‘CENSORSHIP of any kind is not a solution; it’s a problem itself,” said Shahzad Ahmad. The human rights defender is director of an organisation in Pakistan called Bytes For All (B4A) and he spoke to The National in Islamabad about challenging his country’s ban on YouTube and the surveillance of social media and text messages by the state.

Indeed, Ahmad’s homeland has been dubbed “Banistan” due to the government’s habit of blocking sites to which it objects, and for nearly a decade now B4A has been monitoring Pakistan’s cyberspace to oppose censorship and promote free speech and civil liberties.

B4A is a human rights think tank focusing on information and communication technology and it says Pakistan is a country where websites publishing progressive political views are routinely censored while at the same time the authorities turn a blind eye to Islamist militants publishing propaganda and hate speech.

“We believe there should be no censorship and people should be allowed to speak freely,” Ahmad said.

“Unfortunately, the government is more and more into control mode. It wants to bring in models [of censorship] practised in China and Saudi Arabia which are anti-democracy, anti-people and anti-human rights.”

In recent years a number of websites and social media platforms have been targeted by the authorities. In 2009, Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) ordered the blocking of “blasphemous” websites including Dictator Watch and Make Pakistan Better. The following year PTA blocked Facebook after controversy over a competition to draw the Prophet Mohammed, while a Facebook group promoting secularism called Roshni was closed after it criticised Islamic fundamentalists.

Another victim of state censorship was Queer Pakistan – which lasted just one month – and in 2013 the Internet Movie Database was blocked after it showed a trailer for The Line of Freedom, a film highlighting human rights abuses perpetrated by Pakistan’s army in the troubled province of Balochistan.

YouTube has been banned for almost three years. The site was first blocked in 2008 after hosting Geert Wilders’ film Fitna, and again in 2010 after showing footage of Pakistani President Asir Zardari telling someone to “shut up.” The current ban – introduced in 2012 – came after the site hosted a controversial short film called Innocence of Muslims that prompted outrage across the Muslim world.

In Pakistan, at least 19 people were killed during violent protests and the outcry prompted a government minister to offer a bounty of £61,600 for the killing of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, who made the provocative anti-Islam film in the US.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, said then: “It is ironical that denial of holocaust is considered a crime but no consideration is paid to the feelings of Muslims. I hope the international community and Islamic world will be successful in preventing such things.”

As a response to the subsequent blocking of YouTube, B4A launched a legal challenge in 2013 in an attempt to have the ban reversed. To date there have been 22 hearings and the case is now with the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

Ahmad said: “Our petition is not only focused on YouTube, it’s about larger issues such as internet freedom. These blockings are on political grounds. The reasons cited are usually ‘blasphemous content’, or something that is ‘anti-national’, ‘offensive’ or ‘objectionable’, or ‘against morals’. And the government also links everything to ‘national security’. But these are terminologies you cannot really define and what is objectionable to one person may not be objectionable to another.”

In its petition, B4A challenges what it views as the “unconstitutional and illegal filtering and censorship online undertaken by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority at the behest of the government.” Ahmad said the fundamental rights of Pakistan’s citizens’ were being denied and Articles 9, 10, 14 and 29 of the Constitution of Pakistan had been breached.

With regards to Article 14, Ahmad argued that banning websites “violates the right of privacy which is granted to the people of Pakistan ... private life, personal thoughts and individual beliefs of citizens cannot be allowed to be interfered with.”

Furthermore, he said that by banning YouTube the state has deprived millions of Muslims access to religious videos, lectures and Quranic recitations and thus the ability to “counteract and respond to materials which are deemed anti-Islamic, un-Islamic or are aimed at denigrating our great faith.”

Ahmad remains hopeful the Supreme Court will respond favourably to B4A’s petition, but the government was quoted recently as saying the ban on YouTube should remain in place because software to filter out blasphemous content is not yet available.

However, the Pakistani authorities already use what Ahmad calls “predatory digital surveillance” after introducing filtering software called Netsweeper to build a firewall in Pakistani cyberspace with the capability of blocking millions of web pages. The authorities also use FinFisher surveillance software, aka FinSpy, and arbitrary censorship practices that do not fall under any legal framework. Text messages are also being monitored.

In 2012, a leaked document from PTA revealed a list of 1695 words to be banned from SMS communications. “It was the most bizarre list of curse words including, ‘sweat from a lizard’s testicles’, a phrase which was unheard of,” Ahmad said.

“We had a field day around that and a massive campaign and it was a defining moment for the internet rights movement. It was hilarious. But this also tells us they are monitoring our text messages.”

Hate speech is another issue of concern and B4A examines how social media fuels violence and sectarian divisions. One of its flagship campaigns is Take Back the Tech, designed to fight violence against women, which is an endemic problem in Pakistan. Women run a unique risk using social media in Pakistan, where – besides punitive laws against blasphemy – there is a tradition of men murdering females seen as having injured a family’s honour.

In Pakistan’s most populous province of Punjab last year there more than 170 complaints of cybercrime against women, according to the Federal Investigation Agency. In one case documented by B4A, an online hate campaign urging the rape and murder of a human rights activist resulted in shots being fired at the woman and her husband. In another incident a mob attacked and killed a grandmother and two children over a “blasphemous” Facebook post of the Kaaba (Islam’s holiest site). This prompted a mob of 600 people to set fire to homes and shops in Gujranwala belonging to members of the Ahmadi sect. An Ahmadi woman and her granddaughters, aged eight and seven months, all died.

“We are committed to ending technology driven gender based violence,” said Ahmad, who has been subjected to abuse and threats. His work is dangerous and he and colleagues live in fear of being targeted by extremists and militant groups. They are also concerned about Pakistan’s intelligence agencies – 26 in total – which monitor citizens without any judicial oversight.

One fear is being framed for blasphemy, which, under Article 295 of Pakistan’s Criminal Law, carries a potential death sentence for anyone who insults Islam. “This is problematic for us and many other organisations who sometimes self-censor regarding freedom of expression,” said Ahmad. “They will frame blasphemy charges against you, and call you agents of the West. We have been called ‘agents of Jews’ and ‘agents of the CIA’. But we are a Pakistani organisation based in Pakistan, working on Pakistani issues.”