Wikipedia ban in Pakistan over alleged blasphemous content lifted

‘Unintended consequences’ of a blanket ban ‘outweigh its benefits’, says the government after two days of blocking the website.

A computer screen displays a notice blocking the Wikipedia website in Islamabad, Pakistan [File: Anjum Naveed/AP]

Islamabad, Pakistan – A ban on Wikipedia has been lifted in Pakistan two days after it was imposed over alleged blasphemous content.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on Monday ordered the country’s telecom regulator to restore the online encyclopaedia with “immediate effect”.

“Blocking the site in its entirety was not a suitable measure to restrict access to some objectionable content,” a statement issued by Sharif’s office said.

“The unintended consequences of this blanket ban, therefore, outweigh its benefits.”

The statement, shared on Twitter by Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb, also said a committee has been constituted by the government to review the decision to ban the website as well as matters related to “other online content”.

The committee will explore and recommend alternative technical measures to deal with objectionable content on Wikipedia or other online information sites, keeping in view the “social cultural and religious sensitivities” of the country, where the issue of blasphemy remains a highly contentious and sensitive matter.

At least 80 people have been killed in Pakistan over blasphemy allegations since 1990, according to an Al Jazeera tally, including family members of the accused, their lawyers and at least one judge.

The Wikimedia Foundation, which runs Wikipedia, welcomed Pakistan’s move to restore the website.

“Lifting this ban means that the people of Pakistan can continue to benefit from and participate in its growth within a global movement that strives to spread and share knowledge that is verified, reliable and free,” it said.

On February 1, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) announced it was “degrading” access to Wikipedia in the country due to the presence of “sacrilegious content”, giving the website 48 hours to remove them. It did not specify which content it found sacrilegious.

Two days later, the PTA claimed there was no response from Wikipedia and blocked the website, leading to widespread condemnation and outrage in the country.

In a statement on February 4, the Wikimedia Foundation said the ban “denies the fifth most populous nation in the world access to the largest free knowledge repository”.

“If it continues, it will also deprive everyone access to Pakistan’s knowledge, history, and culture,” it said.

The foundation also said it does not make decisions around what content is included on Wikipedia or how that content is maintained.

Pakistan has a history of blocking access to major websites, online games and social media applications.

YouTube, the world’s biggest video-sharing website, was blocked for more than three years in the country between 2012 and 2016 due to content considered “blasphemous” by the PTA.

In 2020, Chinese social media app TikTok was banned for nearly six months for “spreading obscenity and immorality”.

Source: Al Jazeera