The process for obtaining a license for an ISP or mobile-phone provider routinely involves long bureaucratic processes and payment of hefty licensing fees. Since there is no regulatory agency to issue licenses, opening a cybercafe is relatively easy. The PTA is the primary regulatory body overseeing internet and mobile-phone services. The Prime Minister appoints the chairman and members of the PTA, and the body reports to the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication.38 Industry representatives, civil society groups, and independent experts have serious reservations about its openness and independence as a regulatory body.
Fully Restored,” Pro Pakistani, June 4, 2010, http://propakistani.pk/2010/06/04/blackberry-services-yet-to-be-fullyrestored/.
Omair Zeeshan, “Getting Around the Blackberry Browsing Quagmire,” Express Tribune, January 7, 2011, http://tribune.com.pk/story/97391/getting-around-the-blackberry-browsing-quagmire/; “Blackberry users in Pakistan can Migrate to Enterprise Service for Unrestricted Use,” blog post, Teeth Maestro, January 23, 2011, http://teeth.com.pk/blog/2011/01/23/blackberry-users-in-pakistan-need-to-migrate-to-enterprise-service-for-unrestricteduse.
Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan (ISPAK) www.ispak.pk.
“Cable and Wireless Worldwide Wins New Contract from Transworld Associates for International Data Services,” Cable and Wireless Worldwide, July 21, 2010, http://www..cw.com/cable-wireless-worldwide-wins-new-contract-from-transworldassociates.
Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan (ISPAK) www.ispak.pk, accessed January 5, 2010.
Pakistan Telecommunications Authority, “Functions and Responsibilities,” December 24, 2004, http://www.pta.gov.pk/index.phpoption=com_content&task=view&id=359&Itemid=325.
Sehrish Wasif, “Dens of Sleaze,” Express Tribune, July 22, 2010, http://tribune.com.pk/story/29455/dens-of-sleaze/.
Pakistan Telecommunications Authority, “Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act, 1996,” Chapter II, Page No. 6, http://www.pta.gov.pk/media/telecom_act_170510.pdf, accessed January 14, 2011.
PAKISTAN FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net LIMITS ON CONTENT Since January 2003, the government of Pakistan has taken steps to censor some online content, though the system for doing so is not particularly sophisticated.39 The authorities primarily rely on a blacklist of URLs that are blocked at both the PIE level and by individual ISPs. According to testing conducted by the Open Net Initiative in 2006 and 2008, censorship efforts focused symbolically on pornography and websites related to religious conversion, with some restrictions being inconsistent across different ISPs. More comprehensively blocked is content perceived as anti-military, blasphemous, or anti-state, while the most systematically censored is information disseminated by Balochi and Sindhi political dissidents.40 For example, the website of the Washington-based World Sindhi Institute41 and the website Lal-Masjid42 are blocked. In November 2010, the authorities blocked The Baloch Hal, the first English language news website focused on Baluchistan, approximately one year after its launch.43 The authorities have cited Section 99 of the penal code, which allows the government to restrict information that might be prejudicial to the national interest,44 to justify their blocking.
Despite such limitations, 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 rights organizations.However, a confidential document that the PTA submitted to the Lahore High Court in June 201046 and that was later obtained by activists cites a series of policy guidelines that point to government plans to expand content filtering.47 In this document, the Ministry of IT (MIT) calls for the establishment of a system whereby an opaque Inter-Ministerial Committee for the Evaluation of Websites receives complaints from the public, the ministry, or the PTA, evaluates whether they should be blocked, and if it finds that they should be, issues a directive to the PTA for blocking either the IP address or the URL of the relevant site. The document also includes a list of vaguely worded categories of information “Country Profile—Pakistan,” OpenNet Initiative, December 26, 2010, http://opennet.net/research/profiles/pakistan.
Pakistan Telecommunications Authority, “Letter to All ISP/DSL Operators Regarding Blocking of Websites Access,” April 25, 2006, http://pakistan451.files.wordpress.com/2006/04/PTA%20-%20Blocking%20of%20website%2025-4-06.pdf.
World Sindhi Institute: http://www.worldsindhi.org/ blocked in Pakistan.
