December 16, 2018

Update: VOA Urdu website blocked, VOA News formally acknowledges

ISLAMABAD, DECEMBER 12, 2018: The US based Voice of America, VOA has formally acknowledged that it’s Urdu service’s website urduavoa.com has been blocked in Pakistan for more than a week. 

Citing an intelligence source, Voanews.com claims that the website has been blocked owing  to their coverage of Pasthun Protection Movement (PTM)-a rights based movement viewed with suspicion by the establishment for harping “anti state” agenda.

Earlier a few months ago, VOA’s deewa news site that catered to the Pashto speaking population living in Pak Afghan border had been blocked inside Pakistan.

Quoting Federal Information Minister Fawad Chaudhary, Voanews.com noted that the websites were blocked for “false and prejudiced reporting.”

“The stories they were doing were only projecting a particular narrative without any impartial view. There are many things happening in our country and most are positive,” Mr Chaudhary stated.

The formal acknowledgement comes after a local reporter Sailaab Mehsud affiliated with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, RFE/RL, was named in First Investigation Report, FIR, for allegedly participating in a PTM rally in Dera Ismail Khan on Saturday.  Mr. Mehsud stressed that he was only there for the coverage of the rally.

Like VOA, RFE/RL is also funded by the US Congress.

DRM reached out to VOA’s public relations department to seek their comment on this issue. In response to the questions sent to them over email, the public relations department shared the following statement on behalf of VOA Director Amanda Bernett:

“We are troubled by recent efforts to block VOA Urdu and Pashto language news and information from reaching the citizens of Pakistan. The VOA Urdu website has been partially or fully blocked since early December and the VOA Deewa (a Pashto language service) site since late October.

Our audience members count on VOA to provide factual, unbiased and objective coverage of current events, so any attempt to block our websites deprives Urdu and Pashto speakers in the region access to a trusted news source. In the interest of press freedom, VOA calls upon those responsible for blocking our content to immediately remove these constraints.

Despite the current blockage efforts, content will continue to be available on an affiliate television station (Urdu-only) and for both Urdu and Deewa on radio, satellite and social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.”

VOA Urdu website under sporadic censorship across Pakistan  

ISLAMABAD, DECEMBER 07, 2018: The Urdu news website of Voice of America, VOA, has been reportedly censored across Pakistan.

According to multiple internet users the scribe talked to in different cities including Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, VOA Urdu website is inaccessible to them from their respective Internet service providers including PTCL, Nayatel and also from their mobile broadband services including Zong 4G, Jazz,  Ufone and Telenor.

However, many people are able to access the VOA Urdu site using the aforementioned Internet services. The scribe has learned that one user in Islamabad is unable to access VOA Urdu site using Zong mobile internet while another user is able to access it in Lahore using the same connection. Similarly, another user is able to access VOA Urdu site in Cantt Lahore using Ufone mobile internet but another user near Mall road, Lahore is unable to access it.

Some users received the following message when they tried to access the website: “Surf safely! This site you are trying to access contains content that is prohibited for viewership from within Pakistan”; a message typically received when the website is blocked on the directions of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, PTA.

However, it is not clear whether the censorship has been officially sanctioned by the PTA. It is also not clear what has triggered the censorship of this news site.

Under Section 37 of the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act 2016, PECA, PTA is empowered to take down online content.

“The Authority shall have the power to remove or block or issue directions for removal or blocking of access to an information through any information system if it considers it necessary in the interest of the glory of Islam, or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court or commission of or incitement to an offence under this Act,” reads the act.

At the moment, there are more than 800,000 websites blocked in Pakistan according to official figures.

Digital Rights Monitor reached out to VOA for an official comment on this issue but did not hear from them till the time of writing this report. Neither the Twitter account nor the Facebook page of VOA Urdu say anything about this ongoing censorship.

 

Written by

Talal Raza is a Program Manager at Media Matters for Democracy. He has worked with renowned media organizations and NGOs including Geo News, The Nation, United States Institute of Peace and Privacy International.

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