Pakistan censors Twitter: all may not be what it seems

Pakistan censors Twitter: all may not be what it seems

Summary: Was the Pakistani Twitter shutdown just about squelching free speech over an art contest, or was there potentially something more?


This weekend saw a disturbing and ultimately pointless battle between censorship and citizen activism in the country of Pakistan.

The story is a bit bizarre. Apparently, there was some sort of picture drawing competition in which artists were asked to draw caricatures of an Islamic sacred figure.

Apparently offended by this contest and uncomfortable with what might be presented by the artists, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority decided to shut off Twitter access to the entire nation.

Pakistan, among other nations, does not provide a guarantee of free speech, as we do in our First Amendment.

See also: Free speech: Why I'm lucky to live in America, not Iran

But this is a weirder story. First, apparently, as reported by The Express Tribune in Pakistan, the Pakistani government contacted Facebook and requested the company remove posts about the contest.

Facebook apparently complied with the Pakistani government's censorship request.

Then, the Pakistani government contacted Twitter with the same request. Twitter refused to take down the posts, so Pakistan decided to block Twitter.

After all, why should 177 million people be allowed to access Twitter when they might look at a silly cartoon and be shocked?

The plot thinnens. After about eight hours, Pakistan Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani ordered Twitter access to be restored. The masses were now able to share information about that rad tune they just listened to, the questionable quality of the Balti Gosht at the corner bistro in Karachi, and even a favorite article or two.

So what does this all mean?

Did the Pakistani government lose its nerve? Did the voice of the people reach the Prime Minister's House in Islamabad? Or was something more sinister afoot?

The fact is we don't know, but there's some interesting speculation which, in my professional opinion, has some semblance of credibility.

The Christian Science Monitor reports that Shahzad Ahmad, who runs an organization that monitors Internet freedom in Pakistan speculates that the blockage of Twitter had little to do with the art contest and a lot more to do with testing whether a blockage is possible.

Ahmad contends that because elections are near, the government is testing whether it would be possible to block Twitter and other services.

This has something of a ring of truth. We've seen tentative cyberattacks over and over by nation states, testing to see where there are weaknesses. We also saw how Twitter fueled the protests in Iran over election results.

Although I certainly can't read the minds of Pakistani government officials, it is well within the realm of possibility that they might test whether or not they could shut down communications over the Internet during or after the next round of elections.

And yes, Pakistan is an American ally. So much for truth, justice, and the American way.

Topics: Social Enterprise, Government, Government US


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • Technology changes, people don't

    It's the same story throughout history: those in power want to control those troublesome masses and their access to information. Those without information are easier to manipulate. Those with access to great power always face a great temptation to use it for their benefit rather than those they are supposed to serve. Oh wait, that's a western idea,(fading fast), that those in government positions are public SERVANTS of the people and are to guard their rights. Yet, there is something also in the human heart: a desire for liberty and for significance...even if the society has never experienced it.
  • Leader as a servant

    I'm not sure leader as a servant is a WESTERN idea - check Lao-Tzu from China or Chanayaka (a much earlier ruler of what is now Pakistan I believe). In fact, one could argue that many of the more dubious political practices found around the world have been learned from European and North American examples (the practice, rather than the theory). That said I think Ahmad's idea is interesting and not implausible.
  • Of course...

    This is only a test, don't be alarmed.

    Everybody's probably forgotten that nationwide EBS test conducted in the US by our benevolent leaders just a few short months. Just making sure they can takeover all broadcast media, only for our own good, of course.
    • This is only a test, do not be alarmed

      Oh now don't bring that up. We wouldn't want the peeps to get it in their flag unfurled heads that their virtuous and benevolent ruling class doesn't always live up to its "good shepherd" responsibilities, other than during election time speeches of course.
  • Temporary ban on Twitter

    I don't have the facts, it could be our "slave" leaders testing to see if ban idea is workable. In that case it is simply deplorable. But then it could be the other part which was requested to face book and they complied. Under the garb of "free expression" why must you insult the the most sacred personality of Islam? Why don'y you have a competition showing Mrs Obama or the queen of England being laid in different poses, that ought to satisfy your thirst for "freedom of expression", If you are not Muslim, then why must you insult Muslims.
  • Get over it.

    Lol, we don't insult Mrs. Obama? Have you ever read any newspaper anywhere with anything in it?? LOL. There are caricatures all over the place of American figureheads. Your rhetoric is flaccid at best irshad. Also, since we don't know anything else about the contest, due to the cute little blackout, nobody knows if indeed the Islamic figurehead was in a compromising pose or not. I think you have a wonderful idea though, as there is NO way I would look at a Muslim man in a sexy pose over one of Michelle, lol. This "just testing to see if a blackout was possible" BS is a nice try, but wonderfully convenient that it was tested out during something as innocuous as a caricature contest. LIGHTEN UP people. Well done though Pakistan, this is your answer to the USA's Emergency Broadcast System, except your emergencies make for lighthearted laughter and a cursory shake of the head.
    James Keenan
  • Pakistan is not Iran!

