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Vimeo by a page telling viewers it was “prohibited” within Pakistan in mid-2013.
The website of
the Lal-Masjid mosque in Islamabad has been blocked since 2007 when it became the center of a
government stand-off with conservative clerics.
In July 2011, the website of the popular
American music magazine Rolling Stone was blocked by at least 13 ISPs after the site published a
blog post discussing Pakistan's “insane military spending.”
Rollingstone.com remains blocked as of
February 2013 along with the website of the Toronto Sun newspaper, supposedly because it
published articles by Canada-based secularist and journalist Tarek Fateh criticizing the Pakistani
Since website blocking was first observed in Pakistan, much of it has targeted social media and
communication apps. In 2006, the PTA—responding to widespread public pressure—instructed
ISPs to block websites displaying controversial cartoon images of the prophet Mohammed, many on
Google’s blog hosting platform Blogger.
In 2010, over 10,500 websites were blocked,
many on Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and Wikipedia, after the Lahore High Court ruled in favor of a
legal appeal made by the Islamic Lawyers Movement over the Facebook page, “Everybody Draw
Mobile phone providers also completely halted Blackberry services;
functionality was only gradually restored, though web-browsing functions remained restricted for
While most social-networking and blog-hosting platforms were available and widely used
throughout 2012 and early 2013, there were several temporary disruptions of Facebook and
Twitter services, and different religious groups persistently exerted pressure on the Pakistani
courts to ban Facebook completely.
Groups and individuals affiliated with political and religious
parties have also filed court petitions against YouTube.
The most wide-reaching ban in 2012 was imposed after a Californian internet user uploaded a 14-
minute video to YouTube ostensibly promoting a movie he had created to denounce Islam titled
“The Innocence of Muslims.”
In September, the clip was dubbed into other languages, garnering
hundreds of thousands of views and sparking violent anti-American protests in several Muslim
“Song Critical of Pakistani Generals is Blocked Online, With No Official Explanation,” New York Times, May 4, 2013,
“Lal Masjid Issue and its Blocked Website,” Teeth Maestro, April 12, 2007, http://bit.ly/5ayFuP.
Jillian York, “Pakistan Escalates its Internet Censorship,” Al Jazeera, July 26, 2011, http://aje.me/nuirDk; “Pakistan Blocks Sex,
Drugs AND Rock and Roll,” Association for Progressive Communications (blog), http://bit.ly/o2WMUw.
“Toronto Sun Website Blocked in Pakistan: Report,” Express Tribune, February 8, 2013, http://bit.ly/11UCR4P.
Jefferson Morley, “Pakistan’s Blog Blockade,” Washington Post (blog), March 8, 2006, http://bit.ly/14TdwIY; PTA Unblocks
Blogspot,” Teeth Maestro, May 3, 2006, http://teeth.com.pk/blog/2006/05/03/pta‐unblocks‐blogspot.
“The Shameful Saga of the Internet Ban in Pakistan,” Association for Progressive Communication, July 22, 2010,
Islamic tradition forbids the depiction of Allah or Mohamed. “Pakistan Court Orders Facebook Ban,” Al Jazeera, May 20, 2010,
Aamir Attaa, “Blackberry Services Go Offline in Pakistan,” Pro Pakistani, May 20, 2010, http://bit.ly/b5Dzth; Aamir Attaa,
“Blackberry Services Yet to be Fully Restored,” Pro Pakistani, June 4, 2010, http://propakistani.pk/2010/06/04/blackberry‐
services‐yet‐to‐be‐fully‐restored/. Full Blackberry services were accessible in 2013.
“Permanently Banning Facebook: Court Seeks Record of Previous Petitions,” Express Tribune, May 6, 2011,
“Access Denied: As YouTube Remains Blocked, SHC Dismisses Plea for Ban,” Express Tribune, March 29, 2013,
Ian Lovett, “Man Linked to Film in Protests Is Questioned,” New York Times, September 15, 2012,
http://nyti.ms/16JNAfz; Michael Joseph Gross, “Disaster Movie,” Vanity Fair, December 27, 2012, http://vnty.fr/W3sPpO.
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countries. In Pakistan, they resulted in at least 19 deaths.
Google, which owns YouTube,
temporarily blocked versions of the video in some countries but declined to remove it altogether,
and it remained accessible in Pakistan, despite Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf’s request that it
be taken down.
