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Pakistan: Online freedom of speech as collateral damage?


This flash animation is converted from the Powerpoint Presentation made by Dr Awab Alvi for “The Battle for the Internet.” conference (His presentation can be viewed here-original file .ppt)

 

One year ago, on the 27th of February 2006, when the Danish cartoons controversy exploded, spawning waves of protest, anger and misunderstanding; setting embassies, flags, streets and passions on fire, the Pakistani Telecommunications Authority (PTA), under pressure from religious groups and on the orders of the Supreme Court, decided to ban the popular blogging platform Blogger. It was obvious that during the most caricatural chapter of that “clash of ignorance”, almost everyone among the major actors was overacting and overreacting. Nevertheless, seeing a government overblocking access to millions of blogs hosted by blogspot.com just because 12 websites were displaying the Danish cartoons, was surrealistic if not Kafkaesque. And what made the situation more unbelievable is that only one blog out of the 12 was hosted at blogspot.com.

Furthermore, that was not the only overblocking exercise undertaken by the Pakistani regime. During the same period, on March 31st, and based on the same “moral” motivation of protecting religious sensitivities, the Pakistani Telecommunications Authority overblocked for several hours millions of Wikipedia pages. The justification: the cartoons had been published on one single page.

The complex questions that enter the mind of anyone facing similar situations in other countries are obvious. What can you do, as a defender of online free speech, when your country, your fellow citizens–and maybe you –are insulted by those exercising freedom of speech? What kind of balance do you need to find in order to defend freedom of speech for everybody–even for those who published, republished or made the cartoons–while understanding the sentiments of anger surrounding you? Figuring out where one ends and the other begins is not an easy task in an environment where religious fervor is the norm.

And yet, that was the tricky path that the “Don’t Block The Blog” (DBTB) campaign found and has succeeded in navigating over the last year: defending the freedom of speech and campaigning for the right of everyone to express themselves, while containing the overwhelming pressure coming from many who supported, openly, the ban of the deemed blasphemous blogs and websites.

Yesterday, February 22, 2007, the Egyptian blogsphere may have had to answer the same difficult questions, as the Egyptian court sentenced the 22-year-old blogger Abdel Kareem Soliman (aka Kareem Amer) to four years in prison for insulting Islam on his blog. The religious motivation has certainly facilitated the task of the Judicial Power to make of Kareem the first blogger to be prosecuted in Egypt. Even Kareem's family has given the verdict a moral slant by disowning him a few days before his Court verdict session. Kareem’s father decided “to attend the court verdict session with his four brothers, who completely memorized the Holy Quran, to announce disowning the accused Abdul Kareem inside the court room, in order to reduce the embarrassment and pressure that civil rights organizations are applying on the court panel (…) The father of the accused also described the organizations that are working on having his son acquitted as “monkey rights” organizations.”

I spoke with Omer Alvie, who has launched the “Don’t Block The Blog” campaign, along with Awab Alvi, on the 3rd of March 2006. I asked Omer about the blanket ban, online free speech and DBB campaign to support freedom of speech of Pakistani bloggers:

Sami Ben Gharbia: Can you tell us more about the filtering situation in Pakistan? Did the online censorship get started in 2006 with the ban of the Blogspot.com blogging platform, or it is also targeting other online content, like opposition groups, news websites or the publications of human rights organizations?

Omer Alvie: Censorship of web sites did exist before the blogspot ban. Although the blockade was of only of a few primarily Indian media sites that focused on political view points that were critical of Pakistan or the Pakistani government. Since the blogspot ban a few selected other Pakistani web sites have been a target of government blockade. These sites are primarily political, addressing the Balochistan (province) crisis and the political movement which is particularly outspoken against the current government of President Pervez Musharaf.

SBG
: Why doesn't the Pakistani government ban just the sites that were displaying the cartoons? Why they are maintaining a DNS level block on the blogspot.com domain and not an URL block targeting the sites deemed blasphemous?

OA: Keeping in mind that the internet (user) community is a small percentage of the total population of Pakistan, I think the level of priority or importance given to this issue by the concerned authorities is obviously very little.

