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Internet Censorship Sparks On-Line Protest Movement in Pakistan


A growing on-line protest movement in Pakistan is challenging a government effort to limit access to the Internet. The government's recent effort to block a dozen controversial websites has sparked an increasingly organized drive to protect the Internet from government censors.

On February 27, as riots raged across Pakistan, the government banned 12 websites that carried the controversial Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed.

But the effort had the unintended effect of blocking an estimated three or four million other sites, all sharing similar addresses.

Hundreds of popular Pakistani on-line journals, or blogs, were caught in the government's net.

Dr. Awab Alvi, one of Pakistan's first and best-known bloggers, says the country's small but growing on-line community was outraged by the government's action and wants to overturn the ruling.

"When this happened all of a sudden people said 'we have to do something.' Our position is we would like to enter into dialogue and try to solve things by dialogue not by censorship of the entire community," Alvi says.

Alvi and his colleagues launched a series of on-line protests including a petition and new website highlighting the government's censorship.

Their efforts attracted national and international attention and have become a popular cause for bloggers from around the world.

As the signatures and support pile up, Alvi says the bloggers are gaining confidence and attracting an even larger audience here in Pakistan.

"It's beautiful. And the blogging community will grow in Pakistan because people are actually realizing that this is a place where they can freely express themselves," Alvi says.

Now he says, the bloggers do not just want the original ban lifted, they want the entire law reformed to protect free and open access to the Internet.

Julien Pain has been following the protests for Reporters Without Borders in Paris, a leading voice for media freedom around the world.

"It's definitely a great step forward for Pakistan because once [they] have this kind of community, they will push the society forward," Pain says. "They will put pressure on the government to get their rights respected."

And the protesters are attracting support from some unexpected quarters.

Some business executives say the government's efforts to censor the Internet could undermine the country's financial growth.

Pakistani technology companies have been working hard to attract some of the computer outsourcing business that has helped fueled neighbor India's explosive economic growth.

But now some worry that the new limits on-line freedoms could make their jobs just a little bit harder in the future.

For now the government is sticking to its position. Earlier this week, authorities blocked access to half a dozen new Web sites and Pakistani police filed legal cases against Internet search engines Google and Yahoo for providing access to the controversial cartoons.

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