The blocks on minority Web sites bode poorly for the basic right to free speech in Pakistan – by Huma Yusuf


Adapted and edited from NYT blogs

Silencing Pakistan’s Minorities

KARACHI — One of this city’s main roads remained closed for more than three hours last  Tuesday as buses smoldered, teargas canisters exploded and four people were wounded in clashes between members of the Shia Action Committee (S.A.C.)  and the police.

The unrest began when members of the S.A.C. took to the streets to protest against the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority for blocking a Web site that documents violent incidents against members of Pakistan’s minority Shiite Muslim community. The block comes at a time when sectarian violence across Pakistan is soaring: 226 people from rival Muslim sects have been killed in 63 incidents this year; in the western Balochistan Province, more than 100 members of the ethnic Hazara community, who are predominantly Shiite, have been fatally attacked in 2012 (more than 400 were killed between 2008 and 2011). [Editor's note: Sectarian violence is a false neutral word which misrepresents Shia genocide at the hands of Pakistan army-sponsored Jihadi Deobandi-Wahhabi militants. Shia genocide in Pakistan is not an outcome of Sunni vs Shia sectarian violence. ASWJ-LeL-Taliban terrorists who are killing Shias are also killing Sunni Barelvis and moderate Deobandis. Moreover, Shia genocide in Quetta is not limited to Shia Hazaras only. It is now empirically established that non-Hazara Shias of Quetta have suffered more at the hands of ASWJ-LeJ-Taliban terrorists than any other group. Last but not least minority is not an appropriate word to describe Pakistan's Shia Muslims. Although they are a numerical minority, country's constitution does not treat them as a religious minority as opposed to Ahmadiyya Musilms, Christians, Hindus etc.]

In this dangerous environment, Pakistan’s religious minorities have retreated to cyberspace to air grievances, campaign for their rights and document the atrocities against their communities. But now this space is being closed off to them, too.

The  Pakistan authorities are  prone to censoring Web sites of all kinds on an ad hoc basis, without specifying why certain sites are targeted or publishing a comprehensive list of banned sites — at last count, more than 15,000 Web sites were blocked under the generic complaint of hosting ‘‘pornographic or blasphemous’’ content. Now the telecommunications authority is increasingly censoring the Web sites of religious minority groups. Earlier this month, a site managed by members of the Ahmadi Muslim community, who are considered heretics under Pakistani law, was also blocked.

Human rights groups and digital activists are campaigning against the telecommunications authority’s arbitrary policies, which make the personal intervention of influential politicians the only way to get a site uncensored. On Wednesday, the prime minister’s adviser for the interior, Rehman Malik,ordered the authority  to unblock the Shia Action Committee’s  site, but not before asking the Federal Investigation Agency — Pakistan’s equivalent of the F.B.I. — to remove all “objectionable material” from the site and arrest those responsible for posting the content. [Editor's note: No human rights group raisedvoice in support of the Shia Web site banned by the PTA. The campaign for the unblocking of the ShiaKilling.com was led on social media by the LUBP and other affiliate bloggers and activists.]

The crackdown on minority-run Web sites is especially egregious given that terrorist groups enjoy a vast and unchecked Web presence. Abu Jindal, a member of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group held responsible for the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, recently told his Indian interrogators that the organization maintains a trained Web team to manage Web sites.  Other violent extremist groups are active on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

I was particularly horrified a few weeks ago when I started receiving messages from the Twitter account of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an anti-Shiite terrorist group that claims responsibility for the attacks against Balochistan’s Shiite Hazara population. [Editor's note: LeJ claims responsibility for almost all attacks on Shias of all ethnic backgrounds across Pakistan. Ms Yousuf is unduly giving Shia genocide an ethnic colour.] While the Shiite Web site documenting Lashkar-e-Jhangvi’s atrocities remained blocked, the group’s stream of hate speech — including threats of violence — against Shiites continued unabated. Earlier this year, an activist from Lashkar-e-Jhangvi posted on Twitter a death threat against Imran Khan, the popular cricketer-turned-politician and chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or Justice Party, after he spoke out against the group.

But it seems the telecommunications authority does not deem such content ‘‘objectionable.’’ As such, within Pakistan it is easier to access hate-inciting sermons by extremist clerics or videos of militants beheading their captives than it is to find information about religious minorities, especially Ahmadis.

The blocks on minority Web sites bode poorly for the basic right to free speech, not only for Pakistan’s religious minorities, but also for anyone whose views diverge from those of unaccountable officials. Rather than respond to calls to make its criteria for censorship more transparent, the telecommunications authority is seeking to expand its ability to block online content.

If the telecommunications authority is successful in this endeavor, Pakistan’s most vulnerable citizens will be left with no opportunities to speak out, whether in the virtual or real world, while the extremist groups that persecute them spread their hateful propaganda with impunity.

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