Monday April 22, 2024

Wikipedia ban to be lifted in Pakistan after brief suspension

Online encyclopedia was blocked after it failed to meet the PTA deadline to remove "sacrilegious" content

By Zarmeen Zehra
February 06, 2023
Representational image of Wikipedia. — AFP/File
Representational image of Wikipedia. — AFP/File

ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif Monday directed the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to remove the ban on the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, immediately after its brief suspension.

The decision was made on the recommendation of a three-member ministerial committee comprising Minister for Law and Justice Azam Nazeer Tarar, Minister for Economic Affairs and Political Affairs Ayaz Sadiq, and Minister for Information and Broadcasting Marriyum Aurangzeb, according to a statement from the PM's Office.

On February 1, PTA announced that it was “degrading” Wikipedia services in Pakistan over the existence of “sacrilegious content”, which the platform had been asked to remove, but failed to do so.

Two days later, after the encyclopedia failed to respond to the objections, it was banned completely, sparking outrage in the country.

Following the development, the matter of the ban was placed before the PM on February 6 (today), and he constituted a ministerial committee for a preliminary examination of the issue.

The committee, according to the statement, deduced that "Wikipedia was a useful site/portal which supported the dissemination of knowledge and information for the general public, students and the academia".

"Blocking the site in its entirety was not a suitable measure to restrict access to some objectionable contents/sacrilegious matters on it. The unintended consequences of this blanket ban, therefore, outweigh its benefits," the statement said.

The prime minister, thereafter, directed that Wikipedia be restored with "immediate effect".

Moreover, under the Rules of Business, 1973, PM Shehbaz also set up a new cabinet committee to look into the matter more closely.

This committee will comprise the following: minister for law and justice, minister for economic affairs and political Affairs, minister for information and broadcasting, minister for commerce, and minister for communications, along with the minister of IT and telecommunication, who is also to be the chair of the committee.

The directive also made provisions for the committee to "co-opt any expert members or seek opinions from expert individuals/organisations to reach its findings".

The aim of the committee is to review the suitability of PTA’s ban on Wikipedia, while exploring and recommending alternative technical measures for the removal — or blockage — of the objectionable content on Wikipedia or any other online information sites, keeping in view the “social cultural and religious sensitivities” of the country.

The committee is also tasked with sharing any other recommendations with the objective of controlling unlawful online content in a balanced manner and has been directed to present its report and recommendations for consideration within a week's time.

Silencing 'dissent'

The Wikimedia Foundation — the non-profit fund managing Wikipedia — said the block "denies the fifth most populous nation in the world access to the largest free knowledge repository".

"If it continues, it will also deprive everyone access to Pakistan’s knowledge, history, and culture," a statement said.

Free speech campaigners had also highlighted what they say is a pattern of rising government censorship of Pakistan’s printed and electronic media.

"There’s just been a concerted effort to exert greater control over the content on the internet," said digital rights activist Usama Khilji.

"The main purpose is to silence any dissent," he told AFP. “A lot of times blasphemy is weaponised for that purpose."

In recent years, the country has also blocked the wildly popular video-sharing app TikTok several times over "indecent" and "immoral" content.