Cyber Steward Shahzad Ahmad, Director of Bytes for All (B4A), has won the Doughty Street Advocacy Award as part of Index on Censorship’s 2014 Freedom of Expression Awards. The award was given on March 20, 2013 during the award ceremonies at the Barbican Centre in London. Ahmad was nominated in the advocacy category which recognizes activists fighting for free expression around the world. Ahmad recently appeared in a video developed by Index on Censorship speaking of the work he and B4A have performed promoting digital rights and monitoring censorship in cyberspace. In his acceptance speech, Ahmad recognized B4A’s role as part of a movement “to educate, and raise people’s awareness of their digital rights” and to “continue to provide the knowledge and language that can empower everyone to participate in this dialogue, in our country and globally, as technology evolves.”
Index on Censorship is a global organization headquartered in the United Kingdom dedicated to promoting free expression and combating censorship. For 14 years, the Freedom of Expression Awards have recognized prominent activists, journalists, writers, and other advocates for free expression around the world. These advocates include Pakistani women’s education activist Malala Yousafzai, whistleblowing organization Wikileaks, and Syrian political cartoonist Ali Ferzat.
Ahmad’s leadership as director of B4A has led to the creation of many remarkable campaigns promoting digital rights and free expression. B4A has filed several court petitions to combat censorship and surveillance in Pakistan, including their campaign to overturn the ban on YouTube and to investigate the use of commercial surveillance software FinFisher in the country. In 2013, the organization received an Avon Communications Award for their “Take Back the Tech” campaign, developed to empower women in the use of online technology and to raise awareness on gender-based violence. Despite facing many personal and professional challenges, Ahmad has demonstrated an impressive commitment to promoting free expression in Pakistan and is a highly deserving recipient of this award.
Bytes for All (B4A) is continuing its battle at the Lahore High Court against Internet censorship in Pakistan. The court case has highlighted the ongoing censorship of YouTube in Pakistan, a result of the video sharing site’s refusal to block the controversial “Innocence of Muslims” video. B4A is pursuing this case in collaboration with the Media Legal Defense Initiative, a non-governmental organisation that supports the rights of journalists and independent media around the world.
On March 13, 2014, the nineteenth session of the hearing began with a statement presented on behalf of Minister of State for Information Technology Anusha Rehman, who was unable to personally appear before court due to unspecified security concerns. The statement cited the Supreme Court order to censor the “Innocence of Muslims” video as the basis for blocking all of YouTube and clarified that the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) lacks the capability to filter specific pages. The statement also revealed that the government was attempting to obtain censorship technology similar to that used by the Chinese and Saudi Arabian governments. Past research has shown both Saudi Arabia and China censor Internet traffic heavily. B4A’s legal counsel argued against the practicality of any form of Internet censorship and stated that the blocking of YouTube had given the controversial video more publicity due to the curiosity aroused by the government’s ban. Despite the expectation that the court would make a decisive verdict regarding the case, the hearing concluded with an adjournment for a later date.
During the eighteenth session of the case on March 11, 2014, the presiding judge Justice Mansoor Ali Shah noted that Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered only the blocking of the “Innocence of Muslims” video and not all of YouTube. Justice Shah also emphasized the value of YouTube as an educational platform. Minister Rehman did not attend this session as well, the fourth time he has failed to do so since being summoned to appear in person before the court.
B4A has been fighting to overturn the censorship of YouTube in Pakistan since January 2013 when the organization filed a petition challenging the legality of Internet censorship. B4A has long promoted free expression and digital rights through projects such as “Access is My Right,” a campaign developed to raise awareness around issues such as Internet censorship, digital rights, and freedom of expression in Pakistan. B4A has also assisted the Citizen Lab in researching the presence of filtering products developed by Canadian technology company Netsweeper in Pakistan.
What is the price of security? Should it be your online freedom?
By Juliet Nanfuka
Where do human rights and online rights meet? Is there a clash between online freedom and human rights? Is there room for self-regulation? These are some of the questions that a recently concluded online discussions report on Internet freedom in Africa explores.
Participants from Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria used online platforms to discuss these issues over a four week period at the end of 2013.
A key theme that came out of the report is the recognition of the increased numbers of internet users across the continent and parallel to this, increased measures taken by governments on surveillance of citizens. This, in turn, has brought to the fore many questions about freedom of expression and privacy.
Many countries are faced with contradictory policies when it comes to freedom of expression especially when it is placed alongside national security and stability. As a result, freedom of expression is threatened by restrictive legal measures that infringe on the access and sharing of information. In addition to these are the legal permissions granted to governments with regards to accessing information about users. Requests from African governments, although few, appear to be politically motivated according to the Google Transparency Reports.
In light of this, a participant asked a key question that also raises concerns about censorship, “How much can you restrict if those with no restriction can interact with and pass on information to the restricted using alternative methods of communication?” This led to the recognition of the conflict that exists between online freedom of expression and the state. Such was seen in the 2011 politically motivated ‘Walk to Work’ protests in Uganda in which the national communications regulatory authority, the Uganda Communications Commission, instructed ISPs to block access to social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook for 24 hours. More on this can be found here Internet Freedom in Africa Under Threat.
The report, prepared by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) in partnership with Paradigm Initiative Nigeria (PIN) can be downloaded here.