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‘Blasphemous’ tweets get blocked in Pakistan

Twitter bosses announce that the microblogging site will block posts in Pakistan deemed to have 'blasphemous' content

Eman El-Shenawi

Published: Updated:

At the request of Pakistan, Twitter bosses on Saturday announced that the microblogging site would block posts in the country deemed to have “blasphemous” content.

Tweets containing drawings of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad and links to anti-Islam blogs were cited in requests from Abdul Batin, of Pakistan's Telecommunication Authority, to Twitter to have the content blocked, according to the New York Times.

Also among the content that prompted Batin to complain to Twitter “at least five times this month” were photographs of burning Qurans and messages from anti-Islam bloggers as well as from an American porn star.

Though it has previously agreed to block content in other countries, including neo-Nazi tweets in Germany, this is the first time the social network has agreed to block material in Pakistan.

The move is in line with the social network’s country-specific censorship policy which was first unveiled in 2012. The policy allows for any tweets a user can see to be modified on a country-by-country basis.

“Twitter, which has trumpeted its commitment to free speech, argues that it is a lesser evil to block specific tweets that might violate local laws than to have the entire site blocked in certain countries,” the Times reported.

Pakistan's IT regulator has a special page where anyone can register a complaint related to blasphemy.

Twitter was yet to reply to Al Arabiya News’ request for comment at the time of writing.

Haitham Masoud, an online content expert based in the Middle East and the CEO of the Arab Digital Content Forum, described Pakistan’s move as a “brave step” and that other countries should follow suit.

“When a government asks for some content to be banned, this is a brave step in order to limit content that offends culture or religion,” he told Al Arabiya News on Saturday.

“Across the world, technology is moving faster than content. Since there is not enough monitoring of the sources of information posted on social media, the majority of content is reposted and retweeted by individuals. This challenges intellectual and cultural standards in our societies,” Masoud added.

Blocking posts, not the entire site

Requesting social media sites to block content rather than governments blocking entire networking sites may be the main appeal here.

In September 2012, Pakistan ordered video-sharing website YouTube be blocked over its hosting of the "Innocence of Muslims" movie that sparked furious protests around the world.

“This deprived millions of users from access and also prevented YouTube from gaining from whatever revenue was generated from Pakistan,” said Rana Jawad, a bureau chief at Pakistan’s popular TV channel, GEO News.

“Now, the government has negotiated a protocol whereby blasphemous content will not be shown on their site, so this is a good success story for Pakistan and its ability to negotiate with Twitter.

“This reflects the growing confidence of the government to be able to recognize sensitivities in society and communicate this to viewer-generating channels,” Jawad added.

In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is home to the biggest number of Twitter users, with around 41% of Internet users in the kingdom being active on the micro-blogging site, according to a BI Intelligence survey conducted at the end of 2013.

While there are questions whether the Saudi religious police may begin to monitor social media along with the country’s IT regulator, previously placed Internet bans in the kingdom remain active.

“If we look to the experience in Saudi Arabia in 2001, when it banned porn sites and websites with unethical content, this had a positive long-term effect on the youth,” said Masoud.

“Young Saudi people are now one of the most active users in the world on social media. They produce positive content in large volumes and have launched hundreds of forums that communicate local issues,” he added.

When compared to Jordan or Egypt, where there is no legal bans on any specific type of content, “we see almost 30 percent of young people use the Internet to access porn or websites with content deemed immoral,” Masoud said, citing telecom researchers based in those countries.