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Friday 17 August 2018

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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.

Supporters of Awami National Party (ANP) protest against alleged election rigging in Peshawar on July 30.

In the run-up to this year’s election, Pakistani journalists, campaigners, and international media watchdogs complained of mounting censorship.

Now that the election is over, any discussion of the alleged rigging and irregularities that marred the process has emerged as an off-limits topic for the country’s newspapers and television channels.

As several Pakistani political parties gear up for protests this week, newspaper articles and TV talks shows that address the rigging or blame the powerful military for manipulating the vote to favor cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) party are being censored. (The PTI, the military, the election commission, and the civilian interim government all reject rigging allegations and complaints of censorship.)

“The new wave of censorship is aimed at muzzling the voices disputing the election results,” Murtaza Solangi, a senior Pakistani journalist and television talk show host, told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website.

Journalist Syed Talat Hussain expressed his disappointment when Geo News, one of Pakistan’s leading television news outlets, censored part of his August 5 nighttime show that focused on election rigging allegations.

“Censorship is the last refuge of the culprit,” he wrote on Twitter. “This censorship and those enforcing it have turned free debate in this country next to impossible.”

Hussain said that Geo News’ editorial committee “made a complete joke” of his show by censoring its parts. He added that the censorship was prompted by his channel’s recent closure in various parts of Pakistan as it still faces threats of a complete shutdown.

“If the elections were not rigged, no one should have a problem with debating the allegations,” he noted.

Saleem Safi, another journalist working for Geo News, was less vocal after the channel apparently axed two of his interviews with leading politicians about the alleged vote rigging.

Despite promoting the shows, Geo News didn’t broadcast Safi’s interviews with Islamist leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Sardar Akhtar Mengal, president of the Balochistan National Party. Both have alleged rigging in the July 25 vote.

Pakistan’s English-language daily The Nation refused to publish politician Afrasiab Khattak's weekly column because it criticized the country’s powerful military for manipulating the election.

“If there was no industrial scale rigging in the recent elections, why is [a] critical analysis of the same blocked on TV [sic] channels?” he wrote on Twitter, “If intelligence agencies weren’t involved in rigging, why are they blocking media coverage of the opposition?”

Asif Ghafoor, a spokesman for the military, however, rejected imposing any censorship or manipulating the media.

“We have never told any journalist or media owners what to say and what not to,” he told journalists in June. “We have always told them that Pakistan needs to unite, and we need to bring forward its strengths and success. I thank media for their willing cooperation.”

In July, he dismissed criticism of the military as part of political posturing in an election year. "This is an election year. Political parties are fighting for power, and this fight has to be at each other’s expense,” he told journalists.

But since the beginning of this year, Pakistani journalists, television stations, newspapers, politicians, and international media watchdogs have complained about increasing censorship.

Solangi says censorship is extensive but targeted, which perhaps explains why it has not been protested widely by television and newspaper owners who are reliant on government advertising and some expect their media investments to always yield profits.

“The new wave of censorship is targeted and selective. Powerful voices with more credibility and more reach are the targets,” he said. “Raising questions about the recent electoral process, its legitimacy and fairness, are the new no-entry zones.”

Khattak sees ominous signs for press freedom. “They [the military] are pushing the censorship to an extent that it becomes the new normal and is not even questioned,” he told Gandhara RFE/RL.

Solangi, however, sees a mixed picture. “The media may get a breather,” he says while referring to the planned transfer of power to the new elected government this month.

He sees press freedom reversing if the new administration runs into problems.

“The cat-and-mouse game may start again as the new rainbow [coalition] setup starts breaking at the seams and if the united opposition creates a debilitating effect,” he predicted.

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