As far as the blocking of the complete blogspot.com domain is concerned, and I don't know if it is incompetence, indifference or lack of an appropriate technique to block a specific blogspot site without blocking the whole domain. But the rationale for blocking millions of other blogs for the sake of one blog that is classified blasphemous is absolutely and positively ridiculous. But unfortunately they continue to do it. As far as banning the sites that were displaying the cartoons of the Prophet, the PTA is enforcing a ban on some of them but obviously not all. They probably are not even aware of the existence to some of them.

Actually, I'm sure the PTA realizes the enormous and impossible task of actually blocking everything that is classified blasphemous. It cannot be done as new sites come up every day that can be considered offensive, or the existing ones can be mirrored to alternative web addresses so the whole exercise of blocking sites is rather futile in my opinion.

The only way the authorities (in any country) can successfully ban a specific topic or content on related sites, is by banning the whole of the internet in that country. Otherwise, it can NEVER be done. What usually ends up happening, as in the case of the cartoon issue, the most useless, hate-filled, and irrelevant site ends up being popular (and as result gets a much larger audience) due to the ban enforced on it.

SBG
: During the last year the ban of blogspot.com has been lifted several time and then resumed after a few days. How can you explain that? Is there any official reason behind this hemming and hawing?

OA: It is true that sporadic and short lifting of the blogspot blanket has occurred during the last year. No official reason has been given for the lifting of the ban for these very short durations. It should also be noted that the no clear official declaration has been made by the appropriate government authorities regarding the blogspot blanket ban either.
It is likely that the unblocking of the sites occur due to a glitch or other technical reasons in reference to the concerned ISPs. It is usually not the case that all ISPs unblock the blogspot sites all at the same time and for the same reason, however the short duration of the lifting of the blockade maybe.

SBG: The censorship of blogspot.com has a religious and cultural justification. What does the “Don’t Block The Blog” campaign think about censoring the 12 blogs publishing the controversial cartoons of the prophet Mohammed? Do you support their right to publish such cartoons? Does the DBB stand for defending the right to be offended, to borrow the expression of Salman Rushdie?

OA
: It is my view that censorship on the internet is impractical and illogical. Blocking of sites does not ensure that the content becomes unavailable. Proxy by-pass servers and mirror sites can be set up to gain access to anything the government is trying to block.

We at DBTB support the right of free speech for everyone. This umbrella of free speech rights also covers those sites that we might consider offensive. In order to ensure free speech for most average citizens who voice their opinions for no other reason then just to tell the truth, one has to accept the right of free speech of even those who have an extremist or hateful political agenda. It is the right of every citizen (of the world) to voice their opinion and we support their right for free speech.

SBG: On the Washington Post article “Pakistan's Blog Blockade” a few comments are accusing the “Don't Block the Blog” group of campaigning in favor of selective freedom of speech. They are arguing that you are supporting censorship of the blogs and websites deemed offending; they are even quoting some extract from the press release–dated 06 March 2006–in which you wrote: “We urge the print and electronic media to exert pressure upon the Government of Pakistan to first lift the ban on non-controversial blogspot.com websites (…) while we expect any censorship to be within the limits of decency and decorum of the Pakistani culture.” Do you think these accusations are unfounded? How can you refute them?

OA: That initial press release was revised to clarify our point. That same press release and our website also included the statement that we support the right of free speech for ALL. Yet this quote was used to target our campaign.

Keeping that in mind, let me further clarify the quote initially written in the press release. Knowing fully well that we were addressing an extremely sensitive issue within our country and the primary reason for the blogspot ban was the printing of the cartoons of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), we had to be extremely practical in our approach in launching our campaign. Most readers in the west, and perhaps even those who used the quote to attack us, are not aware of the blasphemy laws enforced in our country. Keeping aside our personal opinion of such laws, it was imperative for us to be smart and present the issue as diplomatically as possible, without further inciting the situation. Had we first focused on the unblocking of the 12 banned sites, out of which only 1 or 2 were actually on blogspot, we would have certainly ensured ourselves a place in the list of banned sites.

For those who do not delve into advocacy issues, or are not actively involved in a free speech campaign, are usually not fully aware of the how the “game” is played. The primarily goal is to fight for free speech for everyone but in order to do that, one has to start slowly, diplomatically (walking on egg shells, as it were) to ensure that the campaign survives to fight a long battle. One has to keep in mind the political, religious and social tenets and laws practiced within the country in question. Once, the campaign gains momentum and garners the requisite attention, the campaign can push further the cause of free speech as the primary and only option for the way forward.