News reports in Pakistan attributed this to the lack of a Mutual Legal Assistance
Treaty with the U.S.—a legal agreement through with countries can negotiate over companies’
compliance with local laws
—but how far this affected Google’s decision is unclear. In response,
the information ministry instituted a site-wide block on YouTube on September 17, 2012.
October 9, another 20,000 websites were blocked, not just for featuring the anti-Islamic movie,
but also for hosting material that the PTA characterized as “objectionable.”
Prior to this incident, many blocks were implemented on a temporary basis to calm protests against
online content. In 2012, however, civil society groups protested against the ban—which affected
more than seven million users of the service in Pakistan
—to no avail, and it continued almost
uninterrupted through May 2013. The civil society organization Bytes for All filed a petition against
the block in the Lahore High Court in January; hearings are ongoing.
Students who frequently
refer to YouTube online lectures were particularly affected, and one institution, Pakistan’s Virtual
University, moved all educational material formerly hosted on YouTube to its own servers. In early
2013, Pakistani officials stated that the ban would stay in place until Google removed the content or
until a nationwide filtering mechanism was in place, allowing them to control what YouTube
content is available for themselves.
The government set out to acquire such a mechanism in February 2012 on grounds that ISPs and
backbone providers were unable to manage the volume of blacklisted sites manually.
ICT Research and Development Fund invited ICT companies to submit proposals to develop and
operate a “national level URL Filtering and Blocking System,”
preferably one able to “handle a
block list of up to 50 million URLs with a processing delay of not more than 1 millisecond.”
Websites with “blasphemous, un-Islamic, offensive, objectionable, unethical, and immoral
material” would be targeted, according to the notice.
After widespread protest from civil society,
“‘Innocence of Muslims’ Protests: Death Toll Rising In Pakistan”, International Business Times, September 21, 2012,
Lawrence Latif, “Pakistan and Bangladesh Block YouTube Over Innocence of Muslims Trailer,” The Inquirer, September 19,
Huma Imtiaz, “Pakistan Renewed its Ban on YouTube this Week. Could the Entire Internet be Far Behind?,” February 15,
“YouTube blocked in Pakistan,” The News International, September 17, 2012, http://bit.ly/OxLpn5.
“In Massive Censorship Move, Pakistan Blocks 20,000 “Objectionable” Sites,” The Daily Dot, October 9, 2012,
“Excessive Internet Bans Worrisome for Pakistan,” Dawn, November 5, 2012, http://bit.ly/YHXwVp.
Bytes for All, “Bytes for All vs. Federation of Pakistan – Updates on our Net Freedom Petition,” April 14, 2013,
Andrew Webster, “Pakistan Will Lift Ban on YouTube After Building Filter for ‘Blasphemous Material,’” The Verge, January 9,
Danny O’Brien, “Pakistan's Excessive Internet Censorship Plans,” CPJ Internet Channel, March 1, 2012, http://bit.ly/yW8kb9.
National ICT Research and Development Fund, “Request for Proposal: National URL Filtering and Blocking System,” accessed
August 2012, http://ictrdf.org.pk/RFP‐%20URL%20Filtering%20%26%20Blocking.pdf.
National ICT Research and Development Fund, “Request for Proposal.”
“PTA Determined to Block Websites with ‘Objectionable’ Content,” Express Tribune, March 9, 2012, http://bit.ly/xEND9P.
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the request for proposals was apparently shelved,
although that change was announced in the
media rather than an official press release. In January 2013, PTA Chairman Farooq Ahmed Khan
announced that an apparently unrelated “new mechanism” for blocking un-Islamic, pornographic,
and blasphemous material from websites would be activated in Pakistan within 60 days, according
to the Pakistan Today newspaper.
Other news reports were less clear about the timing for
implementing new filtering devices,
possibly reflecting internal disputes between the PTA and the
information ministry over costs and responsibility for the project.
Authorities also target users seeking to access blocked content. In August 2011, the PTA sent a
legal notice to all ISPs in the country urging them to report customers using encryption and virtual
private networks (VPNs)
—technology that allows internet users to go online undetected, access
blocked websites, and conceal communications from government monitoring—on grounds of
curbing communication between terrorists.
International and civil society organizations in
Pakistan raised effective voice against this repressive development;
however, the order still stands
as of early 2013.
Despite existing limitations on online content—and looming new ones—Pakistanis have relatively
open access to international news organizations and other independent media, as well as a range of
websites representing Pakistani political parties, local civil society groups, and international human
ICTs, particularly mobile phones, promote social mobilization, including on
free expression issues. The 2010 floods in Pakistan, for example, inspired many Pakistani citizens
and members of the diaspora to mobilize and raise funds online.
