Members of Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan, an Islamist political party, gather during a sit-in in Rawalpindi on November 17, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Faisal Mahmood

Popular liberal website Fasaadi.com was taken down by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) on Tuesday. It posted a message for all people inside the country trying to access the website: “The site you are trying to access contains content that is prohibited for viewership from within Pakistan.”

With almost 50,000 Facebook likes, Fasaadi had amassed a sizeable following among secular and liberal circles online. The founder and editor of Fasaadi, who wished to remain anonymous, told Asia Times the telecom officials had given no warning before blocking the website.

“In fact, I would want to know if I’m doing something that the authorities would want to take down. I don’t want any trouble with the authorities. I’m doing what I do because I believe in it, not to offend those in power,” he said. “But yeah, who makes them the editors? That I want to know.”

The ban on Fasaadi is the latest digital clampdown by the PTA in a year in which it has blocked several secular websites and pages. Most of the pages were said to contain“blasphemous” content, according to critics who posted remarks in the comments section. Fasaadi’s editor also confirmed that Facebook had taken down the website’s page temporarily because of the sheer number of times it was reported.

A PTA official who spoke to Asia Times confirmed that Fasaadi, like other banned local websites, breached the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016, commonly known as the cybercrime law.

“The content was clearly objectionable and against the guidelines given out in the cybercrime law. We are only following it (the law),” the official said. As part of its “anti-blasphemy” crackdown this year, the Pakistani government put ads in all leading national dailies warning that the “punishment for committing blasphemy online” was a ‘crime’ that carries the death penalty in Pakistan. The capitulation by the Pakistani government to the demands of the Islamic fundamentalist Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY) group seems to have added to growing pressure on secular sites and minority groups in the country.

Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry has threatened to block social media completely, while the PTA has intermittently sent out text messages to cell-phone users nationwide. The latest message, sent out on December 6, said: “Uploading, downloading and sharing of derogatory remarks in respect of Holy Prophet PBUH and defiling, etc, of Holy Quran orally or in writing, or by visible representation, is a punishable offense under Pakistan Penal Code 1860 and Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016. Please report such content to the PTA on info pta.gov.pk (sic)”

Usama Khilji, the director of Bolo Bhi, believes the state is succumbing to Islamist pressure, while also using such opportunities to protect itself from criticism. “The state seems to have taken a very strong stance against blasphemy, and seems to only strengthen each time pressure from religious groups comes up. We have also seen blasphemy allegations against critics of state policies,” he said. “We have reached a point where blasphemy allegations have the potential to be a very strong gag on free speech and criticism of state policies and some of its institutions.” Khilji fears the telecom authority is inciting mob violence through its text messages.

“It seems to be encouraging vigilantism by actively asking citizens to report blasphemy online. Mashal Khan’s brutal murder shows how dangerous such vigilantism can be, even for fake blasphemy cases,” he says.

Nighat Dad, founder and executive director of Digital Rights Foundation, says the PTA’s move to send out texts and block secular websites is influenced by the Islamabad High Court’s recent orders to tackle blasphemous content online. “However, (the) PTA has been censoring online content on ad-hoc basis for a decade now without any transparency and accountability,” she told Asia Times. “This has been going on since last year, after the enactment of PECA, which has now given them legitimate powers to ban and censor content in the name of national security, blasphemy, immorality and obscenity.”

Fasaadi’s editor says the space for online dissent has been shrinking for the last year or so. “Ever since a retired general claimed in the media that the Army had advised the government to ‘mainstream’ the terrorists, the space has been shrinking for us,” he said. For Khilji, the crackdown is a dangerous precedent that undermines fundamental rights and democratic norms. He urges citizens to unite and resist such high-handedness.

Nighat Dad believes that without an explicit policy in regard to banning content, the crackdown will continue. “The right that is strongly suppressed after disappearances of bloggers is the right to free speech online. It has a chilling effect among bloggers, social media users, and online political critics,” she said.

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