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Pakistan PM 'unblocks' Wikipedia website

The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority last week gave website 48 hours to remove 'blasphemous' content before blocking it
Representational image

Representational image. (Photo: Canva)

Published: February 07, 2023 04:56 AM GMT
Updated: February 07, 2023 07:01 AM GMT

Pakistan's prime minister on Monday ordered authorities to unblock Wikipedia, the government announced, just days after the online encyclopedia was restricted for "blasphemous content."

Blasphemy is a sensitive issue in Muslim-majority Pakistan, and social media giants Facebook and YouTube have previously been banned for publishing content deemed sacrilegious.

Minister of Information and Broadcasting Marriyum Aurangzeb tweeted a copy of the order that stated: "The Prime Minister is pleased to direct that the website [Wikipedia] may be restored with immediate effect."

The Wikimedia Foundation — the non-profit fund managing Wikipedia — said on Monday that it "was made aware that the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority [PTA] had been directed to restore access to Wikipedia" and hoped to see online traffic in Pakistan "resume soon."

Last week, the PTA gave Wikipedia 48 hours to remove content deemed "blasphemous," before it ultimately blocked the website.

An agency spokesman said on Saturday that Wikipedia would "remain blocked until they remove all the objectionable material," without specifying what content was at issue.

'Unintended consequences' 

According to the order published on Monday, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif had instructed a committee made up of three government ministers to examine the PTA's decision to block Wikipedia.

The committee found that the "unintended consequences of this blanket ban ... outweigh its benefits," the document, signed by principal secretary to prime minister Syed Tauqir Shah, said.

Another ministerial committee would be established to further examine the issue, it added.

"The people of Pakistan rely on Wikipedia both as a knowledge resource and as a pathway to share their knowledge with others," a Wikimedia spokesperson said.

"Lifting this ban means that the people of Pakistan can continue to benefit from and participate in its growth within a global movement that strives to spread and share knowledge that is verified, reliable and free."

Father Qaiser Feroz, secretary of the Pakistani bishops' Social Communications Commission, termed the restoration as “ good news” for students and professionals.

“The United Nations must furnish a policy to protect such useful platforms. We cannot afford educational and economic losses, especially amid the current economic collapse,” he told UCA News.

Nighat Dad, a lawyer and digital rights activist, said Pakistani people are still at a loss over the objectionable content.

“Lifting the ban on Wikipedia is a good gesture, but it shouldn’t just stop here. A sustainable precedent must be set to avoid such bans and address structural issues. Sadly, the PTA has a problematic history of blocking social media platforms," Dad said.

Unknown blasphemous content 

The foundation did not immediately respond to a query on if it had taken any action to remove certain content.

It said in a previous statement that "the Wikimedia Foundation does not make decisions around what content is included on Wikipedia or how that content is maintained."

"We respect and support the editorial decisions made by the community of editors around the world," it added.

Free speech campaigners have highlighted what they say is a pattern of rising government censorship of Pakistan's printed and electronic media.

Pakistan blocked YouTube from 2012 to 2016 after it carried a film about the Prophet Mohammed that led to violent protests across the Muslim world.

In 2021, PTA blocked a US-based website trueislam.com for propagating the faith of the minority Ahmadiyya community, which mainstream Pakistani Muslims consider a blasphemous sect.

Ahmadiyya people are seen as heretics because the sect's founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835–1908) claimed that he was the prophesized messiah. The sect was founded in British India’s Punjab and claims a global presence of some 10-20 million followers but the majority are in Pakistan. 

Wikipedia continues to have detailed pages on the Ahmadiyya community and its founder. 

In recent years, the country has also blocked the wildly popular video-sharing app TikTok several times over "indecent" and "immoral" content.

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