A few months ago a retired army officer sent his daughter a frantic Whatsapp message: “stay safe and indoors because clerics across the country are staging rallies to protest then US president-elect Donald Trump’s new law which requires Pakistanis to disown religious persecution, blasphemy and apostasy laws, and adopt basic human decency before being granted US visas”. She relayed the message to a friend across the country, a professor at a prestigious university who passed it on to others via Whatsapp, Facebook, and Twitter. Soon the news about the violent rally was flying about in newsrooms across the country. All this happened in a few minutes.
Then someone, with some common sense and internet access, simply ‘Google-d it’ and the mystery was solved. Khabaristan Times (KT), a satirical website, much like the US-based The Onion or The Borowitz Report, had struck again.
The retired major, professor, and others involved were hardly the first victims of Khabaristan Times’ wit and satire. A few years ago, Britain’s Daily Mail embarrassingly published, and later retracted, a report about Mullah Fazlur Rahman requesting the Pakistan Army to launch an operation against “jeans-wearing women”. Their reliable source? Khabaristan Times.
Unfortunately, however, no more gullible souls will fall prey to Khabaristan Times again, because as of January 2017, they have been pulled off the internet by Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA).
Farieha Aziz, co-founder and director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights believes the ban was perhaps under Section 37 of the controversial Prevention of Cybercrime Act (PECA), titled ‘Unlawful online content’ which she says “copy pastes Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan and empowers PTA to interpret and apply the exceptions listed and take action against online content that falls foul of these exceptions.” She adds, however, that due process requires that the party against whom action is initiated be given notice and a chance to present their version.
However, before the country-wide ban, PTA issued no notice to editors of Khabaristan Times, and no official circular was given to Internet Service providers. In the past, the authorities — especially for banning of pornographic websites — usually left circulars floating online without explanations or direct warnings.
Since the ban, the only statement the PTA made to a journalist covering the story reads: “We have received complaints about the content from both individuals and institutions. Upon inspection we found the content to be objectionable.”
Who at the PTA decides what is objectionable? A relevant government official, who doesn’t wish to disclose their name nor their department, says there are two to three individuals in the PTA who upon receiving a complaint, investigate the accused website or Facebook page. “The definition of objectionable is content that is either blasphemous, pornographic, or anti-state,” says the official. But how does one decide what is ‘anti-state’? “If a website is banned, you can be sure that the content on it was glaringly objectionable. It’s very obvious,” is the explanation the source offers.
After all, on websites such as Defence Pakistan, under the post that Khabaristan Times has been banned, a commenter says: “Good. Almost all of the news or satirical content posted by them was anti-national and anti-religious and directed only towards insulting the views of the majority of population of our country.” Even on their Facebook page, amidst sorrow, there are a few posts commenting that the website “was treading a bit too far.”
“Of course we were pushing the envelope, the whole point of a satirical website is to be able to say things that you can’t in regular newspapers,” says Kunwar Khuldune Shahid, editor and co-founder, Khabaristan Times.
Luavat Zahid, the CEO and co-founder of the website, is equally unsurprised by the ban: “I would be lying if I said that we didn’t see this coming. There weren’t any warning signs that this is about to happen now, after all these years, but of late people were constantly expressing shock at the fact that we were not blocked yet.”
The apprehension that the website would be banned eventually, even in the absence of a warning, is ominous for freedom of expression in Pakistan. “The state is ramping up its oversight of the internet. Part of this clamp down is necessary, for example, when it comes to militant propaganda and online crime. But a great deal of it is arbitrary or designed to muzzle speech that the state is uncomfortable with,” says Shahid.
Commenting on the arbitrariness, the head of a digital security organisation, who wishes to remain anonymous, says there is a tremendous allowance of unchecked hate speech on the internet, and organisations documenting it have received discouraging responses upon reaching out to the government. “They’re choosing what they should block and what they can allow, and their choice of things to ban is very strange. If today they’re banning satire, tomorrow they may be banning memes?” he says.
On the criticism of PTA for using discretionary powers and imposing bans, the aforementioned anonymous government official says, “What people don’t understand is that often the PTA acts like a post office. They receive complaints, and they act on them.”
The source further adds: “The PTA didn’t ask to be given this responsibility, or request to be given powers to interpret what is objectionable. These laws were debated in the parliament and then the Prevention of Cybercrime Act (PECA) was handed to PTA to implement.”
Aziz of Bolo Bhi which took the PTA and an inter-ministerial committee to court over indiscriminate banning of Facebook pages and websites in 2014, says the PTA can’t escape responsibility. “I understand that the PTA never demanded these powers, but they must be held accountable if they exercise them,” says Aziz.
It is ironic that one of the reasons Section 37 evolved may have been because Bolo Bhi took PTA to court. “The problem we highlighted was that PTA’s bans were unlawful and had no constitutional bearing. So at the risk of simplifying things, what PECA does is that it gives PTA the legal bearing to interpret what is objectionable and then ban it,” she explains.
Nasir Ayyaz, the legal director at the Ministry of Information Technology, who helped in penning PECA, was unaware about the Khabaristan Times ban but he did offer counsel. “If the PTA bans a website, the law allows the owners of the website not only to demand an explanation from the PTA but also to take the matter to court. If Khabaristan Times believes their content was not objectionable, they should.”
Aziz, however, explains that there is no standard procedure available on the PTA’s website or the law about how to approach the authority for an explanation. Moreover, she adds, that not everyone has the resources to take matters to court. “Why don’t authorities take ‘objectionable material’ to court before banning it? Why are we placing all our legal expectations on the aggrieved party, rather than the concerned authorities?”
Khabaristan Times’ editor have their own reasons to not challenge the ban. “The whole reason KT exists is because we were tired of battling censorship while writing satire in other publications. Even if we assume that we can challenge the ban, and win, and restore the website, it would be foolish to not censor certain topics the second time around. And KT and censorship cannot exist together,” says Shahid.
“Secondly, there are obviously powers out there that don’t want us to exist. To defy the ban by publishing on Facebook, or taking the matter to court, is equal to challenging these powers. And currently, given the country’s environment, in the backdrop of the abducted bloggers, I don’t want to place my writers and contributors in any kind of danger,” he says.
Lastly, he believes that under PECA’s article 23 which makes spoofs illegal, the very existence of Khabaristan Times was unlawful. Whether national security has improved since the website ban is yet to be seen. What is certain is that the editors have decided that the website will never resurface again.
“If a law leaves such a chilling effect in the minds and hearts of citizens that they don’t even dare challenge it, then how can we think it’s making us safer?” questions Aziz.
Shahid jokingly says, “Maybe, much like a banned outfit, one day the banned Khabaristan Times will reincarnate under a new brand name.” Or perhaps, one hopes, they can come back pretending to be the charity wing of the banned website.