Nevertheless, most online
commentators exercise a degree of self-censorship when writing on topics such as religion,
blasphemy, separatist movements, and women’s and LGBT rights.
The relationship between citizen journalism and traditional media in Pakistan is mutually
reinforcing. In 2013, reports of election rigging spread via Facebook and Twitter, prompting
traditional media coverage.
Social media advocacy also advanced a police investigation into the
shooting murder of 20-year old uptown Karachi resident Shahzeb Khan in December 2012.
mainstream media and police initially responded with apathy to news of the attack, perhaps because
Shahbaz Rana, “IT Ministry Shelves Plan to Install Massive URL Blocking System,” Express Tribune, March 19, 2012,
Anwer Abbas, “PTA, IT Ministry at Odds Over Internet Censorship System,” January 3, 2013, http://bit.ly/12Znc2Q.
Apurva Chaudhary, “Pakistan To Unblock YouTube After Building Filtering Mechanism,” Medianama, January 10, 2013,
http://bit.ly/TMmcvh; Pakistan Press Foundation, “The Saga of YouTube Ban,” January 2, 2013, http://bit.ly/1bhpMEP.
“Ministry Wants Treaty, Law to Block Blasphemous Content,” The News International, March 28, 2013, http://bit.ly/16JP6yo.
Josh Halliday and Saeed Shah, “Pakistan to Ban Encryption Software,” Guardian, August 30, 2011, http://bit.ly/outDAD.
Nighat Dad, “Pakistan Needs Comms Security Not Restrictions,” Privacy International (blog), September 12, 2011,
Barbora Bukovska, “Pakistan: Ban on Internet Encryption a Violation of Freedom of Expression,” Article 19, September 2,
OpenNet Initiative, “Country Profile—Pakistan” (2012).
Issam Ahmed, “Pakistan Floods: How New Networks of Pakistanis are Mobilizing to Help,” Christian Science Monitor, August
19, 2010, http://bit.ly/95cXzo.
Mehwish Khan, “15 Election Rigging Videos From Pakistan That Went Viral on Social Media!,” Pro Pakistani, May 11, 2013,
“Full coverage: Shahzeb Khan Case,” Geo TV, accessed February 2013, http://www.geo.tv/Trending.aspx?ID=126
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one of his alleged assailants was well-connected.
However, a cameraman uploaded footage of the
incident to YouTube for users still accessing the banned service via proxy servers. Thousands
subsequently expressed concern for Shahzeb on Twitter and Facebook until the chief justice of the
Supreme Court directed Karachi police to expedite the investigation. A court sentenced two
perpetrators to death and their accomplices to life imprisonment in June.
In February 2013, the upper house of parliament granted security agencies permission to monitor
private e-mails and mobile phone communications collect evidence of terrorist activity when they
passed a piece of 2012 legislation governing trials. Other legal challenges faced by ICT users
included a defamation suit stemming from comments made via Twitter, and of the 23-odd
blasphemy cases reported in 2012, at least two involved text messages, causing one family to flee
their home and one arrest. Though attacks on journalists from traditional media far outstripped
those on bloggers and internet users, both groups received threats. In a case which resounded
around the world, insurgents shot and seriously injured Malala Yousufzai for creating online
content for the BBC about her life as a school-girl in a Taliban-controlled region of Pakistan.
Article 19 of the Pakistani constitution establishes freedom of speech as a fundamental right,
although it is subject to several restrictions.
Pakistan also became a signatory to the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 2010.
In 2011, Pakistan People’s Party lawmaker Sherry
Rehman, now ambassador to the United States, introduced the Right to Information Bill in the
National Assembly, a law that would prevent all public bodies from blocking a requester’s access to
A Senate sub-committee reviewed the draft in June 2013 in preparation for
tabling it for parliament to pass.
Section 124 of the Pakistan penal code on sedition “by words” or “visible representation” is broadly
worded, though it has been used infrequently to punish journalists and online speech.
Section 295(c), which covers blasphemy, has been invoked to limit freedom of expression and has
featured in most recent cases concerning internet speech. In 2010, police initiated legal
proceedings against Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg over the page titled, “Everyone Draw
The maximum punishment for blasphemy is life imprisonment or the death
Sana Jamal, “Shahzeb Khan – Symbol of Hope Against Pakistan's Powerful Feudals,” Global Voices, December 31, 2012,
“Shahzeb Khan’s Murder: Shahrukh Jatoi, Siraj Talpur Get Death Penalty,” Express Tribune, June 8, 2013,
“The Constitution of Pakistan,” available at Pakistani, accessed September 2012, http://bit.ly/pQqk0.
