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Pakistan's list of banned words met with ridicule

Amna Nawaz, NBC News Correspondent

If you have a cellphone in Pakistan, you know what a problem SMS or text message spam can be.

Over the last few months, I've received unsolicited messages containing everything from long-distance phone rate offers to excerpts from the Qu'ran, sometimes up to two or three a day.

So it's not surprising that the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority — the country's telecommunications regulator — has decided to do something about it. But it's the way they've gone about it that is causing a stir among Pakistanis.

The 1,500-plus word list drafted by the PTA, and distributed to mobile operators with an order to implement a system banning those words from text messages, has become a hot topic online, trending on Twitter at #PTAbannedlist and #PTAbannedwords.

Much of the discussion is pure ridicule.

Shoaib Taimur in Karachi (@shobz) tweeted, "Thanks to PTA I can now curse like a Sailor. Thank u for helping me 'improve' my vocabulary and giving me a reason to laugh."

Shakir Husain, also from Karachi (@shakirhusain) wrote, "the #ptabannedlist has ruined my evening plans."

The choice and spelling of certain words and phrases is also the source of much humor. "Budweiser" made the list, as did "Gonorrehea" [sic].

But the agency's decision to implement a ban in the first place has some Pakistanis worried.

Fahad Rehman, a 30-year old event planner in Lahore who often uses text messages to advertise his events, sees it as an attempt by "out-of-touch" officials to placate the more conservative sections of Pakistan's highly-polarized society, by dictating what is and is not appropriate.

"The word 'sexy' is on the list? It's ridiculous!" says Rehman. "There is, unfortunately, a large number of people who think like this. But this is a complete waste of time. It just diverts attention away from the real problems in Pakistan."

This isn't the first time the PTA has sought to restrict communication or access to information based on what it deems to be appropriate.

In February 2007, the PTAblocked access to YouTube for several hours, citing the presence of "non-Islamic, objectionable videos."

In May 2010, the ban was extended to Facebook and Wikipedia, again for content it deemed offensive.

In June of that year, access to 17 additional websites was blocked, and the PTA said it was closely monitoring other sites and search engines for content considered blasphemous. The agency even has a 24-hour hotline and online reporting system for the general public to submit complaints.

In an interview with Newsweek Pakistan in September of this year, PTA chairman Dr. Mohammed Yaseen vowed to "definitely go out and close" any sites containing offensive material.

"Our function," he said, "is to make sure that the [objectionable] content does not come to Pakistan."

In its letter ordering the current crackdown, the PTA justified its latest move as a way to stop the transmission of unauthorized spam messages.

The letter quotes Article 14 of Pakistan's Constitution, stating "every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression," then goes on to say that right has been interpreted by the courts to be "subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam" or the "integrity," "decency," or "morality," of Pakistan.

Zoha Waseem, a 24-year old blogger from Karachi, says the agency's priorities are "completely misplaced," and that their actions show that Pakistan is "still a pretty backwards country."

"We talk about a democratic Pakistan, a progressive Pakistan, " says Waseem. "And we're focusing on words like this? When we have so many better things to do? This is not something a progressive country would be worrying about."