Could it happen again? Remembering Pakistan's Facebook, YouTube ban

Looking back at the time when social media usage was curbed due to "blasphemous content".
Published March 27, 2017

The court and state are once again making headlines for keeping 'blasphemous content' in check on social media. What started with High Court Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui's order to enforce a travel ban on "those who blaspheme" has now resulted in a debate about blocking pages and content online, with removal requests being sent to Facebook from the Pakistani government.

Read more: Facebook removed 85pc blasphemous content on Pakistan's request, says interior ministry

Inherited from India's British rulers and modified by our own Parliament, Pakistan's blasphemy laws continue to iconify the country's stance on principles of free thought and unfettered expression. Over the years, social media outlets too, have found themselves to be in the ambit of Pakistan's collective religious concerns.

In chronological order, below is a list of moments when social media websites were blocked over concerns of access to 'blasphemous' content.

Feb 22, 2008

PTA takes YouTube down over 'objectionable' videos

The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) orders the blockage of YouTube on the grounds that "anti-Islamic" movies have been posted to the site.

The move is a response to videos featuring Dutch politician Geert Wilders in which Wilders had announced that he was making a film illustrating the Holy Quran's passages. He had previously tried to get the Quran banned on the grounds that it was "incompatible with Dutch laws".

PTA says it will block the video-sharing site until the offensive material was blocked and urged web users to write to YouTube and request the removal of the objectionable movies.

Surprisingly, Pakistan's attempt to block YouTube results in the site being globally inaccessible for two hours.

Feb 26, 2008

YouTube accessible again

PTA asks Pakistan's internet service providers to restore YouTube in Pakistan following the removal of content it marked as objectionable. YouTube removes the clip for violating its terms of service.

May 19, 2010

LHC order blocks Facebook

The government blocks access to Facebook after the Lahore High Court orders closure of the social networking website until May 31 after a competition page encouraged users to post drawings of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

The controversial page by the name “Draw Muhammad Day” had been created by a Facebook user in response to American cartoonist, Molly Noris’s protest to the decision of US television channel, Comedy Central to to cancel an episode of the popular show “South Park” over its depiction of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH).

Noris had however disavowed having declared May 20 “Draw Muhammad Day” and had condemned the effort and issued an apology.

The ban, implemented by the PTA, also resulted in a ban on YouTube and restricted access to other websites, including Wikipedia.

May 27, 2010

Pakistan lifts ban on YouTube, blocks 1,200 web pages

Pakistan restores access to YouTube as row about “blasphemous” content on the internet rumbles into a second week.

“YouTube has been unblocked, but the links to sacrilegious content would remain inaccessible in Pakistan,” PTA spokesman Khurram Mehran says.

“There are around 1,200 URLs which have been blocked... Only links containing objectionable material have been blocked,” he added.

May 31, 2010

Court lifts Facebook ban

A judge of the Lahore High Court allows conditional access to Facebook with a strict warning against any future act of blasphemy.

The ban is lifted after the Ministry of Information Technology gives an assurance that no blasphemous material will be allowed to be shown on it.

Facebook expresses disappointment at being blocked and the offending page disappears from the social networking service.

May 20, 2012

Pakistan blocks Twitter over 'blasphemous' posts

Pakistan blocks access to Twitter after it refused to remove tweets promoting a page urging people to post images of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) as part of a contest.

The website is blocked by the telecoms authority on the orders of the IT ministry amid accusations it refused to remove messages about the Facebook contest.

Muhammad Yaseen, chairman of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, said said Facebook agreed to address Pakistan's concerns but officials had failed to persuade Twitter to do the same. "We have been negotiating with them until last night, but they did not agree to remove the stuff, so we had to block it," Yaseen said.

The site was blocked for over 8 hours, but no reasons were given for the about-turn.

Then Interior Minister Rehman Malik had said there were no plans to block Twitter. "Dear all, I assure u that Twitter and FB will continue in our country and it will not be blocked. Pl do not believe in rumors," Rehman Malik had said in a tweet.

Sept 17, 2012

PM orders YouTube shutdown over anti-Islam film

Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf orders immediate shutdown of YouTube in the aftermath of protests against anti-Islam film “Innocence of Muslims”.

The movie, believed to have been produced by a small group of extremist Christians, sparks a week of furious protests outside US embassies and other American symbols in at least 20 countries.

Two protesters died in Pakistan during the protests — one in an exchange of gunfire and one who succumbed to his injuries after being shot in the head during a demonstration in Karachi.

In a directive issued to the Ministry of Information Technology, the PM stated that the decision was taken after YouTube decided against removing the film and the shutdown will remain effective until the website removes all content from the sacrilegious film.

Also read: Pakistan's internet censorship “has no impact”

Jan 18, 2016

YouTube returns to Pakistan

After over three years of being told to ‘Surf Safely’, Internet users in the country are able to access YouTube, following orders from the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) that the website be unblocked.

“We have directed all ISPs to unblock the website as Google informed us on January 12 that a country version of YouTube has been launched for Pakistan. Google has been using country versions for different countries such as Saudi Arabia,” a PTA official, who was not authorised to speak on the record, tells Dawn.

“Google has also informed us that objectionable content will be restricted in Pakistan. It has assured that, in the future, content can be restricted at the request of the government of Pakistan,” he said.

A spokesperson for Google says in an email, “We are glad that YouTube is now accessible in Pakistan so viewers can watch and share videos, as well as take advantage of the vibrant and growing global online video community.”

Mar 9, 2017

Nisar threatens to block social media over 'blasphemous' content

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar threatens to block "all social media websites" that host blasphemous content hours after the Islamabad High Court orders the government to open an investigation into online blasphemy.

"We will go to any extent [including] permanently blocking all such social media websites if they refuse to cooperate," Nisar says.

Laws relating to blasphemy in Pakistan

Pakistan Penal Code: Section 295-C

Use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet

Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.

Pakistan Penal Code: Section 298-A

Use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of holy personages.

Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of any wife (Ummul Mumineen), or members of the family (Ahle-bait), of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him), or any of the righteous Caliphs (Khulafa-e-Rashideen) or companions (Sahaaba) of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.

Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016

Section 37, clause 1

"The Authority shall have the power to remove or block or issue directions for removal or blocking of access to an information through any information system if it considers it necessary in the interest of the glory of lslam..."

Pakistan Penal Code: Section 295-B

Defiling, etc., of Holy Qur'an.

Whoever wilfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Qur'an or of an extract there from or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.

Pakistan Penal Code: Section 295-A

Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting Its religion or religious beliefs.

Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the 'religious feelings of any class of the citizens of Pakistan, by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representations insults the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, or with fine, or with both.

Header image — Courtesy Lahore High Court