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Amid Media Censorship, Pakistan Mulls Twitter Ban

Pakistan's new Prime Minister Imran Khan has one of the largest twitter following in the country.
Pakistan's new Prime Minister Imran Khan has one of the largest twitter following in the country.

Following months of complaints by journalists and media watchdogs that Pakistan is imposing censorship and cracking down on independent news media, Islamabad is now threatening to shut down the social media website Twitter.

On August 16, a senior Pakistani official told Radio Mashaal that authorities would block Twitter if it fails to cooperate with Islamabad's concerns over material that it says violates its laws and customs.

Nisar Ahmed, the director general of internet policy and web analysis at the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) said they are “pushed to make this decision” due to “negligible cooperation” from Twitter.

Citing terrorism threats, Ahmed said, “There are some things that are unlawful according to our customs, values, and laws, and those are required to be removed.”

"Twitter does not comply," he added.

On August 15, Ahmed appeared before the Pakistani Senate, where he mentioned that the Hight Court in Islamabad recently told them to issue a final warning to Twitter.

Ahmed and lawmakers present at the committee briefing told Radio Mashaal that PTA has sent a notice to Twitter along with Islamabad High Court’s directive, and Twitter has a fortnight to respond.

“If [Twitter] does not respond within 15 days, it should be blocked” across the country, said Senator Talha Mahmood, head of the committee of the Cabinet Division.

When asked about Islamabad’s specific complaints against Twitter, Ahmed said that if the PTA seeks information about an individual who has uploaded “objectionable content,” Twitter does not respond and rarely takes down the content.

But Twitter says it values user privacy. According to its latest policy update in May, Twitter does not possess any right to process personal data, saying its users “have the final say about whether and how we process your personal data.”

In recent years, however, Twitter has changed its longstanding policy by taking action against accounts that promote violence, racism, or intolerance.

Responding to concerns by the U.S. and European governments about Islamic State’s (IS) recruitment of foreign fighters, Twitter blocked around 1 million accounts between 2015 and 2017.

Twitter is a popular platform for politicians, journalists, and activists in Pakistan who are now worried over its shutdown after complaining of mounting censorship, threats and harassment since the beginning of this year.

Taha Siddiqui, an exiled journalist, criticized the mover. "If Twitter wasn’t a popular site, the Pakistani military wouldn’t be concerned about the number of retweets," he wrote on Twitter on August 16.

Khadim Hussain, a columnist, expressed skepticism over intended consequences of the move. “The sun cannot be enveloped in a blanket,” he wrote on Twitter.

However, Senator Muhammad Tahir Bizinjo, another member of the committee, says no one supports the ban.

“I don’t think anyone can make such decision. [Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf] PTI will form [the federal government] and they are in favor of social media,” he said.

Martin Kobler, the German ambassador to Pakistan, is also concerned. “Worried about press reports that Twitter is threatened in Pakistan," he tweeted. "I love my followers. I learn so much from you. Social media must be handled with responsibility but must not be blocked. A free country needs free social media!"

But Ahmed says the government cares more about “the lives of people” and asks Twitter to “appoint a focal person” responsible for addressing the Pakistani government’s concerns.

Pakistan blocked access to Facebook in 2008 and 2010. Facebook, YouTube, and Dailymotion are now “cooperating with Islamabad,” according to Ahmed, adding that Facebook even appointed an Urdu-speaking team that addresses issues raised by Islamabad.

In 2012, Pakistan blocked YouTube, and it remained inaccessible for two years.

Mehmood suggests that, instead of blocking Twitter, Pakistani government should create a mechanism to prevent its misuse.

“Twitter in and of itself isn’t wrong, but people take advantage of their freedom and misuse it. There should be a strategy to prevent Twitter’s misuse,” he noted.

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    Pamir Sahill

    Pamir Sahill is a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal in Prague. He reports on politics and security in Afghanistan and Pakistan.