Why are Pakistanis talking about blocking Facebook?

Social media posts that offend Muslim sentiment have prompted a debate around censorship and blasphemy, which is punishable by life imprisonment or death. However, it remains unclear whether religious offence is the crime in question.

Photo by: AP
Photo by: AP

Pakistan blocked YouTube for three years after violent protests erupted in September 2013 over an anti-Islam film "Innocence of Islam."

Updated Mar 18, 2017

What content is the Pakistani government so eager to ban on social media?

Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has instructed the foreign ministry to contact popular social media firms and demand the blocking of blasphemous posts. Blasphemy is a sensitive subject in Pakistan, punishable by death. 

"All relevant institutions must unite to hunt those who spread such material and to award them strict punishment under the law," Sharif said on Tuesday.

Such harsh orders came amid growing calls within Pakistan to block social media websites, including Facebook, for allowing "blasphemous" content on their platform.

Since repeating details of any blasphemy is considered a crime itself, the entire matter is shrouded in vague allegations.

The popular understanding of the matter is that there are some Facebook pages which ridicule Islam and its Prophet Muhammad, the most revered figure in the Muslim world. 

However, a look at a case with Pakistan's Islamabad High Court suggests five local activists and bloggers might have triggered the call to ban social media.

Their work is known for encouraging freedom of speech and being critical of religious oppression and of alleged abuses by the military. All five had gone missing earlier January; four have since resurfaced and silently fled Pakistan. 

Their work is also being called blasphemous by the court and the case petitioner.

The court ordered government officials to get in touch with social media companies to remove the content. Islamabad High Court's judge Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui has indicated he might rule to block social media websites if his orders are not followed.

"I will go to every extent to bring this case to its logical end and if needed I will even ban social media in Pakistan," he said.

When did bloggers become a threat?

When the five bloggers went missing one after another in Pakistan in January, no authority or group took responsibility for their disappearance.

Human Rights Watch says, however, Pakistan's security apparatus could be behind the abduction, as they were the ones being criticised. Under Pakistani law, freedom of speech is subject to restrictions imposed by the "glory of Islam" and the "defence of Pakistan."

The blasphemy debate started after five activists and bloggers went missing, prompting many to question why they were abducted in the first place. (AP)

Soon after they went missing, reports began doing the rounds on the internet, linking the bloggers with offensive Facebook pages and websites.

News channels broadcast talk shows and right-wing anchors had a field day bashing human rights and democracy activists they considered too liberal.

Someone started #ChallengeAccepted, encouraging people to copy-paste and share the following post.

And so the pressure increased on the government to respond. 

So how did Pakistan's government react?

Government and opposition politicians responded by backing demands to stop the circulation of blasphemous content. Fiery but vague speeches resounded in the Senate and at rallies, all shooting the messenger – block or ban Facebook and social media as it is nearly impossible to selectively block pages.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan both said on separate occasions that Pakistan would approach Facebook and other social media companies. Facebook is now sending a team to discuss Pakistan's concerns, according to the interior ministry.

Nisar chaired a meeting of his deputies on March 15, where they decided to hire a prominent lawyer to raise the issue against Facebook at international courts. The government hasn't said when or where.

Blasphemy is a sensitive subject in Pakistan. Thousands of people attended the funeral of Mumtaz Qadri, sentenced to death for killing a provincial governor who wanted to amend Pakistan's blasphemy law. (AP)

It also claims to have identified 11 people who are accused of violating the country's blasphemy law. It remains unclear if the five bloggers are among these 11, and what they have been specifically accused of doing.

Pakistan's cyber crime police have placed advertisements in Urdu-language newspapers encouraging people to play watchdog and report blasphemous posts on Facebook.

Pakistan Telecommunication Authority's Chairman Syed Ismail Shah, when contacted by TRT World, refused to say how many social accounts, pages and posts the government wants to block. "The matter is [under judicial consideration] so I can't say anything."

Facebook has not responded to TRT World's queries.

Blogging and protests aren't new to Pakistan, so is there something else going on?

People familiar with Pakistan's history with cyber monitoring and laws seem to think this could be another way to target dissidents. 

Popular television anchors such as Amir Liaquat have stoked tensions by calling on the government to take strict action against those accused of blasphemy. (AP)

The sustained campaign against free speech on multiple fronts simultaneously has worried human rights activists.

"This seems to be a guise to silence dissenting voices," said Usama Khilji, an Islamabad-based digital rights activist.

The bloggers abducted in January were critical of state's policies, he said. "None of the bloggers were tried. What does that mean? It means there was nothing against them. If someone has violated (any) law, then they should be made to stand the trial."

There are fears that the debate around restrictions on Facebook would morph into a springboard for political gain, especially with general elections next year. 

It has already made its way to the parliament, where politicians from both right-wing and liberal parties have insisted on strict action against those accused of blasphemy.

“I don't think this issue is going to go away anytime soon," said Nighat Dad, the executive director of the Digital Rights Foundation, an advocacy group which focuses on freedom of the internet and its support of human rights and democracy.

"But the government and courts must realise that blocking stuff on the internet is next to impossible," she said.

Can Facebook be blocked?

Pakistan has blocked social media websites at least four times since 2008, including a two-month Facebook blackout in 2010. But removing selective offensive content has remained a challenge.

"Specific Facebook pages can't be blocked," said Dad. "And even if Facebook does it, the company would come under pressure from people who value openness."

Digital activists say removing specific pages or content from Facebook is difficult. (AP)

Video-sharing website YouTube was blocked in Pakistan by the government for three years over concerns that people in Pakistan could find blasphemous content on it. Critics of the move argued banning the platform was counterproductive in helping build a pluralistic society and only brought fame to people who create offensive content.

The Google-owned company came back online only after launching a local service and censoring videos considered offensive in Pakistan.

Getting Facebook and Twitter to do the same is different.

The US-based tech firms don’t have a local presence in Pakistan and do not fall under the ambit of Pakistani law, an IT consultant told TRT World.

"The best way to deal with this is to come up with a competing narrative. If someone uploads a blasphemous video, we should put out hundred of our own showing how wrong that is."

Author: Saad Hasan