“Lal Masjid issue and its Blocked Website,” Teeth Maestro, April 12, 2007, http://teeth.com.pk/blog/2007/04/12/lalmasjid-issue-and-its-blocked-website.
“The Baloch Hal Banned,” Baloch Hal, November 9, 2010, http://www.thebalochhal.com/2010/11/the-baloch-hal-banned/.
Pakistan Criminal Procedure Code, 1898, http://www.intermedia.org.pk/mrc/medialawdocs/CriminalProcedureCode.pdf, accessed January 14, 2011.
“Country Profile—Pakistan.” Ministry of Information Technology, “Policy Guidelines for Effective Monitoring and Control of Blasphemous/Offensive Content Over Internet in Pakistan,” June 2010, https://boxcrack.net/boxcrack/assets/docs/Pakistan.pdf.
Confidential Pakistani document reveals plans for stricter control of the internet and freedom of expression http://www.apc.org/en/news/confidential-pakistani-document-reveals-plans-stri.
PAKISTAN FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net considered “unsuitable,” including but not limited to: “information pertaining to any objectionable content,” and websites that “bring contempt to the country or its people,” websites that “undermine Islam or ridicule, disparage, or attack any religion,” websites that bring “contempt of the defense forces, police, air force or any other institution of government,” and websites that contain “propaganda in favor of any foreign state having bearing on any point of disputes or against any friendly foreign state.”48 If implemented, these policy guidelines would significantly increase restrictions on the free flow of information over the internet.
Indeed, a September 2010 submission by the MIT to the Lahore High Court cited that the committee had begun functioning and was comprised of representatives from the MIT, Ministry of Religious Affairs, Ministry of Interior, security agencies, and the PTA, among others. According to the document, by September 2010, “more than 12,blasphemous and anti state/social websites have been blocked from access through the directives of the committee.”49 Specifically during August-September 2010, over 247 URLs were reportedly blocked, mostly related to an incident of a U.S.-based pastor initiating a campaign to burn copies of the Quran. A list of the banned URLs attached to the submission included web pages from international news outlets like the New York Times or the Cable News Network (CNN), blog postings critical of Islam, mostly based in the United States, and dozens of links to YouTube videos or Facebook groups.50 The submission also referenced growing communication between the Pakistani authorities and administrators for websites such as Facebook and YouTube in order to prompt rapid removal of controversial content, such as the “International burn a Quran day” Facebook group.51 No further details related to the committee’s scope of work or the criteria used to inform blocking decisions have been made public, however.
Although the professed goal of the government is to limit access to pornographic materials, extremist groups, and anti-state activists, also targeted is certain information perceived as damaging to the image of the military or top politicians. In some incidents, such as the circulation of videos of a member of the armed forces being involved in land grabs,or the President telling members of the audience to shut up in the middle of a public Ministry of Information Technology, “Policy Guidelines for Effective Monitoring and Control of Blasphemous/Offensive Content Over Internet in Pakistan.” Ministry of Information and Technology, “Mohammad and Ahmad vs. GOP etc. in the Lahore High Court, Lahore,” Government of Pakistan, September 14, 2010, http://pakistanictpolicy.bytesforall.net/files/PTA%20Response%20to%20LHC.pdf.
Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), “Blocking of Websites Having Blasphemous Content,” Government of Pakistan, June 25, 2010, http://pakistanictpolicy.bytesforall.net/files/Blocked-monitored-websites.pdf.
Ministry of Information and Technology, “Mohammad and Ahmad vs. GOP etc. in the Lahore High Court, Lahore.” Shahzad Ahmad, “Internet Censorship in Pakistan: Naval Chief Misuing His Powers,” Association for Progressive Communications (APC), August 18, 2008, http://www.apc.org/en/blog/freedom/asiapacific/internet-censorship-pakistannaval-chief-misusing-.
