As most of you probably know by now, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) directed Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block WordPress dot com in Pakistan on Sunday. As a result, WordPress hosted blogs, including our own news blog Pakistan Ink, became inaccessible in the country. It has been reported that the blockade is temporary and related to “national security” issues on Pakistan Day but there was not much confirmation available.
(There are reports that access is being restored but I still cannot open the website on my PTCL internet connection.) Let’s hope that we are able to blog again very soon.
So, if you remember, during the last semester we studied several cases of censorship in our Mass Media in Pakistan course. Well, today, we indirectly became victims of control of online information in our journalistic capacity. This is not the first time that blogging websites have been blocked or banned in Pakistan. The WordPress ban does not appear to be as long lasting as the ongoing YouTube ban, which is almost two and half years old now. But it sure doesn’t look like it’ll be the last time a website is banned in Pakistan. So as citizens we have experienced such controls before. But because this time around our news website became inaccessible due to the ban, we have now witnessed it from the journalism side as well.
The incident should make us consider two issues. First, we must talk about online freedom and Internet censorship. I know some of you might think “national security” is a good enough reason to block or ban an entire blogging platform, but inconvenience apart, as journalists we must generate debate on the nature of online censorship in Pakistan and the mechanisms used by state authorities to curb online access.
So, apparently the PTA now has more powers to police online content and to get bans enforced through the ISPs and, given Pakistan’s political atmosphere, it is not too difficult to guess the government or military authorities might get the PTA to pass such orders. The end result is a complete lack of accountability and transparency. The problem is amplified by the lack of an efficient and effective complaints cell or grievance redress mechanism. As citizens and journalists, this should be a cause of concern for us. Criticism should also be directed at the inefficient solutions the PTA usually comes up with, such as the domain-wide blockade of WordPress blogs.
Secondly, we need to look for alternatives and be aware of ways to securely and privately surf the Internet. I am sure most of you know about Vitual Private Networks (VPNs). In the aftermath of the YouTube ban in Pakistan, many Pakistanis started using proxies and VPNs to access the banned video sharing website. As journalists you should take some time out to familiarize yourself with anti-surveillance software and encryption. The Tor network is a good software. PGP email encryption is something you should be looking to use.
As for blogging alternatives, I had my online journalism students try Medium.com last semester, and some of them seemed to like it. It’s much less cluttered compared to the WordPress back-end, but it only works with a few different browsers for now, I think. Tumblr, Svbtle and Wattapad are some other options you may want to try for personal blogging.