This was supposed to be our weekend. President Zardari landed in Chicago and it really looked like he was going to use his fast-approaching-legendeary negotiating skills – the same ones he’s used to keep a relatively stable coalition in the government and to end the stalemate in Pak-US ties – to turn around sinking Pak-US relations. Ambassador to the US Sherry Rehman was in the middle of a media blitz, explaining Pakistan’s position on CNN and then publishing an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune that outlined steps the Americans could take to help re-start Pak-US relations. Then, the lights went out.
As the NATO summit started its first day, Pakistan was in the dark about what was going on because PTA blocked access to Twitter, the social media site made famous for breaking news and providing real-time insights into what is happening across the world. Twitter played a major role in informing the world about the Arab Spring uprisings. Saner heads prevailed, though, as the Prime Minister ordered that access to the service be reinstated immediately. But for about eight hours, Twitter users were left trying to circumvent the ban by using proxy accounts and other methods.
The decision to block access to Twitter was made in order to protect the emotions of the masses from seeing Tweets that were derogatory toward Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). This is the same reason that Facebook was blocked a couple of years ago, and it makes as little sense now as it did then.
Can we be honest about a few things, please? First of all, “the masses” are not using Twitter. There are about 2 million Pakistanis on Twitter – roughly 1 per cent of the population. As far as I can tell, it’s mostly an elite audience – politicians, journalists, bloggers and other highly educated people discussing culture and politics at a high level of discourse, primarily in English.
Worse, the Twitter ban completely overshadowed what our representatives were trying to say, and detracted from our image as a modern global power. Where were all those self-appointed guardians of the national ghairat as a hyperactive minority was actually making our nation look foolish in the eyes of the world?
The bigger issue, though, is that, especially with Twitter, blocking access to the site blocked access to important information about events that directly affect our country. Our leaders were in the US attending a critical summit of NATO to discuss the situation in Afghanistan, and we were cut off from one of the best sources for breaking information. We were also refrained from giving our own opinion and reacting to breaking events. By blocking Twitter, PTA didn’t silence those who would defame the Prophet (PBUH), they silenced Pakistan.
None of these sites requires anyone to look at offensive material. Actually, nothing requires anyone to use any of these websites at all. If you don’t want to see offensive posts on Twitter, don’t follow offensive people. If you don’t want to see offensive material on Facebook, don’t go to offensive pages. If you believe that you can’t control yourself from looking at offensive material on these sites, don’t use them at all. Leave the rest of us alone.