Pakistan orders Facebook ban be lifted

A Pakistani court on Monday ordered authorities to restore access to Facebook, nearly two weeks after closing the site in a row over blasphemy, but hundreds of web links remain restricted.

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A contest organised by an anonymous Facebook user calling on people to draw the Prophet Mohammed to promote “freedom of expression” sparked a major blacklash in the conservative Muslim country of 170 million.

Islam strictly prohibits the depiction of any prophet as blasphemous and even moderate Muslims were deeply offended by the drawings that appeared on a Facebook page in response to the call for an “Everyone Draw Mohammed Day”.

YouTube also banned

A group of Islamic lawyers on May 19 petitioned a court in the city of Lahore, which ordered Facebook blocked until May 31.

The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) then banned popular video sharing website YouTube for a week and restricted access to other websites, including Wikipedia, lashing out against “growing sacrilegious” content.

But Justice Ejaz Chaudhry of the Lahore High Court on Monday issued orders that access to Facebook should be restored, asking the government to develop a system to block access to “blasphemous” content online, as in Saudi Arabia.

‘Spark resentment’

“Restore Facebook. We don’t want to block access to information,” Chaudhry told the court.

“It is the government’s job to take care of such things, which spark resentment among the people and bring them on to the streets. They should take steps to block any blasphemous content on the Internet,” Chaudhry said.

The court adjourned until June 15 the petitions from the Islamic lawyers.

Mudassir Hussain, an official from the information technology ministry, told the court that all links to to “blasphemous” content on the Internet would remain blocked in Pakistan.

Court documents delayed

Facebook was still inaccessible in the country several hours after the court order and a spokesman for the Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan told AFP they were still awaiting the written orders.

“We are still waiting for the court orders. Pakistan Telecommunications Authority is yet to deliver this order and as soon as we receive the order to unblock Facebook, we will implement it quickly,” Wahaj-ul-Siraj told AFP.

Pakistan last week restored access to YouTube — which together with Facebook accounts for up to 25 percent of Internet traffic in Pakistan — but 1,200 web pages of “sacrilegious” content have been blocked.

Islamic activists and students have taken to the streets, shouting “Death to Facebook” and burned US flags, venting anger over “Everyone Draw Mohammed Day.”

2.5 million Pakistani users

But although the caricatures were universally condemned in Pakistan, the Internet-literate urban elite has criticised the blanket ban on websites.

Facebook expressed disappointment at being blocked and the offending page has disappeared from the social networking service.

There are an estimated 2.5 million Facebook users in Pakistan and demonstrations.

Pakistan also briefly banned YouTube in February 2008 in a similar protest against “blasphemous” cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.