Social Media weapons
Social media ban
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News Analysis 

Pakistani government, criminal justice system and key institutions are creating the impression, for the public, as if there is a war going on against ‘blasphemous content’ on social media.

Almost 80% of Facebook users in Pakistan are below the age of 30 and there is an insignificant percentage of Pakistanis over the age of 40 who use Facebook. In other words most who are up in arms against “social media” meaning: Facebook are the ones who don’t use it. It thus represents – like Brexit in UK -a generational conflict.

The latest impetus to this impression was given by country’s, Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan. Khan said in high level meeting on Thursday, that his government will do everything possible to block blasphemous content on internet, particularly on social media. In Pakistan term “social media” is often supposed to mean: Facebook, which is now used by around 30 million or more Pakistanis, mostly young. Almost 80% of Facebook users in Pakistan are below the age of 30 and there is an insignificant percentage of Pakistanis over the age of 40 who use Facebook. In other words most who are up in arms against “social media” meaning: Facebook are not the ones who don’t use it. It thus represents –  like Brexit in UK -a generational conflict. An older generation, with levers of control over state apparatus is struggling to prevent change coming through social media entry points. Few Pakistanis use Reddit, Google Plus, Linked In and other such applications.

This position by Pakistan’s Interior Minister leads one to believe that identifying what is “blasphemous” and what is not is a matter of science or mathematics.

The importance of meeting with Ch. Nisar could be gauged by the fact that it was attended not only by country’s Interior Secretary, (equivalent of Home Secretary in UK) but by Advocate General and senior officials of FIA (Federal Investigation Agency) and chairman of Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA).

We will go to any extent [to stop such content] even if we have to permanently block all such social media websites which refuse to cooperate. No blasphemous material will be allowed to be propagated through social media that hurts religious sentiments of the people of Pakistan.

On this occasion, Nisar asserted, that the international community needs to consider the feelings and sentiments of Muslims in Pakistan and the entire Ummah, “Blasphemy and terrorism are two major sensitivities and the state will not compromise on these issues.” Further, he claimed, such content will not be tolerated through any medium or channel. Minister’s statement creates the impression as if international community – and not editorial bodies of Facebook & twitter etc – somehow control content on these media platforms. It also creates the impression as if these platforms – and not the Govt of Pakistan – have to take steps in monitoring, tracking and intervening into communications by terrorist groups.

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What is “blasphemous” to one person, or community may not appear blasphemous to another set of individuals. Interpretation of content not only varies across cultures, religions and geographical areas but also within the same country.

Pakistan’s Interior Minister then directed Chairman, Pakistani Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to express stern reservations and concerns of Pakistani government so that foreign companies can find a lasting solution to block such content so that it does not surface, ever again. In addition, he advised for the development of software for the detection of such materials on internet at local level.

This position by Pakistan’s Interior Minister – overlooks the complexities involved – leads one to believe that identifying what is “blasphemous” and what is not is simply a matter  of science or mathematics. Pakistani criminal justice system and politicians are continuously making statements that expose their total ignorance of modernity, science and technology. What is “blasphemous” to one person, or community may not appear blasphemous to another set of individuals. Interpretation of content not only varies across cultures, religions and geographical areas but also amongst sects within the same country. If Pakistani government actions advanced beyond rhetoric it will create serious legal, technical and political issues for itself. The first question will be: how to define “blasphemous” and then how to practically apply it on world wide content available to Pakistani surfers – without becoming a huge politically motivated censorship board.

More than 1.7 billion people, world wide, now use Facebook, around 500 million people use Twitter and same is the number on Google Plus. In addition to this all kind of content exists on the net that is searchable by search engines like Google, Yahoo, Bing and MSN etc. Hundreds and thousands of new pages of content are being created every minute.

Real facts and their complexity are seldom discussed publicly in Pakistan. More than 1.7 billion people, world wide, now use Facebook, around 500 million people use Twitter and same is the number on Google Plus. In addition to this all kind of content exists on the net that is searchable by search engines like Google, Yahoo, Bing and MSN etc. Hundreds and thousands of new pages of content are being created every minute. Pakistani agencies spend sufficient time, energy and finance on continuously blocking such pages identitified by one or the other community or agency. What it lacks at the moment is capacity to block pages inside the structure of Facebook. Given these facts it looks as if the statement of Pakistan’s Interior Minister are only been made for political consumption at home.

Interior Minister has only joined his forces with Islamabad High Court. Earlier, court, while hearing a petition lodged by son in law of Maulana Abdul Aziz, of Red Mosque, observed that Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, was unaware of this grave situation (regarding the presence of blasphemous content on social media) as no action was taken by the executive office. Court observed that this failure on the part of the Prime Minister left the entire nation sleepless. After court made its observations, First Information Reports (FIRs) have been filed against ‘unidentified’ blasphemers.

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Justice Shaukat Aziz said, “It appears that the [blasphemous] content has not been brought to the notice of the prime minister… the entire nation is sleepless [and agitated] due to inaction of the executive.”

YouTube was unblocked in end 2015 or early 2016 – which can be credited to lot of diligent work by PMLN Minister, Anusha Rehman who made it possible, in her work with PTA to create www.youtube.pk.

Interestingly, this is not the first time there is talk about banning social media. In 2009, a Judge, sitting in a divisional bench in Bahawalpur, ordered ban on Google, Yahoo and MSN not realizing that these were not pages but search engines. PPP government of the day managed to avoid a funny situation. But in September of 2012 during PPP’s government, YouTube was banned over a blasphemous video, ‘Innocence of Muslims’ which triggered a global protest. Egyptian man, who uploaded the video from California, was arrested by the US government, on a different excuse, in order to show its solidarity with the Muslims. However Google that owns You Tube had refused taking down the offensive video – even on the requests of Obama administration. Google’s reasons were technical and were related to the fact that Pakistan did not have a You Tube version for Pakistan (www.youtube.pk) and Google did not want Pakistani government dictate its terms to You Tube on a world wide level.

The ban lasted for four years and YouTube was unblocked in early 2016 – which can be credited to lot of work by PMLN Minister, Anusha Rehman who made it possible, in her work with PTA to create www.youtube.pk. Turkey, India, Saudi Arabia already had their own versions of You Tube, where blocking of content, in specific jurisdictions was possible. Interestingly, Saudi Arabia never  had the kind of issues which Pakistan faces. In the kingdom, a popup disclosure would often appear informing the viewer that certain content may be blasphemous or against the laws. It warns of viewer discretion but actions on the basis is unknown.

Countries that banned YouTube over blasphemous content, in 2012, included: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, South Sudan and Bangladesh.

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