By Josh Shahryar (Follow us on Twitter)
Three years ago, a young Pakistani living abroad came up with an idea. Along with other independent activists and citizens he decided to make a portal and Facebook page about secularism and human rights in Pakistan. Their aims were simple: create a space to promote independent opinions on all subjects including politics, current affairs, history, society, culture, religion and science.
Their efforts came to fruition with the launch of Roshni – meaning light in Urdu, Pakistan’s national language – and it took off almost immediately, generating massive readership and thousands of comments and shares on social media. Their message of secularism and human rights for all resonated with a large audience that started to develop into a dedicated following.
But beneath their success lay a deep resentment from forces opposed to a secular Pakistan.
They started receiving daily abuse and threats from extremists. One message sent by a user Mohsin Raza Khan in romanized Urdu states, “O m***********, Go to hell. You are going to hell anyway, why are you dragging others you damned bastard m*********** son of a rapist”
Another from Avaiz Alam is more dangerous. Again in romanized Urdu it starts with, “Uncle, we don’t curse we take the life of people who speak against our religion.” [emphasis mine]
This is just a sampling of tens of messages sent to me by the founder.
According to him, they’ve so far received thousands of such messages that go from insult to threats on their life – dozens come daily. Things, however, went beyond that. Many Facebook pages were created to malign their reputation and denounce their work to make users stop reading Roshni.
But when the readership grew instead of shrinking, the detractors got bolder.
They started a campaign to report the portal’s page on Facebook under “Hate speech” against a particular religious group despite the fact that a look at their articles reveal nothing of the sort. The campaign wasn’t just started by lone individuals, but was endorsed by high-ranking religious leaders as well. One cleric, Maulana Tariq Jameel even released a template on how his 290,000+ followers on Facebook could report the page for “hate speech” and explicitly asked them to do so. The template has been shared hundreds of times on Facebook.
According to Roshni’s founder, others went further and contacted the government. The goal was to systematically block access to the site from Pakistan as the country takes complaints, especially against Salafis, or those who believe in a literalist interpretation of Islam, very seriously. Last year, YouTube was blocked in Pakistan after the website allowed a video to be posted that mocks Islam and the ban still stands. Those efforts against Roshni worked.
Earlier this month, Roshni’s Facebook page, which has over 30,000 likes, was blocked by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) without notice to the staff. When the staff contacted PTA, they didn’t get a reply. Before they could figure out what had happened, the portal itself was blocked a week later.
Things have since rapidly gone out of hand with even Facebook placing a country restriction on their Facebook page so that people inside Pakistan can no longer access it. While they are frantically trying to find ways to unblock their portal and page, the founder has no doubts what the reason behind the government’s actions are.
I interviewed him via email today to get to the bottom of the issue. He has requested anonymity:
Josh Shahryar: What are your articles typically about?
Roshni Founder: We have focused on promoting a secular democracy, a liberal thought process and campaigned for equal rights for all religious and ethnic minorities with a focus on Ahmadis, Shias, Christians and Hindus and Baloch. There has been a lot of content on women rights as well. Primarily, our policy has been an equal-rights-for-all, secular democracy, liberal pluralist tolerant society. [emphasis his]
J.S.: How many unique hits do you get a day?
R.F.: We have 33,000 fans [on Facebook] and have a reach of 500,000 unique users every week. The viewership and sharing of our individual posts is varied – some go viral others not. There have been posts shared as many as several thousand times and liked tens of thousands of times. Most posts get a good debate generated on them with several hundred comments.
J.S.: Why do you think your site has been blocked by PTA?
R.F.: It’s the extremists. We challenge established discourse whether it be the state fed discourse or the discourse of religious establishment. Our mission is to promote alternative opinions on a wide variety of topics – therefore, we are naturally something which will not be liked by the established circles.
Pretty much all of the issues we have talked about were challenged, abused and spoof pages set up to malign us. We did a very serious and well organised campaign following Malala incident and debunked the theories in both English and Urdu. This was the first time we got seriously attacked, received threats and pages working against us started campaigns to get us blocked.
Similarly, after the Quetta and Abbas Townb blasts we took a clear position criticising state agencies and the religious establishment. We also asked users to send in their comments for Shia community and posted several messages of solidarity by Sunnis and non-Muslims that we received. We did this to promote tolerance and harmony in troubled times but this was not well received by some pages specially Ulama-e-Deoband page whose guys attacked us and started the campaign again.
We also receive a lot off abuse and threats on our posts supporting Ahmadi community.
J.S.: What is Facebook’s reasoning for blocking Roshni in Pakistan? What’s the government’s response to why they don’t want Pakistanis to read your site?
R.F.: They [Facebook] never cared to explain why they did this – maybe they received a lot of complaints and banned on number count. Let me make it clear – Roshni is neither anti religion nor anti state. We do not have an agenda to take on religion or promote lack of it. But we also do not promote a specific religion. We just promote alternative opinion. We are for secular demoracy, for liberalism, for a society that is tolerant and pluralist where everyone can worship their own religion freely but no special treatment to any religion.
J.S.: What do you plan on doing now?
R.F.: We have a petition [asking PTA to unblock the portal].
Second, we are raising the issue with Facebook through complaints and feedback. We’re going to send a letter to PTA asking for explanation as they have not responded to emails. After we get a response we will decide – we might go to court on this if needed but will prefer a technical solution as we do not have confidence in Pakistan’s judicial system to facilitate us in this struggle.