Originally Published 2011-11-25 00:00:00 Published on Nov 25, 2011
The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) placed itself in a highly embarrassing situation with its decision to ban the usage of 'obscene' words in text messages. Stiff resistance from users,
PTA revokes 'obscene' SMS ban
The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) placed itself in a highly embarrassing situation with its decision to ban the usage of ’obscene’ words in text messages. Stiff resistance from users, campaigners and telecom companies forced the PTA to reconsider the decision. Earlier, a list of over 1600 English and Urdu words were handed over to telecom companies asking them to block messages containing words from the list. This direction was issued under the Pakistan Telecommunication Act, 1996 within the directives of the ’Protection from Spam, Unsolicited, Fraudulent and Obnoxious Communication Regulations, 2009’.

According to Part I Section 3(e) of the regulations, ’Obnoxious communication’ has been defined as, "the transmission of message/statement with the intent to cause harassment or disturbance." This is relevant at a time when most mobile users are harassed on a regular basis through spam messages.

However, the recent move to ban ’obscene’ words under this regulation seems to originate from nothing but ignorance. According to an unconfirmed list that is being heavily circulated, words such as ’idiot’, ’go to hell’, ’deposit’, ’athlete’s foot’, ’Jesus Christ’, ’fairy’, ’rape’, ’bakwas’, etc are included in the list of words to be banned. Speculations are that some words were copy-pasted directly from the internet, as words such as ’KKK’ for Ku Klux Klan, ’yellowmen’, ’Gook’, etc, that does not seem to be part of a casual conversation.

A more distressing fact is the inclusion of ’Jesus Christ’ -- a figure central to a minority community in the country, to the list of ’obnoxious’ words. It puts Pakistan further into a discomfiting position, particularly in the light of the recent controversy over blasphemy laws and the associated treatment of minorities as second class citizens. Saleem Khursheed Khokhar, Provincial minority legislator of the Sindh Assembly, attempted to move a resolution not to include ’Jesus Christ’ in the list. He argued that Christ commanded the same respect amongst Muslims just like the other prophets. Also, instead of focussing on banning words that are derogatory to women, the list has included words such as ’breast’, ’rape’, ’rapist’, making them more taboo than they already are.

Unlike the popular belief, Pakistan has been a fairly liberal society with minimal restrictions placed on individuals in comparison to most of the Muslim world, particularly the Middle East. However, the move to introduce a list of banned words points to an increasing tendency of the state in moral policing. PTA has a history of banning websites containing sexually explicit materials and controversial human and political rights contents, particularly those run by Baloch and Sindh ethno-nationalists. The tradition of banning websites began in 2006, almost a year after the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy, when the Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered the PTA and other government departments to adopt measures to block websites showing blasphemous contents. Two other highly publicised incidents were the ban on YouTube in 2008, because of the video clippings of anti-Islamic movie. and Facebook in 2010, because of a competition inviting people to submit drawings of Prophet Mohammad (Many sects in Islam consider it heretical to depict the Prophet). Both websites had to remove the objectionable content before the ban was lifted.

It is extremely bizarre for the PTA to have taken up such an inconsequential matter instead of trying to figure out more innovative solutions to curb incidents of violence, kidnappings, target killings, etc that has engulfed the country for which one of the foremost means being used are mobile phones and internet services.

Many young Pakistanis, the allegiant users of SMS, voiced their anger on Twitter and other social networking sites against such intrusive measures that would take away the rights of individuals in personal communication. Fortunately, this time they prevailed.

(Aarya Venugopal is a Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation)
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.