Locking up cyberspace for minorities in Pakistan

Islamabad, July 05, 2012: Internet Freedom has become a key indicator to gauge the situation of civil liberties that a society enjoys in a country in the modern day world. In addition, democratic countries all around the world constitutionally ensure and practically respect the rights of religious and ethnic minorities to thrive in their society. Several international treaties including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights also ensure these rights and make binding for the signatories to implement in its true letter and spirit. The extent and levels of freedom of speech and expression in any society is closely connected with the tolerance and importance it gives to the minorities.

Since 2007, we are seeing steep downward trend, when it comes to Internet Freedom in Pakistan. We are also noticing the rise in number of the petty reasons and excuses, the authorities are increasingly using to censor the Internet. In a well coordinated effort to balkanize this amazing digital communication sphere of public good, Pakistani authorities started with blocking of blasphemous content, went on to national security issues, then religious morality, which has now come to targeting online content pertaining to minorities in Pakistan.

Such bans in Pakistan are imposed by an elusive Inter-Ministerial Committee, which never gives a proper reason or explanation for banning a specific website or online content.

The state of minorities in Pakistan is turning out to be alarmingly atrocious, mostly due to rising religious extremism and increasing influence of non-state actors but that also reflects inaction by the state.

The supreme law of the land, the sacred constitution of Pakistan clearly protects the rights of minorities:

Article 20 affirms the “freedom to profess religion and to manage religious institutions” by stating that:

(a) every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice and propagate his religion; and

(b) every religious denomination and every sect thereof shall have the right to establish, maintain and manage its religious institutions.

Article 36 pertains to “Protection of minorities” and explains that the State shall safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of minorities, including their due representation in the Federal and Provincial services."

In his landmark report, Mr. Frank La Rue, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression explores the issues, global trends and challenges worldwide regarding Net Freedom and also present important suggestions and recommendations to ensure these freedoms are protected and guarded.

Clause number 42 of his report says;

“… that, as stipulated in Human Rights Council resolution 12/16 (para. 5 (p) (i)), the following types of expression should never be subject to restrictions: discussion of government policies and political debate; reporting on human rights, government activities and corruption in government; engaging in election campaigns, peaceful demonstrations or political activities, including for peace or democracy; and expression of opinion and dissent, religion or belief, including by persons belonging to minorities or vulnerable groups.”

This clause clearly mentions that how UN’s Human Rights Council has a great priority towards the freedom of expression, religion and belief of persons belonging to minorities or vulnerable groups in UN member countries.

In the presence of such guidelines by International human rights bodies, any actions like blocking of websites of minority groups by the Government of Pakistan is bound to harm the image of Pakistan among the League of Nations.

Bytes for All, Pakistan wish to draw the attention of the government authorities to proactively help protect and ensure the freedom of expression and access to information as granted under Article 19-A, especially for the minorities living in the country. A country can’t call itself a democratic state if it is actively pursuing to target religious minorities and not providing them the basic rights promised by the constitution as mentioned above.

Addressing the UN Human Rights Council, Bytes for All, Pakistan in consultation with two UN ECOSOC accredited organizations (Freedom House and Association for Progress Communications) recently submitted first ever Universal Periodic Review report on the Internet Freedoms in Pakistan. This report categorically outlines how curbs on Net Freedom hinder other human rights of citizens in the country.

We condemn this emerging trend that after using the excuses like ‘national security’, ‘religious morality’, ‘immorality’ and ‘decency’ now an outright attack is being lodged against the websites of religious minorities in Pakistan. What is next?

We urge the Government of Pakistan, Ministry of Information Technology and Pakistan Telecommunication Authority that such actions serve no purpose of national security or religion but only embarrassment in international community.

This is not the first attack on the freedoms of religious minorities in Pakistan and this is not going to be the last if civil society and rights based organizations won’t raise this issue actively to support our Pakistani brothers and sisters from minority communities for their equal rights like any other Pakistani citizen.

Together we stand for a democratic, tolerant and human rights friendly Pakistan!

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About Bytes for All, Pakistan

Bytes for All (B4A), Pakistan is a human rights organization and a network of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) professionals and practitioners. It experiments and organizes debate on the relevance of ICTs for sustainable development and strengthening social justice movements in the country. Its mission is “ICTs for development, democracy and social justice”. www.bytesforall.pk
 
For more information:

Shahzad Ahmad
Cell. +92 333 5236060
info@bytesforall.pk and www.bytesforall.pk