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Post Anything Against Islam (Blasphemy) and You Will be in trouble in Pakistan

In yet another repressive step, Pakistani government has announced formation of a Regulatory Body to monitor Online Blasphemous Content

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In yet another repressive step, Pakistan government has announced formation of a Regulatory Body to monitor Online Blasphemous Content
Pakistani students of Islamic seminaries chant slogans during a rally in support of blasphemy laws, in Islamabad, Pakistan, March 8, 2017. Hundreds of students rallied in the Pakistani capital, urging the government to remove blasphemous content from social media and take stern action against those who posted blasphemous content on social media. VOA

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.

FILE - Pakistani journalists protest to condemn an attack on their colleague, Ahmed Noorani, in photo, in Karachi, Pakistan, Oct. 30, 2017.
FILE – Pakistani journalists protest to condemn an attack on their colleague, Ahmed Noorani, in photo, in Karachi, Pakistan, Oct. 30, 2017. VOA

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.

Controversial issue

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.

FILE - Members of a Pakistani civil society demonstrate April 22, 2017, in Karachi, Pakistan, against the killing of Mashal Khan, a student at the Abdul Wali Khan University in the northwestern city of Mardan.
FILE – Members of a Pakistani civil society demonstrate April 22, 2017, in Karachi, Pakistan, against the killing of Mashal Khan, a student at the Abdul Wali Khan University in the northwestern city of Mardan. VOA

“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.

Silencing dissent

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.

Harsh punishment

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.

Reported by Madeeha Anwar of VOA.

Next Story

Pakistan Increases Efforts To Save The U.S.-Afghanistan Peace Talks

Islamabad swiftly welcomed the remarks, which raised official expectations in Pakistan for an official invitation to Prime Minister Khan to visit Washington.

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Imran Khan, Pakistan, Afghanistan,
Imran going around world begging for funds: Sindh CM, VOA

Pakistan has intensified efforts to keep the U.S.-led dialogue with the Afghan Taliban on track, but official sources in Islamabad maintain the responsibility for the “success or failure” of the fledgling peace process rests “exclusively” with the two negotiating sides.

The caution comes as U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, landed in the Pakistani capital Thursday amid expectations a direct meeting could take place between his delegation and Taliban negotiators during his stay in the country.

Prior to his departure Wednesday from Kabul, Khalilzad told reporters that talks with the Taliban will “happen very soon. That’s what we’re working toward.” He did not elaborate further.

Meanwhile, in a significant move, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani telephoned Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Thursday and discussed the efforts being made for bringing peace to Afghanistan.

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U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, and Pakistani Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua led their respective delegations in talks in Islamabad, Jan. 17, 2019. VOA

Khan’s office said in a statement that Ghani expressed his gratitude for Pakistan’s “sincere facilitation” for Afghan peace and reconciliation.

It said the prime minister “assured President Ghani that Pakistan was making sincere efforts for a negotiated settlement of the conflict in Afghanistan through an inclusive peace process, as part of shared responsibility.”

Official sources in Islamabad expected “important developments” over the next two days but they would not share further details. “There is no room for missed opportunities” under the circumstances, they insisted.

Pakistani officials maintain in background interviews with VOA that the U.S.-Taliban talks are being facilitated in the hope that they would ultimately lead to an intra-Afghan dialogue for political settlement of the conflict in Afghanistan. All sides in the peace process will share “the credit and benefits of a success,” they insisted.

“Similarly, given sincere desire and efforts of everyone, no one should be exclusively blamed if the main interlocutors fail to agree due to own lack of flexibility that is very much required from both the U.S. and the Taliban at this stage,” a senior official privy to the Pakistani peace diplomacy told VOA.

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U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, and Pakistani Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua, Jan. 17, 2019. VOA

Khalilzad arrived in Pakistan from Afghanistan where he briefed Ghani and other top officials of Afghan government on the U.S.-led peace initiative.

The Taliban has held several meetings with Khalilzad’s team in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates but the insurgents have persistently refused to engage directly with the sitting administration in Kabul. Their refusal is blamed for a lack of progress in negotiations that started last summer, after American diplomats gave in to a major Taliban demand and met them directly.

Khalilzad, however, made it clear on Wednesday the insurgent group would have to engage with the Afghan government for the process to move forward.

“The road to peace will require the Taliban to sit with the Afghan government. There is a consensus among all the regional partners on this point,” the Afghan-born U.S. special envoy told reporters in Kabul.

He went on to warn that if the Taliban chose to fight over peace talks, the United States would support the Afghan government.

Afghanistan, Peace Talks, Pakistan
A general view of the Taliban office in Doha, Qatar, May 2, 2015, site of several past negotioations with the Taliban. VOA

The Taliban threatened earlier in the week to pull out of all negotiations if the United States backed away from discussing the key insurgent demand for a troop withdrawal plan and pressured the insurgents into speaking to the Afghan government.

Diplomats privy to the peace process support the U.S. effort for the Taliban to speak directly to the current administration in Kabul to resolve internal Afghan matters. They see the Ghani-led National Unity government as a “legitimate” entity possessing official representation at the United Nations and maintaining diplomatic missions in world capitals.

The last substantial talks between Khalilzad and Taliban officials took place in Abu Dhabi about a month ago and Pakistan took credit for arranging it and bringing an authoritative team of insurgent negotiators to the table.

Officials in Islamabad say that Pakistan’s “biggest contribution” has been that it has “broken the political stalemate that was there in Afghanistan for several years.”

Prime Minister Khan has repeatedly stated that finding a political settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan is a top foreign policy priority for his government. While speaking to Khan on Thursday, Ghani invited him to visit Kabul at his earliest convenience and the Pakistani leader reciprocated by inviting the Afghan president to visit Islamabad.

USA, afghanistan, taliban, peace talks, pakistan
U.S. special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, talks with local reporters at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Nov. 18, 2018. VOA

Pakistan has long been accused of sheltering Taliban leaders and covertly helping them orchestrate insurgent attacks, charges Islamabad rejects.

U.S. officials, however, acknowledge the “positive role” Pakistan has played in the current Afghan peace effort. The thaw in traditionally mistrusted bilateral ties was visible earlier this month when U.S. President Donald Trump announced he intended to maintain a “great relationship” with Pakistan.

Also Read: Peace Talks With The U.S. Stalled: Taliban

“So, I look forward to meeting with the new leadership in Pakistan. We will be doing that in the not too distant future,” said Trump.

Islamabad swiftly welcomed the remarks, which raised official expectations in Pakistan for an official invitation to Prime Minister Khan to visit Washington, though the Trump administration has so far given no such indication. (VOA)