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Free Expression

Pakistan Begins Far-Reaching Censorship Crackdown

On the heels of the assassination of a prominent governor who advocated for outlawing the death sentence as a punishment for blasphemy, the Pakistani government has ordered that all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) immediately begin blocking websites “propagating [an] anti-Islam agenda.” The government has also taken actions that suggest the beginnings of a witch hunt for website operators that could be categorized as “anti-Islam.” The government will additionally monitor SMS traffic for the purpose of identifying and blocking messages with “anti-Islam content.”

A political movement to more carefully scope the crime of blasphemy and reduce the maximum sentence to 10-year imprisonment had been gaining force in recent months. But the assassination on Jan. 4 of Punjab governor and advocate for the new law Salman Taseer seemed to empower the conservative forces that opposed the change.

Last week, the Pakistani government announced that it does not intend to amend the blasphemy law. In a separate statement, Mr. Rehman Malik, the federal interior minister, introduced the new censorship efforts and urged young people to report, through email or phone, websites that they believe contain “anti-Islam” sentiment.

But Interior Minister Malik did not just call for widespread censorship. He also warned that those associated with targeted websites will be caught and brought to court. It’s an ominous threat for the many Pakistanis who have used the Internet as platforms for dialogue and dissent; in Pakistan, even an accusation of blasphemy can lead to death by vigilantism and the standards for identifying blasphemous speech are capricious at best. Of course, any stand against the blocking order (or previously voiced stands against censorship) could be considered an act of blasphemy.

It is, in the words of one Pakistani Internet freedom advocate, a message that Internet rights activists should all run for their lives.

This is certainly not the first time Pakistan has made headlines for its web censorship. In 2006, the government claimed to have successfully blocked all sites that hosted the infamous cartoon of Mohammad – the list of blocked sites included every blog hosted on Blogspot. In 2010, courts ordered that ISPs block Wikipedia, YouTube, Flickr and Facebook in response to “everybody draw Mohammad Day”. But a demand for such indiscriminate censorship is atypical and the emphasis on tracking down and punishing the operators of targeted websites is especially harrowing.

These recent events suggest that the distance between Pakistan’s policies and global human rights standards will continue to grow, even as the global community, led by UN Special Rapporteur on free expression Frank La Rue, turns greater attention to the perils of criminalizing expression. The crackdown also bodes poorly for Pakistanis who have had the courage to express themselves online or to fight for the freedom to do so. And it should serve as a reminder to those of us on the other side of the world: In the midst of domestic debates about the merits of digital activism, in some countries, to voice an opinion digitally can be to risk everything.