Pakistan, Headed to UN Human Rights Council, Expands Crackdown on Online ‘Blasphemy’

By Patrick Goodenough | December 26, 2017 | 10:22pm EST
Pakistan's national flag. (Photo: Public domain)

( – Days before it takes up a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council – for its fourth term in the council’s 11-year history – Pakistan’s federal cabinet has approved a legal amendment designed to facilitate an ongoing crackdown on “blasphemy” on social media.

On Tuesday the cabinet approved an amendment that will bring “blasphemy” within the ambit of a 2016 cybercrime law.

That law, the Prevention of Electronic Crime Act (PECA), already outlaws offenses such as promotion of terrorism or speech that could “advance interfaith, sectarian or racial hatred.” Under the amendment, punishments under Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws will be incorporated into the PECA.

The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) will be empowered to block information systems or social media sites if service providers do not remove content deemed to be blasphemous.

Since Pakistani lawmakers last March passed a measure denouncing the circulation of blasphemous content on social media, the issue has gained attention in a country where offline speech has frequently seen citizens – often but not always religious minorities – accused and punished for perceived blasphemy.

In April, a 23-year-old student, Mashal Khan, was lynched by a mob, angered by claims that he had offended Islam with online posts.

In June a member of Pakistan’s Shia minority, Taimoor Raza, was sentenced to death for allegedly spreading derogatory views about Mohammed, Islam’s prophet, on Facebook.

In September a Christian man, Nadeem James, was reportedly sentenced to death for blasphemy after a Muslim friend accused him of sending a poem on the online service WhatsApp that insulted Islam.

Pakistan’s penal code carries the death penalty for insulting Mohammed (section 295-C); sentences up to life imprisonment for defiling the Qur’an (section 295-B); and shorter jail terms for vilifying Mohammed’s dozen wives, members of his family, or “companions” (section 298-A).

The PTA already encourages citizens to “report blasphemous URLs,” providing email, toll-free line, phone, fax and a physical address to facilitate the process.

Public service ads warn Pakistanis not to spread 'blasphemy' on social media. (Image: PTA/Twitter)

Public service ads running in print media warn people about online blasphemy, helpfully outlining the legal offenses and punishments.

In its most recent regular report on government takedown requests from around the world, Facebook said that in the first six months of 2017, following legal requests from Pakistani authorities it restricted access to 177 “items that were alleged to violate local laws prohibiting blasphemy and condemnation of the country’s independence.”

That marks a jump from 31 items restricted in the whole of 2016 and just six in 2015.

Facebook says its policy on content which governments find objectionable is to restrict material if it concludes that it breaks the law applicable in the country concerned.

Despite its record of religious freedom and enforcement of arguably the world’s most controversial blasphemy laws, Pakistan will next week take up a seat on the U.N.’s Geneva-based Human Rights Council for a three year term.

Since the HRC was established in 2006, Pakistan has played an activist role, serving terms in 2006-2008, 2009-2011 and 2013-2015, and often leading the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) bloc at the council.

In that capacity, it was a driving force behind a push by the OIC, the bloc of 56 mostly Islamic-majority states, to outlaw material, speech and acts regarded as insulting to Islam.

HRC members are elected by the full 193-member U.N. General Assembly, voting by secret ballot. In its four successful elections Pakistan obtained 171, 151, 149 and 114 votes.


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