The ban that became a bane
Karachi: The abrupt blocking and subsequent unblocking of the popular social media site Twitter on Sunday was a perfect reflection of the government’s handling of many other key issues: a bumbling, knee-jerk reaction soon reduced to a comedy of errors. The move to block the website and the defiant reaction to the ban also revealed the coming of age and growing clout of Internet activism by Pakistan’s increasingly vocal civil society.
“Unmitigated idiocy,” is how Cafe Pyala, a popular group of anonymous bloggers, reacted by email when asked to give their reaction. Summing up the outrage of twitter users, they added: “We are quite sure the Ministry of Information and Technology has no one within its ranks who even knows what Twitter is.”
The decision to block Twitter was taken early on Sunday morning by the authorities, ostensibly in reaction to certain blasphemous material being circulated there. However, while no one was condoning such sacrilegious activity, the drastic step of blocking the entire website was widely viewed as an overreaction. As one angry Twitter fan said: “How exactly would blasphemous material be accessed on Twitter? Surely, it could only be from a particular individual or group that you would have to follow. Everyone has the option to simply block people sending hate-filled, obnoxious material.”
Ironically, the Twitter ban also left many of the country’s most celebrated ‘twitterati’ unable to connect to their favourite website. Among the illustrious tweeters are names such as Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and sister Bakhtawar, Marryam Nawaz Sharif, Interior Minister Rehman Malik and dozens of other politicians from across the political spectrum. Despite the conspicuous presence of big names, most people on Twitter are normal Internet surfers and a galaxy of celebrities, intellectuals, journalists, NGO activists, students and many others covering every possible field.
Unlike parallel bombshell news that practically appeared in real time in the social media, the news of the ban on Twitter by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority came out relatively slowly and out of the blue. It was only when users tried to log on to the website on Sunday morning that they found out that they could not access the micro-blogging site. For many in the metropolis, Twitter has acquired the status of an addiction where they go to get updates on the latest news, including local news, as well as recommendations of what to read, where to eat and which political philosophy to subscribe to. Ironically, the very website that works as the real-time updater for hundreds of thousands of Karachiites, if not millions, suddenly became inaccessible.
“It came as a shocker,” said Abid Hussain, a journalist working for Newsweek Pakistan, who is very active in the Twitter-sphere. “The Facebook ban saga lingered for days before being closed down. We knew and expected it. But this one just ‘happened.’” Hussain said that such bans were “our national approach to solutions.” Terming it ridiculous, he likened the move to the age-old saying of an ostrich sticking its head in the sand to avoid “trouble.”
Although condemnation poured in from not only the twitterati but also from people from across the board, many Twitter users predicted that the ban was unrealistic and simply could not last. They pointed to the ban on Geo TV by General Musharraf’s regime and how people, nevertheless, managed to watch the channel using other means.
Federal Interior Minster Rehman Malik, who is also an active user of the micro-blogging website, assured his followers that the ban would soon be lifted. He tweeted, “Why some people are generating such baseless rumors? Do they want to push back to stone age.” Minutes later, he said: “Dear all, I assure u that Twitter and FB will continue in our country and it will not be blocked. Pl [ease] do not believe in rumors.”
People went on condemning the blockade, calling it “absurd” and one sarcastically suggesting that the government should also ban “pen and paper.” Others just came up with taunts within the 140-character limit. Five Rupees, an active tweeter, commented: “Well played, Govt of Pakistan well played. Blocking Twitter will fix our problems for sure.”
Kala Kawa, another blogger and active Twitter user, said, “Frankly, terribly upset that Bilawal has not taken to twitter to tell us how terrible the twitter ban is.” Ex-senator Sanaullah Baloch managed to quip with his trademark Baloch nationalist sarcasm on the issue, asking his followers if Twitter had any link to the Baloch, Lyari or Balochistan, “because anything associated or linked to the Baloch is a threat to ‘national security.” He was alluding to the wholesale blocking of sites related to Balochistan, including perfectly innocuous ones.
This leads to a wider point made by many commentators. As Cafe Pyala pointed out: “The wider implications are very troubling. Even a civilian dispensation (or the judiciary in the Facebook ban earlier) has the dangerous mix of incompetence, incomprehension (of technology and media) and the power to censor opinions. Make no mistake, the real threat is not to alleged blasphemers or pornographers, it is to people’s free opinions, particularly unpopular political opinions.”
The return of Twitter on Sunday night was greeted by unmitigated joy by its supporters and fans. Many people had actually bypassed all the controls and were happily tweeting even at the peak of the shock ban. As many tweeters pointed out, not many people knew about the obnoxious blasphemous content till the ban was imposed. “I would simply block anyone posting anything abusive and offensive,” says student Mariam Rizvi. “Why would I even think of such horrible things when I am busy exchanging information and jokes with my twitter friends?” As Cafe Pyala pointed out sarcastically, alluding to both the impossibility of banning websites as well as the ruling party’s favourite slogan: “Tum kitni websites band karo ge? Har server se nai websites niklein gi.”