Pakistan, that’s what. Or, to be more exact: Pakistan’s Telecom Authority (PTA) who, in a supposed effort to combat the issue of spam text messages, recently released a list of some 1,600+ “offensive” or “obscene” words and phrases it would like mobile phone companies to block from being used in SMS messaging.
Among the contingent of English words those “offensive” phrases include:
- flogging the dolphin
- crotch monkey
- love pistol
I could go on but the breadth of the list is truly impressive and the above are some of the more amusing words rather than the more explicit choices. Should you want to, you can read the list of 148 or so English words that the regulator would like to ban by clicking here. Needless to say it is not safe for work, children or those wanting to keep themselves pure of mind.
However, this issue gets more serious when one considers that on that list are phrases related to the Christian religion such as “Jesus Christ” and words relating to sexual minorities like “gay” and “lesbian.” Censorship has been the accusation.
The regulator has defended itself, saying that freedom of speech is not unlimited and it is necessary to ban words that might be offensive in order to prevent harmful material from circulating in Pakistan.
The lists of offensive words and terms and a letter written on November 14 by PTA’s Director General (Services) Muhammad Talib Doger, instructing mobile phone operators to start filtering SMS messages, have been posted on numerous internet forums after they were leaked to the media last week.
Doger’s letter indicated that the lists were drawn up after consultations with mobile phone operators over the past few months.
It described the filtering scheme as part of larger efforts to halt spam messages.
“The right of free speech extends to all subjects which affects way of life without limitation of any particular fact.
“However, right of freedom of speech and expression is not unfettered and unbridled,” the letter said.
The filtering of SMSs is required [...] under the Protection from Spam, Unsolicited, Fraudulent and Obnoxious Communication Regulations of 2009, it said.
Journalists have pointed out there are several words on that list that are used in everyday language, including words like “idiot” and “virgin” which makes the list problematic.
The list has also provoked members of Pakistan’s minority party to speak out, saying the idea of combating spam messaging is a cloak for censors to make a direct assault on religious freedom of expression.
A Pakistan People’s Party’s (PPP) minority MPA on Monday protested vociferously against the inclusion of Jesus Christ in a list of banned words by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and said it was an attempt to undermine religious freedom in the country.
The PPP minority MPA’s resolution, which was deferred for another day, reads: “The Sindh Assembly condemns the act of the PTA to block the sacred words of the Christian community ‘Jesus Christ’ and ‘Christ Jesus’. And recommends to the federal government to kindly take action and conduct an inquiry against the PTA and remove these words from the banned list.”
Others have pointed out the excessive reach of the list, saying that if the regulator merely wished to combat spam, the list would be much smaller.
Fahad Rehman, a 30-year old event planner in Lahore who often uses text messages to advertise his events, sees it as an attempt by “out-of-touch” officials to placate the more conservative sections of Pakistan’s highly-polarized society, by dictating what is and is not appropriate.
“The word ‘sexy’ is on the list? It’s ridiculous!” says Rehman. “There is, unfortunately, a large number of people who think like this. But this is a complete waste of time. It just diverts attention away from the real problems in Pakistan.”
Zoha Waseem, a 24-year old blogger from Karachi, says the agency’s priorities are “completely misplaced,” and that their actions show that Pakistan is “still a pretty backwards country.” “We talk about a democratic Pakistan, a progressive Pakistan, ” says Waseem. “And we’re focusing on words like this? When we have so many better things to do? This is not something a progressive country would be worrying about.”
After an international outcry, the PTA has stressed that it has not, as yet, enforced any ban and that the list is open to revision during a forthcoming consultation period. However, this is not the first time the regulator has been accused of heavy-handed tactics to enforce its religious views of propriety.
The PTA has repeatedly blocked access to YouTube over what it has called “non-Islamic, objectionable videos.” Subsequent bans have been slapped on Facebook, Wikipedia, Flickr and many more sites, and earlier this year the authority sent an order to Internet service providers that in the interests of content monitoring, they must block access to encrypted private networks.