“President Signs Convention on Civil, Political Rights,” Daily Times, June 4, 2010, http://bit.ly/1fyK9Tl.
Maha Mussadaq, “Sherry Rehman’s Bill: Public May Eventually Access Organisations’ Official Records,” Express Tribune,
October 17, 2011, http://bit.ly/qvS2G6.
“Right to Information Act 2013 : Draft of law at final stage,” Daily Times, June 14, 2013, http://bit.ly/16A1TKt.
“Pakistan Penal Code,” available at Pakistani, accessed August 2013, http://bit.ly/98T1L8; Karin Deutsch Karlekar, ed.,
“Pakistan,” in Freedom of the Press 2011 (New York: Freedom House, 2011), http://bit.ly/1biVaqb.
Maija Palmer, “Facebook Founder Faces Pakistan Probe,” Financial Times, June 17, 2010, http://on.ft.com/9583eo.
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penalty, though the charges against Zuckerberg appear to have been quietly dropped after they
were ridiculed in the press.
At least 23 blasphemy cases involving 27 defendants were reported in 2012, according to the
Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
Some of these involved electronic media. In October
2012, for example, neighbors filed a police complaint against a 16-year-old Christian boy in
Karachi for allegedly sending them a blasphemous text message.
Reflecting the difficulty of
proving intent in such cases, media reports published conflicting accounts of the message, some
reporting that the unnamed boy acknowledged forwarding a message but denied creating it, and
others saying the message was sent when his mobile phone was commandeered by friends. His
family fled the area and neighbors ransacked their house. A second text message resulted in the
arrest of the sender, even though he claimed to have circulated the blasphemous content to resolve
a dispute with a customer.
Accusing someone of blasphemy leaves them vulnerable to attack, regardless of whether it has
foundation, while attempts to reform the punitive laws leave even politicians vulnerable. In January
2013, the Supreme Court ordered an investigation into Ambassador Sherry Rehman after a
businessman accused her of blaspheming the Prophet during an October 2010 television talk show
appearance to defend proposed changes to the blasphemy laws; police and lower courts had refused
to consider the case.
Three months after that TV appearance, Salman Taseer, the governor of
Punjab, was murdered by his own bodyguard for criticizing the same laws.
The 2004 Defamation Act allows for imprisonment of up to five years, and observers fear a chilling
effect if it is used to launch court cases for online expression, particularly since internet users are
already seeking to prosecute their rivals. In January 2013, a Twitter feud escalated into a
defamation suit when Tahir Ashrafi, head of the Pakistan Ulema Council of Muslim clerics and
scholars, announced that he would initiate civil proceedings against Let Us Build Pakistan, a
political website, for allegedly inciting sectarian violence.
A writer on the site—which critics
censure for spreading hate speech—had accused Ashrafi of forming alliances with banned extremist
Government surveillance is a concern for activists, bloggers, and media representatives in
Balochistan, as well as ordinary internet users wishing to comment openly on the state or religion,
notably atheist groups. Pakistani authorities, particularly intelligence agencies, appear to have been
expanding their monitoring activities in recent years, while provincial officials have been exerting
pressure on the central government to grant local police forces greater surveillance powers and
location tracking abilities, ostensibly to curb terrorism and violent crimes.
Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, State of Human Rights in 2012, (Lahore: HRCP, 2013), http://bit.ly/183cVXq.
“Teenage Christian boy booked for blasphemy,” Dawn, October 11, 2012, http://bit.ly/SRWNBs.
Faraz Khan, “Printer Texts Blasphemy to Get Customer to Pay,” Express Tribune, January 9, 2012, http://bit.ly/A68hQl.
“SC Admits Petition Against Sherry Rehman,” The News International, January 17, 2013,
Dickey, “Pakistan’s Woman Warrior,” Daily Beast, March 25, 2013, http://thebea.st/YuVXbL.
“Legal First: Twitter Feud Turned Defamation Suit,” Express Tribune, January 22, 2013, http://bit.ly/10BNUiE.
Masroor Afzal Pasha, “Sindh Police To Get Mobile Tracking Technology,” Daily Times, October 29, 2010, http://bit.ly/16TKfLY;
“Punjab Police Lack Facility of ‘Phone Locator’, PA Told,” The News International, January 12, 2011, http://bit.ly/1bRl6bx.
Documents you may be interested
Documents you may be interested