Media freedom fears after Pakistan Facebook ban

Protesters  condemn a page of Facebook on Tuesday The government pre-empted many demonstrations against Facebook

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The row over an internet campaign on Facebook inviting people to draw images of the Prophet Muhammad may now have died down, but its ramifications are likely to be felt in Pakistan for a long time to come.

The Everybody Draw Muhammad Day on 20 May drew a furious reaction, perhaps expected by the creators, from Muslims across the world.

Condemnation turned to rage as Muslim bloggers across the net became involved in a counter-campaign. By far the fiercest reaction was in Pakistan, where anti-Western sentiment is already high.

But before any serious unrest could break out the country's authorities blocked the website - along with others like YouTube, Wikipedia and Flickr.

Many observers and internet users in Pakistan now feel the authorities have gone too far and used the Facebook row as an excuse to bar any content deemed too critical of the government.

'Pre-empted'

Aleem Bawany, head of online strategy at the Express media group, shares these fears. But he believes the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority's (PTA) internet bans have "won over public sentiment" for now.

Pakistani Muslims burn flags during an anti-Facebook demonstration The Facebook row has added to anti-western sentiment

The PTA is the government's main internet regulatory body.

On orders from Pakistan's government, it was this body which blocked Facebook for users in Pakistan.

"The government thus pre-empted the protests," Mr Bawany said.

His views seem to be reflected by public opinion which has largely supported the ban.

"It's the first good thing that they have done," says Abeer Jamil, an accountancy trainee in Karachi.

"The page was never about freedom of expression - it was a deliberate attempt to insult the Prophet."

'Why YouTube?'

However, it was not the government which started the ball rolling.

"The government did not ban Facebook - they only implemented the court orders," says Ali Dayan Hasan, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) representative in Pakistan.

Start Quote

This flouts the basic principles of free expression”

End Quote Ali Dayan Hasan Human Rights Watch

He is referring to the orders of the Lahore high court to ban Facebook and any other website disseminating "blasphemous" content.

But Mr Hasan and many others believe that the government is exploiting the court order to impose widespread censorship.

He calls the court action "ill-advised" and says: "It appears the government of Pakistan has taken advantage of the situation.

"It has extended the scope of the censorship without any legal justification."

In effect, in the guise of blocking "blasphemous content", the government has also cracked down on political dissent on the internet.

"This is the first widespread censorship of the internet in Pakistan - and it has political overtones," says Mr Bawany.

He argues that various high-profile Facebook users are now being targeted.

"Former President Musharraf has a Facebook campaign under way - which he talks about all the time," he said.

"There are also several pages on Facebook against members of the current government."

Mr Bawany argues that while the government has a strong reason to block Facebook, their alibi falls flat when it comes to other web sites.

"Why YouTube, why Wikipedia?" he questions.

"Because YouTube in particular is used to disseminate political dissent against the government."

Pressure

Journalists point out that YouTube was also used to broadcast videos which highlighted abuse of power by the executive.

Women supporters of Islamic political party Jamaat-e-Islami hold a placard during a protest against Facebook in Karachi May 19, 2010. Many Pakistanis were angry at the Draw Muhammad Facebook page

"There have been videos uploaded which exposed the brutal treatment of civilians by the army and police," says a Lahore-based journalist.

"The army, in particular, was enraged at what it saw as propaganda against its legitimate actions."

All this pressure, analysts believe, has a great deal to do with the sweeping nature of the ban.

"They have blocked off all our sources of independent information," says Fawad Ali, a university student from Islamabad.

"I believe they should have blocked Facebook because they insulted the Prophet.

"But there was no strong grounds to ban YouTube and Wikipedia."

Mr Bawany argues that initial public support for the banning of Facebook has emboldened the government.

Analysts say this is an extremely important point - while the court ordered that the sites should be banned until 31 May, the government now says that they will be blocked until further notice.

"This flouts the basic principles of free expression," says Ali Dayan Hasan.

"The Pakistan government's actions underscore the dangers of legalising censorship. There is absolutely no justification for it."

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