It takes a strong stomach and a thick skin to be a female activist fighting online censorship in Pakistan. Sana Saleem has both.
The 24-year-old founder of a Karachi-based free expression group Bolo Bhi has been accused of supporting "blasphemy." On Twitter, a chilling message made the rounds last month: "this @sanasaleem is a prostitute who feature in porn movies #throwacidonsana." Her photo was posted in pornography forums.
None of this has fazed Sana, who in conjunction with several other young Pakistani blogger-activists had launched a successful campaign that has shamed the government into halting plans for a national Internet censorship system. A long-time contributor to the international bloggers network Global Voices Online, in March Saleem joined forces with other groups including the Pakistan-based social justice group Bytes For All and other activists like the dentist-blogger Awab Alvi, a.k.a. "Teeth Maestro," who has been campaigning against censorship since 2006. Their success is a victory for free speech, and not only in Pakistan. It holds lessons for activists around the world who are fighting uphill battles against censorship schemes initiated by governments that claim to be acting in the public interest, and who have support from influential political constituencies.
This is not exactly a culture war of the young versus the old. Teenagers are often willing and even enthusiastic foot soldiers for the pro-censorship camp. After writing multiple letters to the Pakistani Telecommunication Authority requesting censorship of adult websites, the pious 15-year old computer nerd Ghazi Muhammad Abdullah was asked to compile specific examples. He and his friends did their patriotic duty and scanned the web for porn -- producing a list of 780,000 websites that they sent to the PTA in March.
Shortly thereafter, the Pakistani Telecommunication Authority issued a request for proposals inviting companies and research institutions to bid on a "National Level URL Filtering and Blocking System" (URL stands for "uniform resource locator" -- geek speak for "web-page address") capable of blocking up to 50 million web pages. After facing a month-long campaign against the scheme combining grassroots social media activism with support from international free speech groups and even multinational companies, the government backed down. Last week, an IT ministry official made a verbal commitment to a member of Parliament that plans for the censorship system have been shelved. Bolo Bhi is seeking to solidify this victory by seeking a high-court injunction against the PTA for censoring the Internet in a manner that violates Pakistan's own laws and constitution.
Internet censorship is not new in Pakistan: The government has been doing it in a haphazard way since 2006, provoking an outcry when Blogspot, then Pakistan's most popular blogging platform, was blocked wholesale as part of a campaign against "blasphemy" on the Internet. In 2007, former president Pervez Musharraf suspended the constitution and placed the country under a state of emergency after being re-elected in an indirect, widely boycotted election. "Social media was the only source of information" on many issues due to the heavy censorship of mainstream media during that period, says Saleem, who started blogging "about sensitive issues" in 2008 and quickly became part of a national and global movement for online free expression. While she is heartened by the latest victory against censorship, she told me in a Skype interview from her home in Karachi that Pakistan faces a critical moment in a national debate about how the Internet -- and digital networks more broadly -- should be governed.
Pakistan is by no means alone, of course. "States around the world are trying to gain more control over the Internet," Saleem observed. "In Western societies such as the U.S., national security is used as one of the deciding factors. In Islamic countries it is religion. I feel religion and national security are used as ploys for states to muscle in more control." She has some battle-hardened advice for anti-censorship activists everywhere.