Pakistan believes in freedom of expression, but that does not include insulting Islam or stoking religious tensions
Pakistani counter-terrorism court sentenced a 30-year-old man to death for making blasphemous comments on Facebook
In April, a Pakistani university student, Mashal Khan, was beaten to death by a mob after being accused of blasphemous content on Facebook
ISLAMABAD, July 9, 2017: A senior Facebook official met with Pakistan’s interior minister on Friday to discuss a demand the company prevent blasphemous content or be blocked.
The meeting comes after a Pakistani counter-terrorism court sentenced a 30-year-old man to death for making blasphemous comments on Facebook, part of a wider crackdown.
Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president of public policy, met Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan, who offered to approve a Facebook office in Pakistan, which has 33 million users of the network.
Khan said Pakistan believes in freedom of expression, but that does not include insulting Islam or stoking religious tensions.
“We cannot allow anyone to misuse social media for hurting religious sentiments,” Khan said.
Facebook called the meeting “constructive.”
In this photo released by Pakistan’s Press Information Department, July 7, 2017, Pakistani Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, left, meets Vice President of Facebook Joel Kaplan in Islamabad, Pakistan.
“Facebook met with Pakistan officials to express the company’s deep commitment to protecting the rights of the people who use its service, and to enabling people to express themselves freely and safely,” the company said in an email.
“It was an important and constructive meeting in which we raised our concerns over the recent court cases and made it clear we apply a strict legal process to any government request for data or content restrictions.”
Pakistan’s social media crack-down is officially aimed at weeding out blasphemy and shutting down accounts promoting terrorism, but civil rights activists say it has also swept up writers and bloggers who criticize the government or military.
One of five prominent writers and activists who disappeared for nearly three weeks this year later told a U.N. human rights event in March that Pakistan’s intelligence agencies had kidnapped him and tortured him in custody.
Others’ families said right-wing and Islamist parties had filed blasphemy accusations against them to punish them for critical writings.
Anything deemed insulting to Islam or the Prophet Muhammad carries a death penalty in Pakistan, and sometimes a mere allegation can lead to mob violence and lynchings. Right groups say the law is frequently abused to settle personal scores.
In April, a Pakistani university student, Mashal Khan, was beaten to death by a mob after being accused of blasphemous content on Facebook. Police arrested 57 people accused in the attack and said they had found no evidence Khan committed blasphemy. (VOA)
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Pakistan’s government has formed a regulatory body to monitor and block blasphemous content online in an effort to further extend the enforcement of the country’s controversial anti-blasphemy law into cyberspace.
Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), the government-run communications regulatory agency, has created a 25-member group tasked with cracking down on websites, social media accounts and online pages that they consider offensive to Islam.
“The committee, being constituted by the Ministry of Interior, will include representatives from PTA, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), and the ministry,” Ismail Shah, PTA’s chairman, told the standing committee on information technology of Pakistan’s upper house of parliament recently.
Earlier in May, PTA had sent text messages to millions of cellphone users in the country and warned them not to post or share any blasphemous content online.
Blasphemy remains a controversial issue in the Muslim-majority country where anyone labeled as “blasphemous” faces dangerous consequences: The law states anyone found guilty of insulting Islam will receive a sentence of life in prison or the death penalty.
As government is committed to scrutinizing online contents, some rights activists charge that monitoring the internet will be a slippery slope.
“The monitoring of social media for blasphemous content is a dangerous precedent in Pakistan. The law has often been misused in the past and now a crackdown on internet will further complicate the situation,” Zohra Yusuf, a Pakistani human rights activist, told VOA.
Critics worry the state is using religion and national security as a pretext to discourage dissent on the internet, where people can express their opinions on topics such as politics, the military, social issues, women’s rights, religious freedom and human rights.
“In any democracy, such controls cannot be termed legal. Selective controls, targeted crackdown and culture of impunity only brings unrest in the society, especially for minorities and marginalized segments of the society,” Shahzad Ahmad, Pakistan director of the digital rights advocacy group Bytes for All, told VOA.
Lawmakers of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) party, however, vowing transparency in the enforcement of the law, defends the government’s action and considers it legal.
“PTA follows a process and blocks a blasphemous link after complete scrutiny. Similarly, the regulatory body completely investigates before anyone is apprehended or taken into the court under blasphemy charges,” parliament member Zahra Wadood Fatimi told VOA.
