Social media giant Facebook blocked for Pakistan users a 2017 post by Dawn.com linking to a story on veteran politician Javed Hashmi criticising the judiciary.
“Due to legal restrictions in your country, we’ve limited access to your post on Facebook,” the platform shared in an automated message. The post is still accessible via VPN in the country.
The company shared that it has made the content unavailable “based on local law” in an action that is usually taken after requests from state institutions under non-transparent agreements – a fact that media and human rights organisations have criticised in the past.
Facebook did not clarify what law the Dawn.com post had violated, nor did it specify where the request had originated from.
Under fire for privacy concerns, hate speech and its role in ‘influencing’ the American elections, this form of censorship under directions by governments is nothing new for Facebook. The platform, with over 1.9 billion users across the globe, has controversially restricted access to content.
The website’s censorship policies also led to many user accounts being blocked or deleted in 2016 for posts criticising India following the killing of Kashmir’s young ‘freedom fighter’ Burhan Wani.
Under increasing pressure
According to a transparency reportissued by Facebook, the Pakistani government sent 1,050 requests for data to Facebook between January and June 2017, compared to only 719 during the same period in the preceding year.
It also said that 177 pieces of content were restricted from viewership in the country on requests forwarded by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) for violating “local laws prohibiting blasphemy and condemnation of the country’s independence”.
Facebook had also found itself directly in the line of fire last year when an Islamabad High Court (IHC) judge, Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, and then interior minister Chaudhry Nisar had threatened to completely ban the social network if it did not act to remove all blasphemous content on its platform.
Why block this post?
Facebook’s blockage of Dawn.com’s post for Pakistan users does not seem to have been triggered by concerns over blasphemy however.
The story dealt with a politician engaging with an emergent theme in Pakistan’s politics: judicial activism.
As criticism of what some see as an ‘overactive judiciary’ heats up, the higher courts have started taking up more high-profile contempt cases than ever.
One former senator, Nehal Hashmi, was recently handed a prison term after being found to have violated prevalent contempt laws. Likewise, a man in Multan has been handed an 18-year prison sentence for throwing a shoe at a judge.
Meanwhile, television channels have been told to tune out politicians’ speeches if they veer towards contempt, and the broadcast media regulator has found itself in the cross hairs of the higher courts for not doing enough.
With the Cambridge Analytica scandal still looming large, Facebook had said regarding elections in Pakistan that it would take steps to “curb outside election interference”.
However, with its current censorship policy in place, removal of content through non-transparent mechanisms — as in the removal of Dawn.com’s post — may cut users off from information that is vital to making informed voting decisions