    While the freedom of speech is not as much guaranteed in Pakistan as the United States, it is much better than Iran as evident from the response of the Pakistanis to the ban the other day. Thousands of people in Pakistan started tweeting against the ban as soon as it was placed (using VPNs of course). #twitterban became the top trending topic in Pakistan and their has been a massive backlash by the local media against this stupid act of the government. If this government does anything of this sort during the elections, they better be prepared to feel the wrath of the people.
  • Radio Free World

    I remember, back in the old days, the Nazis and Ruskies blocked radio from their people. Well along came Radio Free Europe. Scramble, descramble, distort, amplify. Anyway I think the Free side,,( Im leaving that one ambivalent ) should develope counter measures for any future censorship blockage,,,Just in case the power stations in country get bombed and there isnt any infrastructure at least the internet can still be of help,,, Electricity?, I like the idea of emergency generaters and hand crank adapters, like they put on emergency weather radios nowadays,,and

    "And yes, Pakistan is an American ally. So much for truth, justice, and the American way".

    I love this guys humour, its refreshing these days.
    • When was this radio blockage, pray tell?

      [i]I remember, back in the old days, the Nazis and Ruskies blocked radio from their people. [/i]

      Tell us when the Germans and Russians blocked the airwaves from their people. Details please, on but another bogeyman, distortion field accusation. They did no more war propaganda than we and our allies did. For Christ's sake, pull your "home of the brave" Yankee head out of your butt and read a book or two -- or *gasp* three instead of the cartoon pages.

      I swear, so many brainwashed, braindead Americans whose grasp of history - even modern history - amounts to takes from Comedy Central, Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, and the rest of the Hollywood make-believe machine.
  • How to defend tyranny abroad

    Exaggerate abuses at home so you can claim that we're just as bad (if not worse).

    Otherwise, someone might think that you advocate it.
    John L. Ries
    • You could never exaggerate abuses at home

      enough, unless you choose to remain ignorant and blind. Problem is, too many Americans are just that mentally, and smug into the bargain. They go with whatever they're told, since they're too lazy to think critically for themselves, preferring instead to fill up their free time with booze and barbeques, and other modern bread-and-circus wagons. Net result: the powers-that-be are granted a largely unchallenged hand.

      Still others become comfortably numb, to borrow from a popular tune. They opt to let Hollywood and our politically correct mass media do their thinking for them. Only a pathetic imbecile (of which there are plenty) can't see the ongoing dumbing down effect, being rendered both subtly and overtly, spreading methodically across this land like a slow plague. It's been this way for years now -- not sure how you've missed it.
      • And what's worse...'s been creeping along for a century and a half (if you, like some, think it started with Lincoln)! Lenin was a lot more efficient; it only took him a few months.
        John L. Ries
      • And Lenin will likely return some form or another, unless this country rethinks itself out of the smug abyss it's fallen into. Good luck there.
  • The right to the airwaves

    "Tell us when the Germans and Russians blocked the airwaves from their people."

    You've missed the point, klumper. There was never any time that the Nazis or the Communists prevented the populations under their control from listening to Nazi or to Communist official propaganda over the air. Indeed, it was required of such populations. But every possible step was taken to prevent people from seeing, hearing, or reading anything that did NOT conform to the relevant party line, including the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. At the same time, any American who wanted to could listen to Radio Berlin, Radio Tokyo, and Radio Moscow to his heart's content. FOXNews has accused Obama and other Democratic politicians of many things. But, it has NEVER claimed that ANY Democratic politician has EVER even THOUGHT about knocking that program off the air or otherwise interfering with the right of the American people to access that show. And, any American who wants to can STILL listen to Radio Berlin, Radio Tokyo, Radio Moscow, Radio Beijing, Radio Havana, or even Radio Islamabad, as far as that goes, if he feels like it.

    That's the point that catchaser56 was making.
    • There is no "right" to the airwaves

      There never has been, and nothing to stop what is in place from being undone or reconstituted. As we see over and over again, on an all too frequent basis. But beyond that, if you're going to attempt to make a point, make it accurately. Or you might get called on the distortion.

      As for propaganda, we're all victims of this seductively Machiavellian art. Please don't tell me you're not aware of this as an American, or that you haven't seen plenty of glimpses of this very thing in the "home of the free." [WMD, to cite but one thing, and beyond.]

      [i]But every possible step was taken to prevent people from seeing, hearing, or reading anything that did NOT conform to the relevant party line. [/i]

      And how is this different from the good ol' United States so called "democratized" cum [i]"multi-nationalized"[/i] party line? The only truly divergent or unwashed (non-politically correct, non-unicapitali$ed) points of view get marginalized or ridiculed to the point of parody contemporaneously. Or outright ignored or censured - or unpublished - as if by master order. It's a more subtle but equally effective form of censorship, proscription and blacklisting, and it goes on all the time.

      Thank God for the internet as a final refuge to the ongoing, one-world march. It's far more immune to outright whitewashing and regressive (but sadly pervasive) thinking.

      And here's one more tidbit for you, in your convenient, rosy revisit of history. If any American was found to be listening to "enemy" broadcasts during WWII, whether Radio Berlin or Radio Tokyo, you can bet your sweet bippy they'd be hauled into a FBI (or now, one of 20 "security" agencies) office for questioning before they could as much as spin the dial. And then be lucky if they ever made their way back. Don't fool yourself.
  • no ally

    Firstly, Pakitstan is NOT an American ally, regardless of the way the White House frames it. They are a grifter nation out to extort American tax dollars (see the current demand of $5000 tariff per U.S. vehicle exiting Afghanistan).

    Secondly, why is this news, who cares? Theirs is a majority stoneage society with most people not knowing or accessing twitter during the next around of elections.

    Shutting down the internet there won't impact most of the citizenry in any significant way. Despite the flaws in the U.S. system any comparison of American vs. Pakistan is not just an apple and oranges comparison, it's a fruit vs. rocks comparison.