Pakistan blocks Twitter access over Muhammad images

Mon, May 21, 2012, 01:00

PAKISTAN’S RAMBUNCTIOUS Twitter users were briefly silenced yesterday after the government closed the site amid fears blasphemous pictures might be circulated.

Muhammad Yaseen, chairman of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, said the micro-blogging site had been shut down after it refused to remove tweets promoting a Facebook page encouraging people to post images of the prophet Muhammad.

He said Facebook agreed to address Pakistan’s concerns but officials had failed to persuade Twitter to do the same. “We have been negotiating with them until last night, but they did not agree to remove the stuff, so we had to block it,” Mr Yaseen said.

Officials from Facebook and Twitter were not immediately available for comment.

The ban was made largely irrelevant by tech-savvy users. Twitter members, many aided by online articles in the Pakistani media explaining how to circumvent the curbs, installed proxy servers to shield their web browsing. Once back online, many posted angry tweets about the shutdown.

One poster wondered how a known terrorist “can roam and operate freely in Pakistan whilst social media is banned!”

Farieha Aziz, of the Bolo Bhi advocacy group, said the government was repeating the mistake of 2010, when Facebook was blocked for two weeks because of a group page called “Everybody Draw Mohammed”. Although there had been protests in the run-up to the event last year, Ms Aziz said the ban gave the group more publicity.

“This year, however, everyone had been completely oblivious to this,” she added. “Shutting down Twitter will just drive more traffic to them.” According to the government, 20 per cent of Pakistan’s 180 million people have internet access, while 64 per cent have connections through mobile phones.

The web is increasingly important among the country’s fast-growing urban middle class. A campaign run by Imran Khan, the former cricketer, who has some 270,000 Twitter followers, has been particularly popular.

In addition to blocking Facebook and Twitter, the government has in the past tried to control text messages derogatory of government figures and has considered a national firewall to potentially screen all web traffic.

Emrys Schoemaker of iMedia, a group that studies social media in Pakistan, said attempts to control the internet reflected a shift from freedoms introduced by former president Pervez Musharraf. “This is a very defensive, dated response to politics in the digital era,” Mr Schoemaker said. “Closing down debate simply makes the voices louder.”