Threat to freedom
Despite assurances from the government, rights activists worry formation of the group could be considered a Trojan horse, which will lead to people losing the relative freedom of expression they enjoy in cyberspace.
“It will be another tool for the state and people to settle down personal scores and vendettas. Do we even remember the secular bloggers abducted earlier this year and returned as ‘blasphemers?’”Zohra Yusuf asked.
In January 2017, five secular social media activists went missing from different cities in Pakistan. The activists reappeared after a few weeks with a label of “bloggers who committed blasphemy,” local media reported.
The bloggers were critical of the country’s powerful military, the existing political system and human rights violations committed by different factions, according to reports, which said the bloggers, fearing for their lives, sought refuge abroad.
The state’s punishment is harsh for those found guilty of committing blasphemy. In some cases, when courts have not charged suspects, Pakistanis have taken the matter into their own hands.
A simple accusation that someone has committed blasphemy can lead to threats against the suspect. Other times, it could mean death.
In May, a Hindu man was rescued by police from a mob in Hub, Baluchistan. The man was accused of posting blasphemous content on social media.
In March, Mashaal Khan, 23, a journalism student of Abdul Wali Khan University in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province was beaten to death by fellow students. He had been accused of posting blasphemous content online.
Earlier this year, Islamabad’s High Court issued directives to the Ministry of Interior to take prompt action when it saw content it deemed blasphemous on the internet, even if it meant blocking social media websites in the country.
A few days later, Pakistan’s then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif declared online blasphemous content on social media a “nefarious conspiracy.” He directed his government to take strict actions against those involved in such activities. He also ordered officials to discuss the matter with international social media companies.
With the formation of PTA’s regulatory body on monitoring blasphemous contents online, there will likely be more restrictions in cyberspace and more scrutiny of those who talk out against religion online.
Islamabad, November 4, 2017 : Authorities in Afghanistan are temporarily blocking WhatsApp and Telegram social media services in the country, citing security concerns, officials confirmed on November 3.
An official at the Afghan Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, ATRA, told VOA the social media tools will be suspended for 20 days. The temporary ban on Whatsapp and Telegram follows a request from state security institutions.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said a formal announcement is expected Saturday.
ATRA has ordered telecom companies to shut down the services November 1, according to a copy of official instructions appearing in Afghan media.
Social media users have complained of technical problems while using the two services in recent days.
The controversial move has sparked criticism of the Afghan government, and it is being slammed as an illegal act and an attack on freedom of expression.
The outage prompted the telecom regulator to issue a statement Friday, saying the ban is meant to test “a new kind of technology” in the wake of users’ complaints.
It went on to defend the restriction, saying WhatsApp and Telegram are merely voice and messaging services and their temporary suspension does not violate the civil rights of Afghans. The government is committed to freedom of expression, the ministry added.
Afghan journalists and activists on Twitter dismissed the statement.
“This seems to be the beginning of government censorship. If it’s not resisted soon the gov’t will block FB & twitter,” wrote Habib Khan Totakhil on Twitter.
“Gov’t fails to deliver security, now it seeks to hide its incompetence by imposing ban on messaging platforms. Totalitarianism?,” said the Afghan journalist.
“#Censorship is against what freedom we stood for in #Afghanistan post 2001. Gains shouldn’t go to waste,” tweeted activist Nasrat Khalid.
An estimated 6 million people in war-torn Afghanistan can access internet-based services. The growth of media and social media activism have been among the few success stories Afghanistan has seen in the post-Taliban era.
The restrictions on social media come as the Taliban intensifies attacks on Afghan security forces, inflicting heavy casualties.
The insurgent group also relies heavily on WhatsApp and Telegram, Twitter and Facebook to publicize its battlefield gains.
The Afghan government has lately barred the United States military from releasing casualty numbers, force strength, operation readiness, attrition figures and performance assessments of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.
The U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, John Sopko, while briefing members of Congress on Wednesday, severely criticized the classification move. He maintained American taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent.
“The Taliban know this [Afghan casualties], they know who was killed. They know all about that. The Afghans know about it, the U.S. military knows about it. The only people who wouldn’t know are the [American] people who are paying for it,” Sopko noted.
