Pakistani Twitter Ban After Cartoon Contest Raises Concerns Over Country’s Commitment to Free Speech

by Mark Bousquet

A recent ban on Twitter by the Pakistani government highlights the growing conflict between conservative governments and dissatisfied citizens over the use of, and access to, social networking sites. On May 20, Pakistan blocked access to Twitter for part of the day, holding the social networking site responsible for an allegedly blasphemous cartoon contest being run on Facebook. Critics argue that Twitter has given a voice to those who oppose the government’s security practices, and that actions like the May 20 ban give credence to the idea that Pakistan is not interested in having a truly free media.

This is not the first time the Pakistani government has sought to stifle it citizen’s freedom of expression via social media, and not the first time that the tipping point involved Facebook and a cartoon contest. In 2010, the government responded to public protests and legal pressure against a Facebook contest to draw images of the Prophet Muhammad by banning the social media site for two weeks. Responding to a ruling from the Lahore High Court that ordered the ban, the government was, “quick to ban YouTube and hundreds of other Web sites and services,” and only restored access to Facebook “after Facebook issued a formal apology.”

A lack of consistent communication helps to compound the government’s over-reaction to the court’s order, and fuels the very opposition that the government is allegedly interested in minimizing. While the chairman of the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority claimed responsibility for the ban, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s daughter used Twitter to give her father credit for lifting the ban. According to The New York Times:

A government spokesman was quoted by local news media early on Sunday as saying that the government had been in talks with Twitter to remove “objectionable” material, but that there had been no results. “The material was promoting a competition on Facebook to post images of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad,” Mohammad Yaseen, chairman of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, told Pakistani news organizations. He was also quoted as saying that Facebook had agreed to allay the concerns of the Pakistani government.

Yet later in the day, “Fizza Batool Gilani, the daughter of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, announced on Twitter around then that Mr. Gilani had ordered the restoration,” an act that Interior Minister Rehman Malik took credit for on Twitter, tweeting that he had asked the prime minister directly to order an end to the ban. According to Reuters, Malik tweeted, “Dear All yes I spoke to PM and informed how people are feeling about it.PM ordered to reopen the twitter.”

What remains unclear is the exact role that religious blasphemy plays in the banning of social network sites: is religious blasphemy fueling the bans or is the fear of blasphemy being used to justify the government’s desire to stifle free media?

While the government did not specify the exact tweets that caused offense, not the specific Facebook contest, Richard Leiby of The Washington Post believes the offending tweets pointed followers to the “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day,” Facebook page. “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” is a campaign that “Muslims worldwide have denounced for encouraging depictions of Islam’s prophet, which adherents consider blasphemous.”

Everybody Draw Muhammad Day was started by Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris as a reaction to Comedy Central’s decision to censor a specific part of the South Park episodes “200” and “201” that depicted Mohammad after a radical Muslim group issued a death threat to South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Norris drew a cartoon entitled “Everybody Draw Mohammad Day!,” which inspired Jon Wellington to create a Facebook event page of the same name without Norris’ involvement. According to Seattle’s

“As a cartoonist I just felt so much passion about what had happened I wanted to kind of counter Comedy Central’s message they sent about feeling afraid,” Norris said.

Norris has asked other artists to submit drawings of any religious figure to be posted as part of Citizens Against Citizens Against Humor (CACAH) on May 20th.

On her website Norris explains this is not meant to disrespect any religion, but rather meant to protect people’s right to express themselves.

Norris quickly disassociated herself from the movement she begat when the idea, in her words, went “viral,” and took on a life of its own. According to the Los Angeles Times, Norris wrote on her (no longer active) website that, “I am NOT involved in “Everybody Draw Mohammd [sic] Day! I made a cartoon that went viral and I am not going with it. Many other folks have used my cartoon to start sites, etc. Please go to them as I am a private person who draws stuff.”

Whether concerns over blasphemy are driving the social networking bans or serving as cover for larger governmental concerns, the consequences remain the same: free speech is being stifled by some aspects of the Pakistani government when that speech voices opposition to the government’s positions. Increasingly, Pakistani opposition voices are using sites like Twitter to get their message out to the public:

“Twitter is a place where fierce opposition to Pakistan’s security agencies is expressed,” said Raza Rumi, a widely read columnist and an adviser at the Jinnah Institute, a public policy center based in Islamabad. “There is a clear trend that the Pakistani military and spy agency get a strong critique from Pakistanis themselves, something that does not happen in mainstream media where people are generally shy to express such views.”

Activists supporting minority rights have established a strong voice on Twitter, and advocates for the Baluch people, who are demanding greater rights and a share of the natural-resources wealth in the southwestern province of Baluchistan, have also used it to spread their message.

While the May 20 ban lasted between 8 and 12 hours, this is not an issue that is going away as free speech advocates and their governmental antagonists continue to battle over what can be said, and where people can say it. According to the Los Angeles Times:

Earlier this year, Pakistan’s Ministry of Information Technology began soliciting proposals from research institutions and software firms for a filtering system capable of blocking as many as 50 million websites deemed by the government to be blasphemous or offensive. Human-rights groups harshly criticized the move as a gateway to Internet censorship. Lawmakers later said the idea was being dropped, but there has been no confirmation from the government that it was abandoning the project.

Last November, the government released a list of more than 1,000 words and phrases that cellphone companies should block from text messages, including “Jesus Christ,” “tongue,” “fairy,” “murder,” and “athlete’s foot.” After a backlash from telecommunications providers and the Pakistani media, authorities backed away from the idea.

Increasingly, international internet sites like Twitter and Facebook are being tested on the national level. Twitter, by all accounts, held strong against the Pakistani government’s demands to remove offending tweets during the May 20 ban, but this is one small victory in an increasingly complicated relationship between governments that are used to controlling access to the media and social networking sites that are offering everyone a platform from which to speak their mind.

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Mark Bousquet is the Assistant Director of Core Writing at the University of Nevada, Reno, and reviews movies and television programs at Atomic Anxiety.