophet.

The page's creators call it a protest against censorship and death threats, set up after an episode of a U.S. television cartoon series was held back due to its rendering of an image of the Prophet Mohammad.

In response to the impassioned protests that brought Pakistanis to the streets, the Lahore High Court on May 18 ordered the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) to block local public access to Facebook. Access to YouTube, which has since been unblocked, was also blocked on May 20 for allegedly displaying sacrilegious content. Some 800 websites were also blocked. All Internet connections are routed through a central exchange in this South Asian country. Taboo contents include pornography, blasphemous or anti- Islamic material. In cyberspace, different responses to the ‘Everybody Draw Mohammad Day’ page cropped up, including a Facebook page called ‘Against Everybody Draw Mohammed Day’ that got more than 200,000 fans.

The current row about visual portrayals of the Prophet Mohammad calls to mind previous instances of controversy across the Muslim world and similar arguments about what happens when freedom of expression and religious and cultural sensitivities appear to conflict.

In 2008, the Pakistani government temporarily blocked YouTube for showing a movie trailer that portrayed the Muslim holy book, the Koran, as a fascist book. In 2005 and 2006, Muslim countries staged protests against a Danish newspaper that published caricatures of the prophet.

For its part, Facebook has dilly-dallied on whether to remove the said page. In a statement at the height of the protests here and elsewhere, it said: 'While the content does not violate our terms, we do understand it may not be legal in some countries. . . . In cases like this, the approach is sometimes to restrict certain content from being shown in specific countries.'

Facebook has blocked access to the page from India, home to the third largest Muslim population in the world, news reports said.

Here in Karachi, Islamic preacher Safiya Khan is indignant at Facebook, saying 'freedom of expression does not entail disrespect for any religion.'

The government’s decision to ban access to the site, adds Khan, was correct if it was aimed at dealing a financial blow to Facebook. Citing a passage from the Koran that encourages devotees to 'move away for a while from a place where our faith is being mocked,' she said that 'this ban is us simply moving away, albeit for a while.'

But not everyone agrees with Khan. As the initial anger ebbed, many among Pakistan’s 2.3 million Facebook users began to miss making the status updates on the social networking site that they find cathartic.

Bank executive Ahmed Amin feels that 'the government levied the ban to appear in sync with the general mood of the masses.' He added: 'They had to do something! Ironically, the government may have won the approval of the masses but not the Facebook-using urban population of Pakistan.'

'The reasonable way to react to the situation was to make the Muslims' point of view heard,' says media student Fahad Naveed. 'Instead, the PTA decided to cut us at the source so the creators of the offensive page could go on uninterrupted (outside Pakistan).'

Sherry Rehman, a member of the Pakistan National Assembly and former federal minister for information and broadcasting, said in a statement that the indiscriminate blocking of websites is affecting the 'fundamental freedom' of the country's 180 million people.

Sherazade Khan, 'Women's Own' magazine fashion editor, said of the court's decision to ban local access to Facebook: 'We have the ability to tell right from wrong. It's our right to exercise the right to choose what to do.'

Meantime, Facebook users in the country are exercising what they see as their right — either by using websites that circumvent the government ban or by continuing to boycott the social networking site.

*The Asia Media Forum (http://www.theasiamediaforum.org) is a space for journalists to share insights on issues related to the media and their profession. It is coordinated by IPS Asia-Pacific.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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