The United States has spent nearly $120 billion on reconstruction programs in Afghanistan since 2002. More than 60 percent of the money has been used to build Afghan security forces. (VOA)
A report published in May by Amnesty International, the global human rights watchdog, slammed Bangladesh’s government for allegedly failing to protect secular writers against threats and stifling free speech
Washington, October 29, 2017 : Fear still stalks Bangladesh’s secular writers, even though 18 months have passed since the last in a series of brutal killings of activists and intellectuals by religious zealots in that country.
For two of these writers, one who fled aboard and another who chose to stay behind, the killings and an increasingly hostile atmosphere toward non-religious viewpoints forced them to change their lives, as they told BenarNews in interviews.
Writer Sobak Pakhi is hiding out in another South Asian country but he’s too afraid to reveal its name to the public, while colleague Ranadipam Basu is keeping a low profile back home.
“Free thinking and freedom of expression are practically gone now. … I don’t see any immediate hope … even dreaming is a battle now,” Ranadipam told BenarNews in response to a series of email questions.
Both men say they don’t feel entirely safe in their homeland because of a recent spate of murders by Muslim extremists who targeted secularist Bangladeshi intellectuals like them for questioning God’s existence, or using the written word to challenge the emerging influence of religious fundamentalists.
Pakhi is an editor of Mukto-Mona (Free Mind), a leading blog for free thinkers, rationalists, skeptics, atheists and humanists in Bangladesh, which he fled over what he described as the government’s support for those who kill secular bloggers and writers.
“Once they get the chance, they will attack me and then my case will also be considered as an ‘isolated incident’ in a country of 160 million people,” Pakhi told Benar.
“I won’t go back to the country in the future.”
Basu, an author of short stories, poems, essays and children’s books, tried to leave but said he came to see his fate as wed to staying on in Bangladesh. Yet he’s keeping a low profile because he worries about his family’s safety in light of the attacks in the recent past, he said.
Since February 2013, when secular activist and blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider was killed by extremists near his home in Dhaka, at least 10 writers, bloggers, publishers, activists and intellectuals have been slain in machete attacks by Muslim militants. All of the other attacks occurred in a spate that began in February 2015. The last one was the slaying of activist-law student Nazimuddin Samad in April 2016.
‘A lifetime target’
Although their country’s constitution declares Bangladesh a secular nation, both Sobak and Ranadipam voiced concern over what they described as the growing influence of the government’s acceptance of conservative Islamic organizations. They cited the relationship between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party with an influential hardline Muslim group, Hefazat-e-Islam.
Pakhi, a graphic designer skilled at video editing, wrote articles about how he grew to doubt religion and became an atheist. In 2008, he saw Bangladesh as a tolerant country.
But as the years went by, he kept writing while facing death threats. He wrote about what he said was disrespect shown to women by religions; the promotion of killings and wars in religions; the use of religious rhetoric to create unstable situations; and the limitations of God and religion.
Threats grew as groups pressured authorities to remove his blog posts. “You do not understand now, but will regret later,” one threat stated.
Pakhi then turned to writing fiction.
“I wrote some short stories, satire and poems about the limitations of the concept of God. I started writing against fanaticism, the backwardness of religion, bigoted matters of mobs and extremism on ‘Facebook,’” he said.
When asked about government action against militants, Pakhi said the nation began targeting them long before the recent attacks on bloggers. He said the first crackdown occurred in 1989, adding that after a series of arrests, the government denied the existence of militant groups and secretly released those in custody for political expedience.
“The militancy issue in Bangladesh might go out of sight again, but my risk will not be neutralized because I am a lifetime target for them,” Pakhi said.
In his view, politics pushed Prime Minister Hasina to maintain a relationship with Hefazat-e-Islam, a fundamentalist group that has called for public executions and posted his picture on a banner. Hasina’s relationship with the group weakens opposition party Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), helping to strengthen her Awami League’s control of government.
“If a few atheist bloggers die or leave the country as a consequence of relationship between the government and Hefazat, it doesn’t really matter to Sheikh Hasina, because the deaths of a few atheists do not create any pressure on the government in a 90 percent Muslim-dominated country,” he said.
