Don’t Block the Blog

Speaking up Against Internet Censorship, the world over

March 25, 2006

Free speech is a global issue

Published in The News written by Ethan Casey

View from the West

Ethan Casey

I intended to write this week about George Bush’s visit to Pakistan, but I’ve found a more compelling topic, about which more below. First, allow me to note how strange and disorienting it can be to write a topical column, as events rush forward from day to day under the looming shadow of one’s deadline. One doesn’t know, sometimes, when to write: is the suicide bombing at the hotel in Karachi this week’s ‘hook’, or is it the more recent development of Bush’s having inked a nuclear agreement with India but not with Pakistan? I will have things to say about these issues, probably next week.

Given that the Bush visit has been written to death anyway, of more immediate interest is the apparent censorship of Pakistani blogs on the blogspot.com domain by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority. I learned about the ban on Saturday, March 4; I’m writing this on Sunday; and for all I know it might be old news by Tuesday when this column is published. But in case you haven’t heard about it, here it is in the words of the two enterprising Pakistanis who wasted no time launching a protest initiative (see http://help-pakistan.com/main/dont-block-the-blog/).

“On the 27th of February the PTA decided to block all sites displaying the controversial cartoons of which a few sites were being hosted on the blogspot domain,” Karachi dentist Dr Awab Alvi told me by email. “The network administrator simply blocked off the entire domain. [It was] either a deliberate attempt or a simple mistake, but it’s been five days with no solution. I continue to browse blogspot sites using a number of freely available proxies. A similar censorship was done on a US-based website focusing on South Asia a few years back, but even then people worked around the problem. At that time only one website was targeted, but today we see thousands of blogs (Pakistani and non-Pakistani) being off-limits to all Internet surfers in Pakistan. I, along with all the blog publishers and blog readers, protest this censorship on freedom of expression.

“The Don’t Block the Blog initiative is the creation of Omer Alvie (oream.blogpsot.com) and myself (we have previously worked together in the earthquake fundraising effort at Help-Pakistan.com). Realising this issue as an important problem for Pakistan, we decided to use our resources to launch an awareness campaign against this censorship.”

“Initially there was no clear indication or reason as to why it was happening,” adds Dubai-based blogger Omer Alvie. “Pakistani (and other international) bloggers were speculating as to the reason of inaccessibility, but there was no official word or factual information providing us a clear answer. It was only later that the mainstream media provided a possible answer. The block of blogspot.com could be the result of the pressure groups within Pakistan to force the government to ban sites that showed the controversial caricatures of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). I have just today [Saturday] learnt about another news story explaining that the ISPs are blocking blogspot.com in fear of reprisal or legal prosecution.

“My question is, there are many other web sites and domains where these controversial cartoons have been posted. Why are the ISPs targeting blogspot.com? Also, by blocking out such weblogs, they are taking away the rights of those (majority) Pakistani bloggers who have protested about the blasphemy (including myself) the only way we know how, and that is to write about it.

“What is ironic is that all Pakistani bloggers who want to access blogspot.com are still managing to do it through anonymous proxy sites, so this ban holds little relevance for them. It is relevant to me because this is an infringement of basic rights, and those who are insisting on it have no idea how serious the repercussions could be in the future. The ban could become a common occurrence on any future (protested) issue. The ISPs are setting a very dangerous precedent by doing this. I understand the need to follow the rule of law, but to appease pressure groups or the government without fully explaining and discussing the repercussions of such a ban is unbelievably irresponsible.”

On Friday night, the two sprung into action. “Rather than waste time, we started working on it during our online discussions,” says Omer Alvi. “I designed the banners and Awab worked on the site, and then we did a final text proofing, and the campaign was launched. The idea is to spread the word to as many people as we can so they can support our cause. Even if the ban on blogspot.com ends tomorrow, I believe the banners reflecting our cause should remain on web sites because free speech is not just a Pakistani issue but a global issue.”

The writer is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time

www.ethancasey.com

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