March 30, 2012 | By Maira Sutton

This Week in Censorship: UK, UAE, Pakistan, & Bangladesh

United Kingdom

On Monday, a joint Commons and Lords committee published a report urging Google and other sites to take proactive steps to monitor their search results in order to protect the privacy of certain individuals. As a result, a committee of Parliamentary members has begun pushing for legislation to force search engines and social networks to censor themselves. The committee, set up by the prime minister, arose out of increasing controversies and injunctions to protect people’s online image.

Committee chair John Whittingale stated, "It is clear that media self-regulation under the [Press Complaints Commission] did not work. We therefore wish to see a stronger self-regulatory system that is seen to be effective and commands the confidence of the public." Citing the high cost of legal action, the committee claims that self-regulation by companies would be the optimal way of dealing with claims of privacy violation.

There have been an increasing number of censorship cases in the UK. In February, members of the UK Parliament concluded in a report that the Internet plays a major role in the radicalization of terrorists and called on the government to pressure Internet Service Providers in Britain and abroad to censor online speech. On a more local level, a small district court in Swansea sentenced a university student to jail for 56 days after admitting to have posted racially offensive comments on Twitter about soccer player Fabrice Muamba who had collapsed from cardiac arrest during a game in March. The district judge, after calling the comments “vile and abhorrent,” told the student, "I have no choice but to impose an immediate custodial sentence to reflect the public outrage at what you have done.” 

Censorship is most alarming when states use state security or supposed social appropriateness to justify their action. The fact of the matter is that speech is speech. When governments and their courts are left to decide what kind of speech is “good” or “bad” for society, there's an increased threat that those authorities will abuse their power to silence anyone in the name of the public good.

United Arab Emirates

United Arab Emirates authorities briefly detained Islamic scholar and political activist, Mohammed Abdel-Razzaq al-Siddiq, on Sunday for comments he made on Twitter. Mohammed was arrested for criticizing a sheik of one of the emirates (city-states). He was arrested Sunday at dawn and was released by the end of the day.

Earlier this month, blogger and activist Saleh AlDhufair was arrested for criticizing repressive actions by state authorities on his Twitter account and blog. He remains imprisoned and could face up to 5 years in prisons under new far-reaching cyber crime laws. Last summer, Emirati authorities imprisoned five activists, who were subsequently pardoned by the president in November.

Balochistan, Pakistan

Pakistani authorities shut down mobile phone networks for a day in one of the state’s four provinces of Balochistan. The day was March 23, a national day known as Pakistan Day celebrating the first adoption of the constitution and its status as the first Islamic republic. The southern province was struck with chaos as people began to report blocked communications throughout the region, justified in the name of “national security.” As one of the poorest regions in the country, Balochistan has had a long history of conflict with the Pakistani government due to an ongoing separatist movement that began with their refusal to accede to the state.

EFF has continued to cover censorship policies in Pakistan, including their efforts to censor words from SMS text messages to their recent initiative to enact a national web filtering and blocking program. This recent cell phone ban demonstrates how Pakistani telecommunications companies are submitting to the demands of the state to censor its customers. Bytes for All, Pakistan condemned the companies and the state for allowing blanket cell phone ban to occur:

Such bans are gross violation of citizens’ consumer rights and Telcos should have put some pressure on the authorities to push back on such hegemonic decisions…We demand from the Government to uphold the fundamental rights of its citizens and stop playing the false alarms of “national security” to curb fundamental rights, especially freedom of expression, speech and opinion.

While the state undoubtedly has a responsibility to uphold its citizens’ free speech rights, companies providing the services also have a duty to respect its customer’s rights as well. Since the Pakistani Ministry of Information Technology backed out of its plans to subsidize a national filtering and blocking system, there is strong concern about the next steps the government will take to implement other forms of censorship of Internet and mobile communications.

Bangladesh

A Bangladeshi court order from last week marks another recent incident of increased censorships efforts in the South Asian country. The court ordered the shutdown of five Facebook pages and a website for content deemed blasphemous against Islam, while demanding content hosts and creators to be brought to justice for “uploading indecent materials.” The most chilling aspect of the order is that the court expresses a desire to find ways of facilitating future blockage of website and pages.

Two university teachers initiated the takedowns when they filed a suit complaining about the pages and their supposed negative effects on “religious sentiments.” This latest move comes following Bengali authorities’ increased monitoring of Facebook for political expression. EFF will be monitoring future efforts in Bangladesh to block content online.


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