I would also like to point out that those who criticize our campaign, citing the example of the western countries as truly supporting free speech in comparison to Muslim or Third World countries, ought to seriously look at the reality as it exists. Specifically in Europe, and now even U.S. and Canada, the right to free speech does NOT exist when it comes to the topic of Holocaust Denial or Holocaust revision. Those who practice this right either end up in jail or else face some other punishment as in the case of Ernst Zundel, David Irving, James Keegstra and others.

I wonder what the reaction in the west would be had Salman Rushdie published a holocaust revisionist book rather than The Satanic Verses. Would the press and majority of the western public be as supportive? I hardly think so!

SBG
: It has been a year since the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) instituted a blanket ban on Blogspot.com. What kind of approaches does the “Don’t Block The Blog” campaign–which was launched few days after the ban–adopt to fight against online censorship in the country? Are they technical, civil or legal approaches?

OA
: As DBTB comprises only two individuals, we have been limited by the resources at our disposal and particularly restrained by time constraints, as both members of DBTB have work obligations, and do the campaign work in what ever free time they have available. We have primarily had a two-pronged approach to our campaign focus. One is to continually source by-pass proxy solutions that can help the bloggers in Pakistan access their blogs with ease, and the second is to continually maintain the awareness level of the blanket ban issue with not just the bloggers, but with media and with the more prominent Free speech and human rights organizations. In keeping with these aims, we have launched the first Pakistani Blog Aggregator to syndicate Pakistani origin blogs, including the ones that are currently being blocked. We are also planning writing competitions to promote free speech and have other ideas currently under development to ensure that freedom of expression (free speech) becomes the primary issue of concern for not just Pakistani, but also international audiences of the internet.

SBG
: What is your relationship with Yasir Memon and Naveed Memon, the developers of the two proxy servers Pkblogs and Inblogs? Are they members of “Don't Block the Blog” campaign?

OA: The Memon brothers volunteered to provide this solution for the Pakistani and Indian bloggers through the venue of DBTB and their support of free speech. They are not members of DBTB, but we communicate as needed to discuss possible ideas for prospective technical solutions to the blanket ban.

SBG: We've heard about the message of Dr. Awab Alvi- the co-founder of the “Don’t Block The Blog” (DBTB) campaign- to the Indian Bloggers Collective Group, and how the DBB was helping their community circumvent the government ban on blogspot.com domain. Can you tell us more about that and how it's contributing to bridging the divides between activists and bloggers on both sides? Has any regional strategy or willingness to build an anti-censorship alliance been discussed between Pakistani and Indian bloggers?

OA: DBTB has always planned that all information or tools made available for Pakistani bloggers to by-pass a ban should be freely made available for also bloggers from other countries. India, as our neighboring country, naturally came to mind as we were aware of Indian bloggers also facing an blog access problem. Dr. Awab offered a hand of friendship and we are happy to say that the effort and the solution made available was appreciated by the India bloggers. We hope this cooperation grows and in future Indian and Pakistani bloggers work together to support the right to free speech and in course learn to respect, understand and appreciate each other better.

SBG: In the most recent update at the “Don’t Block The Blog” website, we are told that Google Inc.'s key representative has been closely following the activities of DBTB and is willing to help resolve the blanket ban. Do you really believe in the “don't be evil” rhetoric of Google, which, after all, agreed to censor itself for China? According to a Washington Post article, Google was following the censorship issue in Pakistan since March 2006, and “has been contacting a range of individuals in Pakistan, including in the government, to determine what's causing the unavailability of Blogspot, and to get access restored.”

OA: As mentioned earlier, DBTB is an awareness campaign promoting the rights of free speech. We are decidedly apolitical and therefore have to be as diplomatic as possible with whichever group or individual is offering to help us. We are fully aware of the Google's involvement in free speech issues, especially in relation to other countries like China.

We provide the benefit of the doubt to those willing to offer help, even though we might personally be a little suspicious of their history. As in this case, Google contacted us and offered to help. Rather than be critical and not accept or believe their offer (as the rights of bloggers are at stake and this issue is far bigger than our own opinions), we decided to give Google the opportunity to prove their claim that they are working towards a solution. Obviously, in months to come, we shall all be able to judge Google on their promise of support by reviewing the concrete results (or lack of results) achieved by Google. What is an assurance is that we at DBTB will continue to follow up with them to assess the progress of their efforts.

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