By Salman Masood for The New York Times
The Pakistani government blocked access to the social networking service Twitter on Sunday, after publicly holding Twitter responsible for promoting a blasphemous cartoon contest taking place on Facebook, officials said.
A government spokesman was quoted by local news media as saying that the government had been in talks with Twitter to remove “objectionable” material but that there had been no results.
“The material was promoting a competition on Facebook to post images of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad,” said Mohammad Yaseen, chairman of the Pakistan Telecommunication’s Authority, was quoted as saying. He was also quoted as saying that Facebook had agreed to allay the concerns of the Pakistani government.
Blasphemy is an issue that roils sentiment easily in Pakistan. Blasphemy allegations have often resulted in violent riots, and religious minorities in Pakistan have long maintained that the country’s blasphemy laws are used to settle personal scores.
Facebook was banned for two weeks in 2010 after protests erupted in the country over a similar cartoon contest on Facebook to draw the Prophet Muhammad. After a high court ordered the government to ban Facebook, the government was quick to ban YouTube and hundreds of other Web sites and services.
Speculation that the government intended to suspended Facebook and Twitter again had been swirling around for the past couple of days. However, this time around there have been no major public protests over the contest that Pakistani officials have expressed concerns about.
The ban has caught Twitter users by surprise.
“I never heard of any caricatures on Twitter,” said Arif Rafiq, an adjunct scholar at Middle East Institute and a commentator on Pakistani politics, who has a Twitter following of more than 10,000 users. “Now this ban will be promoting whatever caricatures were posted on it.”
Responding to a question last night, Rehman Malik, the country’s interior minister, had denied that ban on social networking sites was in the offing.
“The government of Pakistan’s ban on Twitter is ill advised, counterproductive and will ultimately prove to be futile as all such attempts at censorship have proved to be,” said Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan director at Human Rights Watch, in a press statement. “The right to free speech is nonnegotiable, and if Pakistan is the rights-respecting democracy it claims to be, this ban must be lifted forthwith. Free speech can and should only be countered with free speech.”
Critics said that the blocking of the micro-blogging site could actually be a part of longstanding government plan to muzzle media freedom and could be related to the vociferous opposition and criticism that is heaped on the country’s security apparatus in Twitter debates.
“Twitter is a place where fierce opposition to Pakistan’s security agencies is expressed,” said Raza Rumi, a widely read columnist and an adviser at the Jinnah Institute, a public policy center based in Islamabad.
“There is a clear trend,” Mr. Rumi said, “that the Pakistani military and spy agency get a strong critique from Pakistanis themselves, something that does not happen in mainstream media where people are generally shy to express such views.”
Activists supporting minority rights have established a strong voice on Twitter, and advocates for the Baluch people, who are demanding greater rights and a share of the natural-resources wealth in the southwestern province of Baluchistan, have also used it to spread their message.