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Thursday, February 15, 2024

Is Siasat.pk banning part of an Orwellian control by the Government?

On May 5th, popular Pakistani news forum Siasat.pk found that their Facebook page had disappeared with no intimation, warning, notification, or explanation by Facebook. This is not standard procedure for Facebook, which goes through a process before closing down any page. Siasat.pk Facebook page had a 3.7 million strong subscriber base and was one of Pakistan’s largest online political news dissemination and discussion forum.

The public’s suspicion of the PML-N establishment stems from the government’s recent efforts to take down the fast-rising television news channel Bol News.

Within 24 hours of the page’s discontinuity, Twitter was abuzz with speculation regarding the cause of the sudden ban of this famous news outlet. User upon user tweeted screenshots of the “This content isn’t available right now” message which was displayed in place of the Siasat.pk content stream. These images were mostly accompanied by vehement protests and insults directed at the incumbent government, which, many suspect, was the source of this illicit censoring.

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Siasat.pk and the public’s suspicion of the PML-N establishment stems from the government’s recent efforts to take down the fast-rising television news channel Bol News, which it saw as being critical of the government. Two government regulatory authorities, Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), with the approval of Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), had recently issued a directive banning all cable operators and satellite broadcasters from airing the channel but the decision was promptly overturned by the Sindh High Court (SHC). However, PEMRA in contempt of the SHC, has still not reinstated the channel.

In an attempt to ascertain government involvement, administrators of Siasat.pk sent a polite official email to PTA to inquire about the ban of their page. GVS was, fortunately, privy to the exchange that followed.

“Please note that the arrangement with FB to remove pages is limited to blasphemous content only.”

In the email, Adeel Habib, CEO of Siasat.pk, emphasized the efforts of the page administration to comply with rules and regulations of Facebook and recounted the details of the page’s blocking after which he inquired whether the government had played a part in taking down the page. The email was sent on 7th May.

A succinct reply was subsequently received on 8th May from Khurram Mehran, Director Public Relations PTA, which stated that PTA had not asked Facebook to suspend the Siasat.pk page. “Please note that the arrangement with FB to remove pages is limited to blasphemous content only”, the email clarified.

The official denial of involvement by PTA, makes the suspension of Siasat.pk Facebook page even more perplexing. When taking down a site or before such an action, Facebook warns and notifies page administrators if any of their content contrasts with the company’s Community Standards, the abrupt suspension of the page in question points to interference external to Facebook’s domain and mandate. Siasat.pk’s Facebook page suspension is indicative of the escalating crackdown on social media platforms by those who are threatened by Pakistan’s blossoming trend of online political and social discourse.

Read more: Facebook enjoys £11m UK tax credit despite £5bn global profit

Facebook and governmental affairs

Facebook is frequently accused by internet freedom groups of colluding with authoritarian regimes to stifle freedom of speech.

Facebook throughout the world to preserve its own business platform has started making ‘dubious’ agreements with governments, Pakistan is one but others include Russia and Turkey, to ensure that it continues to survive and flourish in those countries.

On an official information page dedicated to Facebook’s agreement with Pakistan’s government. Facebook has stated that “Based on legal requests from the Pakistan Telecom Authority and Federal Investigation Agency, we restricted access to items that were alleged to violate local laws prohibiting blasphemy and condemnation of the country’s independence”.

Facebook has confirmed that its teams assisted both Trump’s and Brexit’s political campaign and maintains that it is rightfully obliged to help its customers make use of the products the company has to offer.

Who will exactly be defining ‘blasphemy’ and issues of ‘country independence’ in Pakistan? In Pakistan, blasphemy allegations have killed hundreds of people by others that have used it for their personal motives. The government has started to create a hysteria on blasphemy by encouraging PTA to send out millions of text messages on mobile phones warning “Uploading & sharing of blasphemous content on the internet is a punishable offiense under the law. Such content should be reported on info.pta.gov.pk for legal action.” On this pretext of blasphemy, the government is clamping down on any opposition to its policies in the social media, which had until now been out of its control. An Orwellian control is being imposed on Pakistan.