Pakistan to unblock Wikipedia, after restricting site for 'blasphemy'

The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) had blocked Wikipedia because a 48-hour deadline to remove the content was ignored.
Pakistan flag. (Photo | AFP)
Pakistan flag. (Photo | AFP)

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan on Tuesday lifted its ban on Wikipedia, two days after the country's media regulator suspended the services of the online encyclopedia for hurting Muslim sentiments by not removing purportedly blasphemous content from the site.

The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) had blocked Wikipedia because a 48-hour deadline to remove the content was ignored.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on Monday ordered authorities to unblock Wikipedia "with immediate effect", following the recommendation of a three-member ministerial committee, according to an official statement.

"The Prime Minister is pleased to direct that the website (Wikipedia) may be restored with immediate effect," Pakistan's Minister of Information and Broadcasting Marriyum Aurangzeb posted the Prime Minister's order to her Twitter account.

"The Prime Minister has also constituted a Cabinet Committee on matters related to Wikipedia and other online content," she added.

Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia, created and edited by volunteers around the world and hosted by the Wikimedia Foundation.

The PTA on February 1 announced that it was "degrading" Wikipedia services in Pakistan over the existence of "sacrilegious content", which the platform had been asked to remove, but failed to do so.

Two days later, after the encyclopedia failed to respond to the objections, it was banned completely, sparking outrage in the country, which prompted the authorities to place the matter before the Prime Minister who set up a committee for a preliminary examination and comments.

The committee, according to the statement, deduced that "Wikipedia was a useful site/portal which supported the dissemination of knowledge and information for the general public, students and the academia".

"Blocking the site in its entirety was not a suitable measure to restrict access to some objectionable contents/sacrilegious matters on it.

The unintended consequences of this blanket ban, therefore, outweigh its benefits," the statement said.

The prime minister, thereafter, directed that Wikipedia be restored with "immediate effect" as he also set up a new cabinet committee to further look into the matter.

The committee among others would also explore alternative technical measures for the removal or blockage of objectionable content on Wikipedia or any other online information sites.

"Such things (content) hurt the sentiments of Muslims," said Malahat Obaid, the spokesperson of the regulator.

Last Friday, the Wikimedia Foundation said "it does not make decisions around what content is included on Wikipedia or how that content is maintained".

It added that this is "by design to ensure that articles are the result of many people coming together to determine what information should be presented on the site, resulting in richer, more neutral articles".

Critics have denounced the move, saying it was an affront to Pakistanis rights to access information.

Social media giants Facebook and YouTube have been blocked in the past over content deemed blasphemous.

Pakistan has been sensitive to blasphemous and immortal material on the internet and frequently takes action against sites in order to convey a message to the local population that it was serious to tackle this issue.

In December 2020, the PTA issued notices to Wikipedia and Google Inc for "disseminating sacrilegious content", while the country blocked YouTube from 2012 to 2016.

Pakistan also blocked the video-sharing app TikTok several times in recent years over its failure to stop posting "indecent" and "immoral" content.

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The New Indian Express