PAKISTAN FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net speech,53 the government has blocked specific URLs; error messages seen by users refer to the censored content as “blasphemous,” or that the “site is restricted,” although it was apparently blocked for political reasons. By contrast, Facebook and Twitter postings by militant Islamic groups such as Hizbut al-Tahrir, including comments inciting violence against the Ahmedi religious minority, have been allowed to circulate with few restrictions.Most online commentators exercise a degree of self-censorship when writing on topics such as religion, blasphemy, separatist movements, or human rights protection for women and homosexuals, given the sensitivity of both the government and non-state actors to these subjects. There were few reports of authorities contacting bloggers to remove specific content or requiring moderators on discussion forums to delete certain messages.
A wide variety of government agencies are involved in online content censorship, but the PTA is the main body overseeing such restrictions. There are no published or known guidelines as to how or why some content is blocked, or what mechanisms may be available for challenging censorship decisions.
The relationship between citizen journalism and traditional media is mutually reinforcing, particularly with respect to a number of daring, investigative bloggers and the circulation of online videos. For example, in August 2010, a YouTube video was posted exposing the brutal killing of two brothers in the presence of senior police officers.Following the video’s circulation, several satellite television stations aired the story as well.
This prompted the Supreme Court of Pakistan to initiate a high level inquiry into the killings. In another incident from May 2010, a mobile-phone video showing police humiliating and torturing a woman who approached a police station in Faisalabad to report a theft was posted on YouTube;56 it too led to departmental inquiries and punishment of the perpetrators.57 In September 2010, a mobile-phone video appeared online showing Pakistani soldiers arbitrarily killing six civilians as part of an anti-Taliban offensive in Swat valley. The “When Zardari ‘Shut Up’ an Inattentive Audience,” Indian Express, February 10, 2010, http://www.indianexpress.com/news/when-zardari-shut-up-an-inattentive-audien/578139/.
Issam Ahmed, “Newest Friends on Facebook Pakistan Militants,” Christian Science Monitor, July 8, 2010, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-South-Central/2010/0708/Newest-friends-on-Facebook-Pakistan-militants.
Mob kills two young brothers in Sialkot: http://www.youtube.com/watchv=76M42nh6nJ0&feature=related and http://www.youtube.com/watchv=I0bC_ZAV5aU; “Two Innocent Brothers Killed in Sialkot Live,” PK Mirror, August 21, 2010, http://www.pkmirror.com/2010/08/21/two-innocent-brothers-killed-in-sialkot-live/.
Faisalabad Police tortures woman on filing theft complaint:
Mohhamed Saleem, “Footages Revive Old Case: Woman’s Torture Brings Police in the Dock,” Dawn, May 3, 2010, http://news.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/the-newspaper/national/footages-revive-old-casewomans-torture-brings-police-in-the-dock-350; However, later on they were reinstated. Supreme Court also took suo moto notice and issued orders to arrest the police officials involved in the woman torture case: “SC Orders Arrest of Cops Involved in Torture,” The Express Tribune, May 3, 2010, http://tribune.com.pk/story/10448/cj-takes-suo-moto-notice-on-faisalabadtorture-case/.
PAKISTAN FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net incident drew international attention, including debates within the United States on whether to cut funding to the Pakistani military as a result.Although many civil society groups have been able to use the internet to advance their cause, mobile phones are the predominant medium for mobilization around political and social issues. The movement from 2008 to 2010 by lawyers and others calling for the reinstatement of Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and greater protection of judicial independence is perhaps the most prominent example of how citizens have used social-networking websites, text-messaging, and other new media tools to successfully challenge state repression.59 The recent floods in Pakistan have prompted many Pakistani citizens and members of the diaspora to mobilize and raise funds online on websites such as Facebook and Twitter.VIOLATIONS OF USER RIGHTS Article 19 of the Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan grants the fundamental right of freedom of speech, although it is subject to several restrictions.61 Pakistan also became a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)62 in June 2010, although it added several reservations to its instrument of ratification.63 These reservations include: (a) supremacy of the country’s own constitution; (b) supremacy of Islamic ideology; and (c) self-determination on the provision of rights. In a positive development, in December 2010, a Lahore High Court judge rejected a petition requesting that the Wikileaks website be blocked to protect national security, in the process affirming the public’s right to access such information. The decision raised hopes that it could potentially serve as a precedent for the future protection of citizens’ right to access content online.