How will Pakistan navigate its blasphemy laws in the murky world of social media?
It has been two months since the brutal murder of 23-year-old student Mashal Khan, who was reportedly accused of insulting Islam. Amid shock and outrage, many hoped this would mark a turning point for Pakistan. Things had to change after this, they believed.
And indeed there has been a change. There is now official license and pursuit for replications of the ghastly incident: a social media witch-hunt and increased crackdown on alleged incidents of blasphemy and dissent. In May, text messages from the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority began circulating nation-wide warning that “Uploading and sharing of blasphemous content on [the] Internet is a punishable offence under the law” and calling for such content to “be reported for legal action.”
Rather than adopting caution and carefully defusing the growing incitement and agitation over blasphemy, especially after such an appalling incident, the government has decided to vigorously charge right into it by actively encouraging the use of the blasphemy law and expanding its stretch to social media.
The Rule of Law
On June 10, the first death sentence for blasphemy on social media was handed to 30-year-old Taimoor Raza by an anti-terrorism court. The allegations of blasphemy emerged after Raza engaged in a Facebook debate on Islam with an individual who later turned out to be a counterterrorism agent. The fact that the sentence was handed down by an anti-terrorism court should occasion debate about the bizarre logic of an anti-terrorism court dealing with cases of blasphemy and its subsequent implication of blasphemy being tantamount to terrorism.
In the past few years, the internet and social media in Pakistan have surfaced as vital spaces for expression of critical views of the state and government, and for discourse on various issues confronting the country, especially those that are deemed sensitive or unreported by the mainstream media, such as the issue of Balochistan, attacks on religious minorities and the blasphemy laws themselves. These were spaces long considered safe from the eye and intervention of the authorities and free from the taboos that otherwise surround such subjects.
The disappearance of six prominent social activists and bloggers earlier this year, however, shattered this illusion. And the recent developments have only served to cement the realization that the internet is no longer safe but is at the center of a crackdown on dissent. Now, the creeping state spotlight on social media has been given a more threatening tint by adding blasphemy to the equation.
It is also important to remember that after their disappearance and recovery, blasphemy accusations were hurled at the bloggers, which indicates increasing pervasiveness of blasphemy accusations for silencing people and for justifying harrowing acts and crimes like these kidnappings.
One of the strongest criticisms of the blasphemy laws pertain to their use for personal schemes of vengeance, vendettas, petty conflicts and property disputes. But rather than curtailing the blasphemy laws’ use and abuse, an official invitation and initiative for their application to social media only increases the potential for these misuses. It must also be noted that the internet and social media are murky waters where, among other things, fake profiles, harassment and stalking abound, and the opportunity to frame people can easily arise in relation to both concoctions of blasphemous content in someone’s name and harming them on that basis. The numerous profiles posting blasphemous content under the name of Mashal Khan that came into view after his death only attest to this. Navigating such a territory for the government will not be an easy task and poses peril for Pakistani internet users.
The danger of an increasing emphasis on blasphemy on social media and the punitive measures designed against it, lapsing into a clampdown on dissent and criticism of powerful segments of the country is also not insignificant. And while these developments may be attributed to the influence or strength of the religious right, the existence of draconian laws and the age-old aversion of the political and military establishment to criticism, the pivotal role played by the Interior Ministry in actively creating these developments can no longer be discounted.
Pakistan’s Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar’s constant pandering and cavorting with extremists and sectarian leaders is common knowledge. Recently, however, he has also taken to stress upon a number of sensitive issues to create a case for greater internet censorship and control. His efforts have included invocation of the sentiments underlying the blasphemy laws, warnings of bans on sites with blasphemous content, instructions to the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to act against “those dishonouring the Pakistan Army through social media” and announcements of new rules and measures against online anonymity. These have not been without significance.
Only a short while back, some social media activists and supporters of the opposition party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and even supporters of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) were detained by the FIA on the basis of the fresh instructions to the FIA and the controversial Prevention of Electronic Crime Act.
A report in The Guardian on the matter quotes an FIA official saying that “his agency had orders from the interior ministry to interrogate, and seize laptops and phones, without warrant” and that they were “authorized to detain anyone, just on suspicion.” An allegedly official list with the names of social-media users and activists who are being monitored for their comments against “national institutions” also did the rounds on Twitter.
The surging tide of these developments and the proliferation of these problematic measures and repressive acts involve dangerous ramifications that suggest an increasingly bleak future for free speech, public criticism and opposition in the country. They also demonstrate the weakness of the government’s commitment to social freedoms and its own democratic credentials.
This suffocation of spaces for robust debate, dissent and a healthy discourse by the cultivation of a climate of fear is certain to foster intimidation, harassment, abuse and violence. After Mashal Khan’s death, it seems the Pakistani government itself has stepped in to lead attacks with the cudgel of blasphemy for the purpose of clobbering dissent and freedom.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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