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Hate on the Internet
By Huma Imtiaz exclusively for Dawn.com
Friday, 08 Oct, 2010
Shoes of members of the attacked Ahmadi worship place lie outside the building's entrance in the Garhi Shahu area of Lahore on May 30, 2010. Over 80 people died as squads of militants burst into prayer halls May 27, firing guns, throwing grenades and taking hostages. — AFP Photo
KARACHI: Pakistan is no stranger to state-sanctioned censorship. Since the 1950s, successive governments, both military and civilian, have taken pains to ensure that the media has been scrutinised, censored and harassed.
Even as the twenty-first century has dawned upon Pakistan, the cycle continues. In 2009, the Pakistan government removed videos, of a Pakistan Army officer allegedly beating a Swat resident, from YouTube. Later on, videos of President Zardari saying “shut up” to a supporter at a public gathering were erased off of YouTube. In 2009, following a petition in the courts, the Lahore High Court slapped a ban on Facebook, which was later lifted. Even www.thepersecution.org, which documents crimes committed against the Ahmadi sect, is routinely banned by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA).
Which makes it even all the more surprising that with such stringent control over the media and the internet, the Pakistan government has so far, turned a blind eye to the abundance of religious hate material that is floating around and readily available on the internet.
A simple search on YouTube for Masood Azhar, head of the Jaish-e-Mohammed, a militant organisation, reveals a long list of speeches by Azhar. Some exhort Muslims to rise up against the United States and India, others border on the comical, where Azhar dubs the television as the cause of all evils. Users frequently comment on the videos, praising Masood Azhar and his ideology.
Haq Char Yaar, which describes itself as a website to “expose Shias and Qadianis” is another example of websites that incite hate against different religious sects in the country. Run by supporters of the now banned Sipah-e-Sahaba-Pakistan, even viewing the website requires one to accept faith in the finality of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) as the last prophet. Two options are given to users, ‘accept’ or ‘decline’, those who decline are labelled “munkir” or non-believers. Clicking on “Decline” leads users to a page with two poems, one that’s first line says, “Shias have no links to Islam”.
Ansar Al Jihad Network’s website is another popular jihadi website that is accessible in Pakistan. The forum has been closed for membership, but features videos, press releases and discussion about the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. While one could not see the discussion on the forums, it is astounding to see the sheer number of videos that have been produced by the As-Sahab Foundation for Islamic Media Publication, Al-Qaeda’s media cell, featuring members of the Taliban that have been killed, or messages from current Taliban leaders fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Videos range from As-Sahab documentaries to press statements of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Here, news is classified as being from a “kuffar news source” if posted from a source other than the Taliban media cell.
Majahden2.org has archival footage of As-Sahab productions, with multiple links to download, for example Ayman-Al-Zawahiri videos. And if you cant find what you’re looking for, one can even “ask a mujahedeen brother” to send you the links that will help answer your question.
Shamikh1.net’s forum is another treasure trove for the aspiring jihadi or sympathiser, featuring the latest videos from Osama Bin Laden on Pakistan’s flood relief efforts. Users comment freely here, “God save our sheikh and leader, lion of Islam, Osama bin Laden. God bless you and care and we have made from your followers in the world and the Hereafter.”
And while lawyers were riled up about Draw Muhammad Day on Facebook, no one seems to have filed a petition against this page – where the latest videos from As-Sahab Media and other jihadi sources are regularly posted. Judging from the activity and frequency of posts, this is one of the most actively maintained Facebook pages.
YouTube features other videos that highlight the Taliban’s struggle against “apostate forces” such as this one titled “Night operations targeting apostate forces in Pakistan” and , where users can watch militants walking down a rocky terrain and preparing for battle by loading their arms. Some faces are blurred out in the video, and the night operations consist of sounds of gunfire in the dark. Right when users begin to lose interest, one can see computer animation, to depict the area being attacked and later on, footage of the arms lying on the ground as militants crowd around in a check post. In the morning, the militants show off the gear and arms that they have recovered and the names and pictures of the “shaheeds”.
While even the Interpol recently reported on the dramatic increase in extremist websites and the difficulties faced in blocking them, if one can find jihadi websites in a matter of minutes, surely it would take the PTA or the Ministry of IT and Telecom as much time to find and block the websites. During the Facebook ban period, PTA decided to block hundreds more websites than were actually mandated by the court, many of which did not even feature the “Draw Mohammad Day” event or cartoons that had been posted on Facebook and were, for the most part, proxy bypassing websites or websites that would allow you to browse the internet anonymously.
In a telephonic interview, PTA spokeman Khurram Mehran said that it is not the PTA that decides what websites are to be blocked, but rather the decision is made by a committee set up by the Ministry of IT and Telecom. According to the Secretary for the Ministry of IT and Telecom, Najibullah Malik, there is a mechanism in place for blocking such websites that is enforced by the committee. The members include representatives from the Interior Ministry, Ministry of Religious Affairs, and intelligence and law enforcement agencies. “Whenever we get reports about something that is anti-state or anti-Islam, we ask PTA to block the URL.”
The committee’s secretary Mudassir Hussain has this to say about the committee, which has been operational since 2006, “We have a standing order that any organisation that has been proscribed, their websites will be blocked. Regarding jihadi websites, either the agencies refer them to us or we have our own mechanism to find out about them, the Interior Ministry deliberates over the content and then we ask PTA according to block it. “Hussain says that organisations’ websites that have been proscribed by Pakistani law or international law have been blocked.
That these websites are accessible in Pakistan is of grave concern. Multiple terror attacks have wreaked havoc all over the country, and websites such as the ones mentioned above are not helping the security situation. However, Dr. Maria Sultan, the Director General of the South Asian Strategic Stability Institute says that due to Pakistan’s social structure, not many Pakistanis are affected by jihadi websites. “It’s a problem of legality and understanding how active the religious ministry is. The religious ministry has to give information to the Information Ministry about them. Religion is such an sensitive issue so it’s not clear when they’re about religion and when they’ve crossed over into extremism.” According to Dr. Sultan, there is also the question of freedom of expression and religious schools of thought. “Where do you draw the line between constitutional rights and religious freedom?” Analysts believe there is a need for the Council for Islamic Ideology, the Islamic University and the political parties to achieve a consensus on these websites in the absence of ijtihad.
Another analyst, who did not wish to be quoted, said that judging by how many porn videos Pakistanis were looking at on YouTube, it seemed as if they weren’t using the Internet for education, but rather for recreation.
While freedom of expression is a fundamental right and there may only be a small percentage of the population that is accessing these websites, there is a genuine fear among many that such websites could be used to indoctrinate the confused amongst the younger generation, who have access to the internet and are looking for a way to join a cause that may seem to be “the right way”. While a military operation continues in the tribal areas of the country and thousands have died in terror attacks and have been displaced due to the war, it is time for the government to redouble their efforts to block websites that are propagating hatred against religious sects and inciting violence against the people of Pakistan.
Huma Imtiaz works as a journalist in Pakistan and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org