Monday 21 May 2012

Pakistan Twitter ban 'a dry run for elections'

Strange happenings in Pakistan, where new minister for Information Technology, Raja Parvez Ashraf, decided early on Sunday morning to block access to Twitter for the whole country. The ostensible reason was because the micro-blogging platform had apparently refused to remove allegedly blasphemous content involving a contest to draw cartoons of the prophet Mohammad.
The saga started on Saturday evening when Ashraf spoke to media and expressed his concerns about the blasphemous content available on different websites and threatened to block Twitter.
According to the Express Tribune, the Pakistani government first contacted Facebook and asked the company to remove posts about the contest. To their shame, Facebook complied with the censorship request. The government then contacted Twitter and asked them to do the same. When they refused, Pakistan decided to block Twitter. The site went down late on Sunday morning.
However, after about eight hours PM Yousaf Raza Gilani ordered Twitter to be restored, for reasons that are not entirely clear.
Shahzad Ahmad, who runs the Bytes for All website in Pakistan, which monitors internet freedom, called the block "mind boggling and criminally undemocratic" and quickly set up a rapid response network to guide individuals towards tools and tips to get round the block, mainly by using proxy servers.
He told the Christian Science Monitor  that the government was using the sensitive topic of blasphemy as a cover for constricting the space for political debate ahead of national elections: "The government is trying to test the waters to see what the response on such censorship is. We foresee more control on access of information, like we have seen in the past, when elections are near". He suggested that blasphemy was not the real reason the network had been closed down, pointing out that there are several such pages on Facebook and YouTube with similar content.
This is not the first time Pakistan has restricted Internet freedom, with Facebook being blocked for similar reasons in 2010. Content criticizing the Pakistani military on YouTube and on Rolling Stone magazine's website have also drawn bans, as have websites calling for independence for Balochistan, such as Baloch Hal.
According to independent sources around 13,000 websites are current inaccessible in the country. The PTA puts the figure much lower, stating that around 2,000 sites are banned in Pakistan.

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