On the start of the second day of the Freedom of Expression in Asian Cyberspace conference, I was chosen to project the efforts of Don’t Block the Blog.
The PowerPoint presentation is Silencing the Pakistani Blogs PowerPoint presentation (1 MB), an audiopodcast is available in MP3 here(6.4 MB), while I also enclose the entire text of my speech below.
Text of speech made by Dr. Awab Alvi at the Freedom of Expression in Asian Cyberspace conference in Manila 2006
Ladies and Gentlemen
I am proud to have the opportunity to represent Pakistan at such an esteemed forum and in front of such a distinguished audience- I am deeply honoured. Approximately a month back, Pakistani internet users experienced a serious setback with the blocking of a large number of websites which are hosted on the blogspot domain it is estimated that over 10 million web blogs are currently inaccessible to the internet users of Pakistan in the blink of an eye.
This blockade was part of the multiple reactions to the controversial cartoons published worldwide depicting Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) In many parts of the world these images may have been portrayed as an expression of freedom of speech but the reaction in Pakistan and the Muslim world was severe, being a Muslim dominated society. We saw emotions run high with street protests in thousands and some degree of rioting and violence strongly condemning those cartoons. In the emotionally charged environment, some also took legal recourse and filed petitions in the judicial courts across Pakistan. One of these petitions was heard by the full bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan headed by the Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. The Constitution of Pakistan clearly, prohibits blasphemous representations of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be upon Him) and hence the court ruled in light of the article 249-C of the Pakistan Penal Code to block all websites that displayed these cartoons, it also issued a stern warning to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to comply with the blocking of 12 specific websites immediately. Ironically, only one of the 12 websites was actually being hosted in the blogspot domain.
Surprisingly the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, the regulatory body controlling all internet access in Pakistan had already initiated steps into blocking blogspot domain even before the supreme court order, as complaints were already coming from bloggers all over the country two days prior to the official judgement. Historically, PTA has been involved with the occasional blocking of pornographic websites since 2003 but had never fully implemented an entire domain blockade until now this was probably the first time that they exhibited the full extent of their authoritarian control which came as a total shock to the majority of Pakistani internet users.
The PTA employs a complex system of Cisco routers to monitor all traffic within the country, and simultaneously it saves this personal data for a period of three months which remains available for scrutiny if needed. During the first 2-3 days before the court verdict all bloggers and blog readers were assuming that Google was responsible for the inaccessibility of blogspot web logs but once the official word was confirmed regarding the reason for the blockade, Pakistani internet users were understandably rather upset to find out that it was the federal authorities who were actually responsible for this unfortunate and illogical ban.
Living in a supposedly democratic country the citizens of Pakistan have occasionally experienced transgressions on their civil rights in some form or another but when it comes to freedom of expression the Pakistanis are extremely vociferous. Our mainstream media, primarily the print publications including broadsheets, is free and has been free for some time now. But then to discover an organised effort to censor millions of websites, sanctioned by the highest court in the land, highlights the hypocrisy of the current authorities.
As a consequence to this unfair ban, Pakistani and international bloggers launched various forms of protests, a number of active Pakistani bloggers felt infuriated by this blockade and joined forces to launch a number of protest and awareness campaigns. One such group was initiated by Omer Alvie and myself with the creation of Dont Block the Blog on the eve of 3rd March. It must be specifically mentioned that my own blog was not blocked and neither was Omer’s (the co-founder of our campaign) as he is based in Dubai. We were not directly affected by this embargo BUT we truly felt the need to speak out for those whose voices hand been silenced, i.e. the Pakistani bloggers.
The Dont block the Blog was more of an individual effort on our part to create an online awareness campaign to protest against this unfair censorship on blogs. Yes our initial motivation was to address this unfair ban in Pakistan, but the campaign soon morphed into a campaign for free speech for all blogs worldwide. Though a squeak when we started, it quickly became a deafening roar. Little did we know then, on the evening of 3rd March that it would lead us into a serious campaign towards change. Concurrent to our campaign launch, a mailing list came into existence called Action Group Against Blogspot Ban in Pakistan which also aimed at addressing the ban issue by gathering like-minded individuals to effectively and collectively protest internet censorship across the globe. Pakistan 451 is also another group of people working for the freedom of speech in Pakistan.
Our Dont Block The Blog campaign along with other protest campaigns and groups were able to bring the requisite attention to the issue. Our campaigns and the issue have now been highlighted in various national and international mainstream newspapers, including the Washington Post. We do realize that a lot more needs to be done, and our awareness campaign requires further support of human rights organizations, free speech campaigners, the general public and of course all of you, in order to build the required pressure On the concerned Pakistani authorities to appropriately address this issue once and for all.
I regret to inform you that despite our repeated efforts to contact Google for a viable solution we were unable to come up with any decent response in fact Google and Yahoo both have been rumoured to have provided assistance and cooperation to the Govt of Pakistan.
In a unique and strange turn of events, the concerned Pakistani authorities also blocked Wikipedia on March 31st for a period of seven hours. This sparked a major reaction among the blog activists and we were about to collectively issue an important press release, but luckily, for us the internet access to Wikipedia was restored. Wikipedia was the target because it too contained a page displaying the cartoons. A reaction within seven hours quite clearly indicates a responsive team which is now monitoring the Internet Gateway in Pakistan, but the authorities continued to enforce a full block on the entire blogspot domain.
It is important for everyone here to understand, that despite the skewed image of Pakistan presented in the mainstream media (primarily CNN and Fox news), the world has to come to terms with a very modern face of Pakistan. We are students, teachers, activists, artists, journalists, business men and women, who consider free speech and democratic ideals as a requisite in Pakistan. The Pakistani internet users and blogging community continues to grow at a very rapid pace. A new voice of citizen journalism is emerging and they will not and cannot be silenced because they neither appease to corporate pressure nor to unfair authoritarian rules(that are clearly unconstitutional) enforced by government authorities and agencies.
Looking at such an august audience I see a huge potential, I see a gold mine of avenues to explore, I see global partners in our fight against censorship. I would like to request each and every journalist present here to help highlight this unfair blogspot ban and the issue of free speech to a global audience. If enough coverage is given to our cause, it will force the concerned authorities to address this ban issue and we are open to discuss and debate our point in order to ensure that such bans are removed permanently. Let that be our victory for freedom of speech for bloggers worldwide.
Censorship and accumulation of information through the internet is an unfortunate trend which has just begun to be implemented globally. Governments under different excuses are demanding access to data from service providers thus encroaching upon individual privacy rights. They block what you want to see but want total access to what you think. I personally dont want to live in a world which censors my voice and has access to all my personal information for government scrutiny. I then do not remain an individual, nor do I remain human, but I am actually degraded into a manipulated, mechanised, totally predictable, life-form. Such an entity would be the end of free life and the beginning of the most dreaded kind of conformity we have ever seen. It is ironic that as our so called modern and civilized world progresses, freedom as we know it is more under threat than ever before.
Globalism does not mean enforcing unfair bans and taking away human rights. True Globalism is the free exchange of ideas and information, and the internet is a tool to ensure such exchange.
Lets not silence the Pakistani Blogs