November 28, 2011 | By Eva Galperin and Maira Sutton

Pakistan Telecommunication Authority Attempts to Ban “Obscene” Words from Texts

On November 14th, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) sent a notice to Pakistani cell phone carriers, demanding that they block 1,600 terms and phrases it deemed “obscene” from being transmitted via text message. The extensive list runs the gamut from mundane words like “hole,” “joint,” and “period,” to head-scratchers like “Budweiser” and “Got Jesus.” The letter, published in both English and Urdu, instructed the providers to implement the ban within seven days or face legal action.  As of Sunday, people were still able to send text messages containing words named in the list.

Telecoms ultimately failed to meet this deadline, choosing to defer action until they’re able to receive clearer instruction on how they were expected to implement the order. The PTA later denied that the 21st was a strict deadline at all.  A PTA spokesperson claimed there was more time due to the weekend, acknowledged telecoms companies’ “reservations,” and said the PTA was “ready to sort that out through mutual discussions.”

In the meantime, blogs and newspapers were abuzz with the strange origin of the PTA’s list of banned words and terms. Initially thought to be a product of the PTA’s vulgar imagination, the list appears to have been derived from the American National Football League’s “naughty words” list. The list was first publically published in 2005 on Outsports, an online gay sports community, when they reported that the NFL Shop site initially banned the word “gay” from being printed on their gear.

All jokes aside, this proposed mass censorship is part of a broader trend towards moral policing in Pakistan. Shahzad Ahmed of Bytes for All, a human rights organization based in Pakistan focused on digital security, online safety and privacy, released a statement on the organization's website reacting to the proposed ban:

We believe that this embarrassing and shameful directive by PTA is not all about banning abusive words; but about encouraging the act of moral policing by authorities.  Bytes for All, Pakistan, vehemently denounces and condemn this absurd, illogical, and flawed decision by PTA, which only reflects how blatantly the poverty ridden Pakistani taxpayer’s money is being wasted on such shameful acts and against its own citizens.”

The statement draws attention to the PTA’s attempt to justify their ban by citing to two articles of their constitution and the Pakistan Telecommunication Act passed in 1996 which prohibits people from transmitting messages that are “false‚ fabricated‚ indecent or obscene.”  Ahmed points out that these citations are incomplete:

“Exceptions of Article 14 and 19 are widely misinterpreted and misused by the authorities. Most concerning bit is that mentioned a part of Article 14 and stressed upon the “dignity of men” whereas, it totally forgotten the aspect of privacy under the same article. Spying by the authorities on common citizen’s communication is against any civil and political rights and internationally recognized civil liberties. Setting up of rigorous filtering mechanisms such as the one in question, and filtering each and every SMS for specific content is a massive violation of individual’s privacy, which is guaranteed under the Article 14.”

This is far from the first time the PTA has tried their hand at censorship.  In 2007, in response to a Supreme Court ruling that ordered the blocking of “blasphemous” websites, the PTA blocked thousands of sites—not just those containing pornographic material or content offensive to Islam, but numerous vital websites and services unrelated to the order. In 2008, they briefly blocked YouTube because the site hosted Geert Wilder’s film “Fitna.” They blocked it again in 2010, over a hosted clip of Pakistani President Asir Zardari telling an unruly audience member to “shut up.” In May of 2010, the PTA blocked Facebook in response to a controversy over a competition to draw the Prophet Mohammed. This week’s attempt is notable because it is the first time they have tried to ban words from SMS texts.

It’s still not clear how the PTA intends to enforce this order onto telecom companies, nor what it expects them to do to ensure that users do not continue to use supposedly “obscene” language in their texts. But what is clear is that this ridiculous directive is part of an ongoing campaign by the state to increase its filtering and censorship efforts in the name of upholding moral order for its citizens.  Even if the PTA backs off as a result of this embarrassing incident, there is good cause to dread whatever censorship order they think up next.

 

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For more updates on this issue, follow the hashtag #PTAbannedlist, which was made in reaction to the announcement last week.

Watch Al Jazeera English's news report from Islamabad about the ban: http://youtu.be/ywBcRmh_h8I

For local updates on the issue, visit http://content.bytesforall.pk


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