Beggar at Ghazi Chowk


The Down Low on the Facebook Ban – Updated.

20 May 2010

Last Update: 4.44 pm Eastern Time May 21st.

Media organizations all over the world are having a field day with the recently imposed ban on Facebook in Pakistan. News reports I find are often confusing things and missing out important details. Here are 10 things you need to know.

1. The ban is not permanent, it lasts to 31 May.

2. The ban was imposed by the Lahore High Court in retaliation to a group that invites users to take part in Draw Muhammad Day. Pictures of Prophet Muhammad are prohibited in most Islamic belief systems. The reasons for this include the possibility of the pictures being worshipped as well, which would be against the Islamic doctrine of worshiping only God. Caricatures/Cartoons etc. are also considered disrespectful.

3. Draw Muhammad day has risen from the controversy surrounding a ‘threat’ of sorts sent to the creators of South Park when they were about to depict Prophet Muhammad in one of their episodes. The retaliation caught on in an American University and the grew from thereon.

4. The ban was imposed because lawyers from the Islamic Lawyers forum staged a protest asking for a blanket ban on Facebook, after the page for the Draw Muhammad Day group was apparently blocked from access within Pakistan. Facebook has responded by saying it is disappointed by the ban and may consider removing access to the offending page.

5. Facebook the organization had nothing to do with the creation of the group, contrary to many news reports from inside and outside Pakistan. Groups can be created by individual users and Facebook does not moderate all content uploaded on its site. Content is removed only if it has been reported offensive/abusive by other users and then reviewed.

6. No caricature competition was organized, as also stated by news reports, the creator of the group posted an invitation to upload caricatures.

7. A few hours ago people were able to access Facebook through MSN or their mobile phones.

8. Anecdotes have declared that BlackBerry services will also not work during this time. Apparently people could still access the website from their BlackBerrys, and push email services were halted to prevent this from happening.

9. The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) had raised concerns that a complete ban on the website could raise other problems to internet services. Previously an effort to ban YouTube by the Pakistani Government had caused a YouTube outage worldwide.

10. And this just in, YouTube has also been banned due to similar concerns. Protesters argue that caricatures have been transferred from Facebook to YouTube as well. The duration of this ban is not clear at this time.

Now some thoughts.

I found it surprising that even reports from the BBC had incorrectly reported what the group was. The most accurate description of the event I found was this report from The News, which is not extensive, but accurate.

Interestingly, voices against Draw Muhammad day have also been raised in the western media. This Huffington Post article and this blog post will make interesting reads for anyone.

Facebook users, mostly college and high school students, have of course raised their voices against the ban, but voices appreciative of the ban have also been strong. While the argument of Facebook being immoral per se can be found in many comment threads, other arguments range from establishing Muslim solidarity and also that accepting the demands of a hostile group at the moment could prevent violence that could result from further controversy.

Reasoned argument has been published in many widely read blogs. This post from the Dawn Blog, titled Art or Incitement highlights the plight against the Facebook administration fro being swift to remove other groups such as one for a peaceful protest in Karachi. This post from Cafe Pyala, another Pakistani blog highlights what it sees as double standards applied to certain forms of hate speech and drawing depictions of the Prophet. Overall a significant opinion for the ban exists.

Worth noting is the fact that none of these articles condone the threat posed to the creators of South Park, in fact most of them actively condemn it. The reaction to the threat however, has been equally ill received.

Bans are notorious in Pakistan in modern times. A similar ban on the Blogger service run by Google was also imposed after the publication of the Danish cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad.

These bans differ in motivation from other bans imposed by governments that wish to further political agenda and stifle opposing voices. Examples of those bans have included the previous ban on YouTube, a ban on Military Inc. by Ayesha Siddiqa (a novel about the Military and its political involvement in Pakistan) and a ban on Sufi Rock band Junoon after the release of their single Ehtesaab (Accountability) condemning corruption in the government of the time.

Update: The list of banned websites had swelled. Though apart from facebook and youtube only specific pages of other websites have been banned. Users have faced denial of service messages on a lot of other websites, including Twitter and Gmail, but authorities say this is a problem ISPs should handle and is not related to the ban. More new in this story in the Express Tribune.