Last month (November 2011) Pakistan made a striking move unprecedented for a contemporary society.  It listed 1500 words in English and Urdu that it considered obscene or blasphemous and ordered cell phone companies to block any texts containing these words.  These included common swear words as well as words as unassuming as “idiot,” “fart,” “Jesus,” and “headlights.”[1]  If the order holds, it will probably have sweeping effects on communications in the country, heavily restricting the free rights of common people in Pakistan to communicate by text messages.  Furthermore, it is unlikely that restrictions will stop there; will the Internet in general see a similar set of restrictions??  Measures proposed on censorship in the past few years suggest that this may be a possibility.

The government claims that the new list of banned words follows from a 1996 law.  This law prevents people from sending information that is “false, fabricated, indecent, or obscene” across any method of communication.[2]  Yet in the past fifteen years Pakistan’s cyber laws have adjusted in significant ways, leading from the relatively vague 1996 law to the current situation.  The first such law was passed in 2002, called the “Electronic Transaction Ordinance.”  This law gives as punishment imprisonment for up to seven years for the access of information on     private networks.[3]  Though some may see this as an indication of Pakistan’s willingness to protect privacy, by recognizing specifically the security of networks it seems more geared toward protecting financial and, more importantly, government data.  In addition, it provided the first measures of cyber-security in Pakistan.  Pakistan has taken a preemptive stance of the threats of cyber criminals and cyber terrorists, as indicated by many laws passed that specifically are geared towards these groups.  In this act, Pakistan hoped to punish those who specifically sought to damage information systems.[4]  These measures appear to be noble, and are fairly standard (if broad) measures of protection against cyber criminals.

Pakistan first begins to show its more restrictive side in the 2007 follow-up to this law, the Electronic/Cyber Crime Bill.  The law was passed while President Pervez Musharraf was in power.  Musharraf was known for abusing autocratic powers by imposing emergency military powers in conditions without crises.  The law passed under him bears the weight to a great extent of these restrictive measures.  They were passed in response to complaints by Pakistani citizens in the blogosphere.  The law expressly prohibits the use of the Internet to criticize authorities or call for anti-government rallies.[5]   This is the first instance where the government seems to be showing a direct desire to curb dissent, as expected in a semi-authoritarian government like Musharraf’s. It prevents people from taking photos and uploading or sending them if they contain “indecent material,” a key precedent for the later ban on actual words.  It goes on to describe numerous forms of cyber crimes, such as fraud, defamation, and even spamming, gives a definition of each one, and gives prison sentences for each crime.[6]  The “crime” of pornography is given one of the longest prison sentences: 10 years.  This probably derives from the Islamic cultural background, as policies undertaken in the country are often expected to promote Islamic values, just as many American laws promote Christian values.

Bloggers were quick to note, however, the vague definitions of many of the crimes listed.  “Spoofing” and “spamming” are inherently vague acts and may be used as means to prevent the publication of criticism of the state.[7]  Even more dangerous, however, is the definition of “cyber terrorism,” an act punishable by death.  It is essentially given no definition: the performance of a “terroristic act” on the Internet.[8]  With enforcement of the law given to the Federal Investigation Authority that hilariously purports to punish “anti-democratic forces,” it is not unfounded to say that these vague definitions may see abuse.[9]  Others, however, have given more credit to Pakistan, saying that cyber terrorism only results in the death sentence when the actions that the perpetrators resulted in the death of somebody else.  Furthermore, Pakistan has in general enjoyed a free press to date, with vibrant government criticism present on television.  The definitions of words like “spamming” and “spoofing” have enough context in them to specifically target dangerous perpetrators of cyber-crimes.[10]

Nevertheless, Pakistanis hoped that the transition in government from President Musharraf to current President Asif Zardari would end any movement towards Internet censorship.  Zardari, the widower of the assassinated Benazhir Bhutto, represents the liberal Pakistan People’s Party.[11]  Despite these claims, cyberlaw has only become more restrictive since Zardari became president of Pakistan.  In 2009, Rehman Malik, the interior minister, banned all electronic communications which “slander the political leadership” of Pakistan.[12]  They were developed specifically in response to jokes about President Zardari resulting from disappointments of the current state of government in Pakistan.[13]  This is pretty clear since the new laws were implemented after someone was smart enough to send these jokes to the president’s e-mail.  Of course, Zardari has claimed that the laws are to counteract “abuse of women” in government and, as always, “terrorism.”  It is pretty clear, though, that Pakistan’s supposedly democratic government is taking clearer and clearer steps away from promoting the freedom of expression and towards promoting censorship.  Its unfortunate especially since freedom of expression is guaranteed in Pakistan’s constitution.  Taking steps to put in power a more “liberal” government has solved none of its problems.

Recent censorship imposed by Pakistan’s government has been escalating out of control.  Earlier this year (2011), Pakistan blocked Rolling Stone after an article published on its web site criticized Pakistan’s levels of military spending.[14]  It is difficult to continue to argue that Pakistan’s press is free and vibrant when such arbitrary restrictions are forced upon Pakistan’s Internet service providers.  Of course the government argued that doing this was due to the “scantily clad women” on the site, but of course this did not make them ban sites with similar images.  Facebook was temporarily blocked this year as well due to the prevalence of cartoons perverse to the Islamic religion on its site (of course, Facebook, in the spirit of free expression, did not remove them when asked).[15]  In both circumstances, when the government could have blocked only the single troublesome page, they instead chose to block the entire website.  Many speculate that this was done with clear political goals and hopes to prevent the Internet from becoming a place of vibrant government criticism.  In a completely political vain, an independence site for the Balochi population (an ethnic minority within Pakistan’s borders) was blocked.[16]  The government is even considering blocking Google if it does not do better to assist Pakistan in its cyber-terrorism efforts!  The good news is that many of these blocks are easily circumvented by anyone with some knowledge of how computers work.[17]  It is difficult to imagine, however, how long Pakistan will continue to be heralded as a “democratic” if the government (effectively or not) imposes such restrictions upon the activities of its citizens.

In this context, Pakistan’s arbitrary ban on the use of certain words while texting is less shocking.  They result from a slowly escalating tendency to block modern forms of communication to prevent the spread of government dissent.  Whether inspired by Islam or not, whether with the noble aims of preventing cyber-terrorism or not, it poses a number of questions about what a free society ought to naturally allow its citizens to do and how governments can go too far in the modern era.  Pakistan will continue to be an interesting case to observe in the next few years to see how common people react to the most restrictive recent trends.



[2] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[13] “Terrorists have kidnapped our beloved Zardari and are demanding $5,000,000 or they will burn him with petrol. Please donate what you can. I have donated five litres.”