A couple of months before fleeing Bangladesh in 2015, Pakhi told an interviewer he had no plans to leave his homeland, adding that militants should be the ones to go. At the time, however, some Bangladesh police officers suggested that he exit the country.
“Whatever the government is saying about providing security to bloggers, those are lies, because after my departure, two bloggers and more than 10 progressive people were killed by militants,” Pakhi said. “I haven’t seen any positive effort from the government to stop those.”
He remains concerned about threats in his new country, but continues to write and refuses to censor himself.
“Several times I have thought about reducing the volume of my writing, but then I asked, why? Basically, keeping silent is frustrating and shameful. I shouldn’t do that. My writing will not be stopped,” Pakhi said.
Threats to free speech
A report published in May by Amnesty International, the global human rights watchdog, slammed Bangladesh’s government for allegedly failing to protect secular writers against threats and stifling free speech.
Amnesty cited a widely reported statement by Hasina that followed the August 2015 killing of secular blogger Niladri Chottopaddhya, who was known by the pen name Niloy Neel.
“No one in this country has the right to speak in a way that hurts religious sentiment. You won’t practice religion – no problem. But you can’t attack someone else’s religion,” Hasina said at the time. “It won’t be tolerated if someone else’s religious sentiment is hurt.”
Government officials rejected the Amnesty report, claiming it contained recycled information.
“The report is not a reflection of the latest situation in Bangladesh. We cannot accept this,” Civil Aviation Minister Rashed Khan Menon told BenarNews at the time.
Apart from secular writers, journalists in the country have also complained about what they say is a hostile environment for a free press, in which reporters and editors are vulnerable to threats.
On Thursday, the family of a missing Bangladeshi journalist, Utpal Das, held a news conference to plead to the government to help them find him. The reporter for the online news portal Purboposchchim BD News was last seen on Oct. 10, his family said.
The website he works for was one of several local and foreign news outlets that picked up a report on Sept. 23 alleging that the government had foiled a plot to assassinate Sheikh Hasina on Aug. 24. A day after the article came out, government officials issued a statement criticizing the report as fake news.
Basu, the writer who stayed in Bangladesh, survived one of two attacks on publishing houses in October 2015 that killed publisher Faisal Arefin Dipan.
“I can’t remember even a single thing about the attack,” Basu said, adding, “I don’t see any immediate hope coming out of this situation.
“I don’t go out unless it is essential, but whenever I go out, I can’t behave normally and naturally, I get panicked when I see any unknown faces, start fearing that they may attack me,” he said. “Maybe I have lost my trust of other human beings.”
At the same time, earning a living is tough, he said, because publishers don’t want to face the risk of publishing any book he writes.
“I haven’t stopped writing, but I don’t have any platform to publish. I can’t take the risk of publishing through online platforms, as I live in Bangladesh.”
Even though the government has cracked down on militant dens throughout Bangladesh, killing dozens of suspects since a terrorist attack at a Dhaka café last year, Basu said he did not see hope for those like him who remain in the country.
“Secular thinkers are really at a panic to express their opinions. On one side, there are threats and attacks from religious fundamentalists, and on the other side, intolerance and actions from the government to stop free thinking through blasphemy-type laws,” he told BenarNews.
Basu was skeptical that the killers of secular blogger Avijit Roy (pictured) and other non-religious thinkers would be brought to justice any time soon. Roy, a Bangladeshi-born U.S. citizen and author of several books challenging religious beliefs, was hacked to death as he and his wife were leaving the Ekushey book festival, the country’s most prestigious literary event, in February 2015.
“Those attacks were not sudden, emotional actions. There was a long-term destructive plan behind those – a plan to stop secular writers from one side and to create a panic among publishers to not to publish any secular works,” he said.
“A long time has passed, but any practical results of police actions are not visible yet. Therefore, writers and publishers are panicked and as a result, expression of free thinking has been completely stopped, Basu said, adding, “Why those suspected were not arrested or why a trial is not moving, I think only policy makers can answer those questions properly.”
Meanwhile, Basu frets about the security of his family, especially his school-age son.
“Some of my friends, even the media got the wrong impression that I have left the country like many others. I did not correct their misconception over security concerns,” he said. “That’s why I do not appear before media anymore and I can’t imagine revealing my whereabouts by seeking help from police in this unsecured land.” (Benar News)