Pakistan cracks down on obscenity in text messages

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 18, 2011 

KARACHI, Pakistan — Pakistan's telecommunications regulator has ordered cellphone companies to monitor text messages and block any that contain any of more than 1,100 words and phrases that could be considered swear words, references to sex acts or terms of abuse.

The banned phrases and words include more than 50 that include the "f-word," and 17 that contain the word "butt."

Many of them involve homosexuality, including the words "lesbian" and "gay," and some of them are not in and of themselves obscene, including "pimp," "stroke," "stupid" and "flatulence."

The list is so voluminous and inclusive that one marvels at the flair with which the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority compiled it.

While some of the terms are clear references to sex acts or sex toys, many are not. "Lolita," a reference to the underage character who is molested by her stepfather in Vladimir Nabokov's novel of the same name, is banned, but so are eight uses of the word "foot," including "Athletes foot." There are also a number of words that refer to medical conditions that affect the genitals, but have very little to do with sex.

Also ruled out: "fatso," "got Jesus," "joint," and "K Mart," the last possibly a reference to the date rape drug Ketamine.

While admitting that Pakistan's constitution guaranteed free speech, the regulator told mobile phone companies that such freedom was "not unrestricted" under court rulings. Furthermore, they had obligations under their licenses to prevent "obnoxious communication."

In the letter, dated Nov. 14, Muhammad Talib Doger, director general for services at the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, told mobile phone providers that "the system should be implemented within seven days and a report submitted to PTA on monthly basis on the number of blocked" text messages.

The list was attached to the letter, with 1109 words and phrases in English to be banned and 586 in the national language, Urdu, a tongue that also offers many rich possibilities for abusive terms. Pakistan has four regional languages, including the raucous Punjabi, though so far the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority has not tackled them.

Despite being a poor country, mobile phones are used across society, even in remote villages.

Mohammad Younis, a spokesman for the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, said that the ban was "the result of numerous meetings and consultations with stakeholders" after consumers complained of receiving offensive text messages. He said that the list was not finished and the authority would continue to add to it.

"Nobody would like this happening to their young boy or girl," said Younis. "We understand that we cannot be 100 percent comprehensive."

Mobile phone operators expect the authority to impose fines on them for any banned words that get through, which means that they will have to cut off the connection of consumers who persistently try to send such messages.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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