Over the past four years or so, Pakistanis have become addicted to Facebook. The social networking website is home to local celebrities, including former President Pervez Musharraf, who recenctly began using the website as a way to update his "fans" about his speaking engagements and his new political party. It has spawned a culture of its own — fashion designers and musicians use Facebook as a marketing tool, tagging pictures is a full-time activity, and local telecom operators have used Facebook’s mobile services as a selling point. After former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated and curiosity about her children grew, British tabloids published images of her son, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, that were taken from his Facebook page. Pakistani grandparents use Facebook as a way to communicate with grandchildren living outside Pakistan, and the five Americans who were arrested on suspicion of involvement in terrorism last year reportedly used it to try and get in touch with militant groups.
But all that has come to an end — until May 31, at least. Earlier today, the Lahore High Court ordered that access to Facebook be blocked in Pakistan. The move came after a petition was filed in the court by a forum of Islamic lawyers protesting a Facebook page called "Everybody Draw Mohammad Day," which began as a protest itself against a radical group which had objected to a depiction of the Prophet Mohammed on the animated U.S. television program South Park. Facebook users in Pakistan had campaigned on the social networking website to "report" the page to Facebook authorities, but no action was taken.
Not surprisingly, Pakistanis across Pakistan have protested against Facebook. Pakistan sees protests on a daily basis against issues ranging from the electricity crisis to mass layoffs to Aafia Siddiqui’s case.
While one Indian Twitter user joked that the difference between Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Facebook in Pakistan was that the front group for the militant organization Lashkar-e-Taiba is banned, it highlighted Pakistan’s ironic tendency to act only when it comes to blasphemous content and not content that affects the state’s security. Hateful and derogatory literature is available openly in Pakistan, and the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority has not attempted to block YouTube channels such as that of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan or videos of hate-laden speeches by Jaish-e-Muhammad leader Masood Azhar. Objectionable content is available on scores of different websites. Facebook was not the first to be blocked in Pakistan. What might be next?
Pakistan has an unfortunate history of blocking websites it believes are objectionable for blasphemy reasons. In 2006, Blogger.com and all blogspot.com addresses were blocked in Pakistan in the wake of the Danish cartoons controversy. Since the cartoon images had been posted on blogs hosted by Blogger, the entire website was pulled down for at least two months.
This February, YouTube was temporarily blocked for almost an hour. Once service had been restored, Internet users in Pakistan discovered that the video that had been blocked was of President Asif Ali Zardari allegedly screaming "shut up" to someone while addressing a crowd.
Ever-enterprising Pakistanis will undoubtedly find a way around the Facebook ban. When blogspot.com was blocked, a rerouting address was created for blogs hosted on the website. At least this time, Pakistan’s ban did not affect the website in question the world over. In 2008, a Pakistani government attempt to block YouTube caused hours of downtime for YouTube users around the globe.
The new Facebook ban reflects the laws of Pakistan, where blasphemy is punishable by death or life imprisonment. But it also leads me to question the sense of a legal system that ordered an entire website blocked for the content of one page and points to the inanity of those who believe blocking the website in Pakistan will somehow stop would-be cartoonists. I also have to ask what this judgment will do to the morale of the thousands of young students who in 2007 mobilized to campaign for the restoration of Pakistan’s judiciary and organized protests of then-President Musharraf’s imposition of emergency rule — using Facebook.
Saba Imtiaz works for the Express Tribune, an English-language newspaper in Pakistan.