THE NEWS, Friday, January 02, 2009
By Urooj Zia, Karachi
The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) issued directives in the last week of December to Internet Service Providers (ISPs), ordering them to block a list of six webpages on the grounds that they were “harmful for the integrity of the country.”
The directive came on the orders of the Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC) for the Evaluation of Websites. The IMC constitutes representatives of the Ministry of IT, PTA, Ministry of Interior and Cabinet Division. Its charter is to monitor and block blasphemous, pornographic, and anti-state or anti-Pakistan sites.
Three of the six webpages on the list issued by the PTA, however, are from dictatorshipwatch.com, a website set up after November 3, 2007, when then-President Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf implemented a state of emergency in the country. One webpage is from makepakistanbetter.com, a social and political discussion forum. The fifth page is from friendskorner.com, a general discussion forum, while the sixth webpage is a node from buzzvines.com. Most of the blocked webpages contained articles which claimed to provide information about Punjab Governor Salman Taseer’s “history”; others had pictures of members of Taseer’s family at lavish parties thrown recently at the Punjab Governor House.
None had blasphemous material, or anything which could even remotely be construed as “anti-Pakistan,” unless criticism of one person is considered an act of treason. The PTA circular, issued on December 26 by Enforcement Coordination Director Yawar Yasin, however, called for the immediate blockage of these pages. An email was sent out on December 29 to ISPs by Muhammad Shafiq, PTA Zonal Director (Enforcement) at the Authority’s Rawalpindi zonal office. The ISPs in question were directed to comply with these orders immediately and send a report to Shafiq by 3 pm the same day.
Meanwhile, the move to block political websites and webpages has been lambasted by ISPs as well as internet users, many of whom have, on various online discussion forums, compared this act with those under the military dictatorship of Gen (retd) Musharraf.
“While these webpages have been classified as ‘harmful for the integrity of the country,’ I don’t believe this is the correct classification. PTA as a regulator should not be involved in pushing or blocking political agendas and should clearly rise above political party favours and bias,” the CEO of a Lahore-based ISP said. “We feel that the criteria of blocking should be clearly defined and should not side with any political party.”
“This is a very repressive step and ISPAK condemns this act,” Micronet Broadband CEO and Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan (ISPAK) convener Wahaj us Siraj told The News. “The IMC has no mandate to block political web sites. The PTA apparently has less say in it and just conveyed the directive of the IMC to the ISPs.”