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Pakistan expands Internet clampdown on 'Everybody draw Mohammad Day!'

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 2010; 10:02 AM

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- An Internet clampdown in Pakistan widened Thursday as the government blocked access to the YouTube Web site, citing its "growing sacrilegious content."

The move came one day after the civilian government ordered Internet service providers to restrict access to the Facebook social networking site, which drew fire in Pakistan over a page encouraging people to post caricatures Thursday of the Prophet Muhammad. That order followed an injunction by a Pakistani court, which agreed Wednesday with a petition by an Islamic lawyers' group that the page violated Islamic laws banning the prophet's image.

A spokesman for the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority said the decision to block YouTube came after government monitors found that references to the Facebook page -- called "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day!" -- were growing on the video-sharing site, as were other "derogatory" references to Islam, the majority religion in Pakistan.

"We are an Islamic republic, so we are monitoring the Muslim content," said Khurran Mehran, the spokesman. "We had to shut it down."

The Facebook page sparked protests by religious student organizations across the country on Wednesday, and they continued sporadically Thursday. In Islamabad, about 100 young men belonging to the Islami Jamiat Talba, the student wing of a religious political party, carried signs bearing slogans such as, "Death to Those Responsible for Blasphemy." They called Facebook a tool for spreading anti-Islamic sentiments.

"If Facebook and other such tools continue to be used for blasphemy by the Western nations, then we will target their embassies," said Faisal Javed, 21.

Although only a small percentage of Pakistan's 180 million people have Internet access, Facebook and other sites have exploded in popularity as the middle class and media outlets have grown. Critics, many of whom voiced opinions in vigorous online debates Thursday -- called the crackdown an impingement of the free speech and that has blossomed under two years of civilian government.

Five years ago, cartoons of Muhammad that were published in a Danish newspaper triggered violent demonstrations in Pakistan and across the Muslim world. The issue has occasionally resurfaced, including in 2008, when a bombing outside the Danish Embassy in Islamabad killed eight people.

Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia, also appeared to be blocked in Pakistan on Thursday, but it was not clear whether the government had restricted access or there was a glitch in the system. Access from smartphones to Facebook, YouTube and other sites with "blasphemous content" was also blocked, according to one major cellphone company, Mobilink.

At least 450 links to Web sites had been shut down by midday Thursday, according to a government statement.

Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain contributed to this report.

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