Wikipedia shutdown earns Pakistan slap from human rights group

Human rights organization Access Now has called upon Pakistan to “cease its systematic control over online spaces” following a crackdown by its government earlier this month on Wikipedia for content it deemed “sacrilegious.”

Although the South Asian country – which takes Islam as its national religion – has since restored access to the popular online encyclopedia, local activists affiliated with Access Now have expressed concern that it has not yet seen the last of its web woes.

“While Wikipedia is now restored in Pakistan, the government’s far-reaching censorship powers are incredibly alarming,” said Raman Chima, Asia Pacific Policy Director at Access Now. “Authorities are too comfortable spouting vague and uncertain terms to block content and manipulate the online environment with little transparency, while perpetuating a culture of fear and self-censorship.”

Pakistan carries the dubious honor of having the longest single internet blackout in 2021 when it stopped citizens in a federally administered tribal area from accessing the web for four months.

“Pakistan’s online suppression violates people’s rights to freedom of expression and access to information, yet all laws governing the internet must prioritize human rights, not shield the government from legitimate criticism,” said Chima.

Access Now claims that the government there has spent the past few years ramping up a campaign of media suppression aimed at quashing political dissent, blocking websites deemed of significance during rallies and other related events.

The latest assault on digital freedom in the name of religion was announced by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority on February 1, when the regulatory body declared on Twitter that it had “degraded Wikipedia services in the country on account of not blocking/removing sacrilegious contents.”

The edict was lifted on February 6 by order of Pakistan’s prime minister Shebhaz Sharif after consulting a Cabinet Committee on the matter and considering points of law and economic concerns.

Perhaps Access Now will take comfort in reflecting that such an outcome says something positive about the ability of democratic institutions to answer to more fundamentalist ones, but nonetheless, it is calling for nations to take a less passive stance on the issue of internet freedom.

“No government should have the right to arbitrarily block website content or construct online narratives based on their own agendas,” said Eliška Pírková, senior policy analyst at Access Now. “The international community must play a greater role in holding the government of Pakistan – and all authorities casually and thoughtlessly blocking and controlling content – accountable and safeguarding human rights.”

It has also urged Pakistan to review its censorship rules to ensure freedom of expression, transparency, and accountability.

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