It has a small but dedicated readership — a smart, knowledgeable online publication catering to a young, politically savvy class of readers. In short, ‘Khabaristan Times’, the satirical Pakistan website poking fun at state and society in equal measure, is a project worth admiring — and vigorously defending when it comes under attack by a paranoid state.

As disclosed by the publishers of ‘Khabaristan Times’ and corroborated by a report in this newspaper, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority has blocked the website.

No official notification has been sent to the website’s publishers; they were not given a chance to respond to the allegations against them; and, according to unnamed sources at the PTA quoted in this newspaper, the action was taken because of so-called, unspecified objectionable content in ‘Khabaristan Times’.

What is clear is that the PTA action is unwarranted, ill advised, an assault on a thoroughly democratic tradition — and probably illegal. The ban on ‘Khabaristan Times’ should be reversed immediately and the PTA must be forced to disclose the complainants if they are state agencies, as well as explain the basis for taking such an extreme step.

The widening and deepening assault on free speech and particularly on the media is a source of great worry for right-minded and sensible people in the country.

With internet usage growing swiftly in an age of relatively cheap smartphone technology and expanding coverage nationally of mobile data, the state is ramping up its oversight of the online market in Pakistan.

Part of that is necessary, for example, when it comes to militant propaganda and online crime, but a great deal of it is arbitrary or designed to muzzle speech that the state is uncomfortable with. Poorly drafted laws and regulators who are beholden to state authorities are causing the very worst impulses to be acted on.

That is simply unacceptable, and in the case of the ban on ‘Khabaristan Times’ it appears to be rooted in an ignorance of satire. Whimsical, politically motivated bans have no place in the great, democratic online space.

Published in Dawn February 4th, 2017

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