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Censoring Blasphemy in Pakistan

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Blasphemy and Censorship in Pakistan/ Censoring Blasphemy in Pakistan

Despite the calls for digital freedom, many states around the globe witness mounting internet censorship restricting online content within their land. As per the Open Net Initiative, Pakistan is reported to be among the countries that inhibit access to certain content on the world wide web due to social, political and religious reasons. Religious reasons remain the most-censored aspect in the country. However, “internet filtering” in Pakistan is mainly arbitrary and patchy and focuses on content that is either reckoned as a national security threat or counted as an act of blasphemy. The recent brief restriction on Wikipedia due to blasphemous content has brought the oft-debated matter of internet censorship in the country to the fore.

With a plethora of material uploaded daily, the internet does not filter out any possibly damaging content. It puts the onus on social media platforms to design and apply comprehensive user policies and parameters. Additional standards are imposed by the countries based on their individual policies and regulations. Various Muslim-majority countries resort to anti-blasphemy laws to rebuke transgressors, particularly against Islam. As for blasphemy, the explanation of the term has evolved over the years across the world. However, in Pakistan, blasphemy or “offences related to religion”, refer to a list of crimes such as misappropriating religious labels or titles, desecrating the Holy Quran, intentionally enraging religious sentimentality, and employing pejorative comments in honour of the Holy Prophet.

Pakistan has quite an extensive history of internet bans on blasphemous content. It seems as if the state imposes bans as a “knee-jerk reaction” on any blasphemous content despite being completely aware that bars like these are eventually of no use and provide no benefit in the long run. Starting from 2006 when the highest court in the country asked the concerned authorities to put a blanket ban on websites carrying blasphemous caricatures published by a Danish newspaper of the Holy Prophet. Later, internet platforms, including YouTube, Wikipedia, Flickr, and Facebook, faced similar bans due to sacrilegious content, some for years at end.

Such blanket bans, which are later abrogated without much output, do nothing but harm the confidence of such international digital platforms and businesses regarding their operations in the country.

Pakistan ensures selective filtering of virtual content by Domain Name Service (DNS) tampering and content tampering (HTTP tampering). The internet watchdog in the country, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), is required to censor any online material that can be considered offensive to “the glory of Islam”. Then again, various segments believe that restricting content on the web might be a useless exercise considering such barriers are not hard to bypass. However, it is essential to keep in mind that the objective of banning online content is not to inhibit the masses from retrieving offensive content. Instead, the idea is to put the foot down with respect to online platforms that continue to showcase blasphemous content despite state-level complaints and requests for content removal.

Regarding the latest internet restrictions, the state did not give any details of the sacrilegious content. However, days after the complete state-level ban, the orders were annulled. Directing the removal of the Wikipedia ban, Prime Minister’s office issued a statement maintaining that restricting access to the entire website was not a conducive step for hindering access to “some objectionable content”. The unintentional repercussions of the “blanket ban” overshadow its advantages. According to the statement shared by Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb on Twitter, the government has constituted a committee to review such matters pertaining to “online content”. The committee is expected to be mindful of the “social, cultural and religious sensitivities” of the state and its people with respect to blasphemy and propose alternative technical steps to handle and navigate offensive content online.

Such blanket bans, which are later abrogated without much output, do nothing but harm the confidence of such international digital platforms and businesses regarding their operations in the country. Secondly, such restrictions harm local internet users. The relevant authorities, primarily the media regulator in the country, should try to find a sustainable technical solution considering such sacrilegious material is available everywhere.

In the recent instance in particular, it is important to consider that Wikipedia is a moderated platform with a comprehensive editorial policy where editors are bound to furnish verified sources for their contributed information. What is even more puzzling is that any Wikipedia user would know that replacing or updating material on Wikipedia is rather straightforward. Therefore, any content considered sacrilegious could have been replaced at an individual level even without the interference of the state, let alone without causing a worldwide ruckus, which only seems to many at this point as an instance of political point-scoring.

Even within Pakistan, certain sections of society view internet restrictions as a means of suppressing dissent. However, while the internet has become a need for the world today, its accessibility also makes it a convenient tool to crack and reach every crevice of the societal and moral fabric. Therefore, keeping a check on the content available online nevertheless is a given.

Fareha Iqtidar Khan

Fareha Iqtidar Khan serves as a Senior Associate Editor at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research. Holding an MPhil in International Relations from the National Defence University, she also occasionally teaches at esteemed public sector universities.

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