Pakistan court orders government to investigate social media sites that don't censor 'blasphemy', threatens to ban them

Rights groups say the label of blasphemer is liberally applied by religious conservatives in order to silence criticism of extremism. Under Pakistan's blasphemy laws, anyone found guilty of insulting Islam can be sentenced to death. Photograph:( Reuters )

WION Islamabad, Islamabad Capital Territory, Pakistan Mar 17, 2017, 01.58 PM (IST)

A Pakistani court has ordered the government to open an investigation into online "blasphemy", threatening to ban social media networks if they failed to censor content deemed insulting to Islam, lawyers said on Thursday, according to an AFP report.

Judge Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui of the Islamabad High Court asked the government to form an investigative committee to report back next Monday on the issue, saying he could order social media sites to be blocked if offending content remained online.

"The judge ordered the government to make a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) with only Muslim officials to look into the blasphemy issue," said advocate Tariq Asad, who represents the hardline Red Mosque which brought the case to court.

This comes after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said Tuesday that "blasphemous" content on social media would be removed or blocked, and that whoever posted it would be "strictly punished", Reuters reports. This report characterises this stance as something positioned to appeal to his conservative base before next year's election.

The issue of blasphemy came to the fore in January when five secular activists known for their outspoken views against religious extremism and the powerful military were disappeared, presumed abducted by state agencies according to opposition parties and international rights groups. Four of them were later returned to their families weeks later, but not before they were tarnished by a virulent campaign to paint them enemies of Islam deserving execution.

The Guardian reports today that Pakistan has asked the popular social media sites Facebook and Twitter to help identify Pakistanis suspected of blaspheming, so it can prosecute or bring forward their extradition. The report says that Pakistan's interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, said an official in the country's Washington embassy came to the two companies with this aim. Minister Khan said that the country's authorities had so far singled out 11 individuals for questioning about suspected blasphemy, according to the report.

Rights groups say the label of blasphemer is liberally applied by religious conservatives in order to silence criticism of extremism.

Under Pakistan's blasphemy laws, anyone found guilty of insulting Islam can be sentenced to death.

Past incidents

AFP contextualizes the current blasphemy issue by giving some brief history:

At least 65 people including lawyers, judges and activists have been murdered by vigilantes over blasphemy allegations since 1990, according to recent think tank report.

Pakistan previously banned Facebook for hosting allegedly blasphemous content for two weeks in 2010 while YouTube was unavailable from 2012 to 2016 over an amateur film about the Prophet Muhammad that led to global riots.

But Islamabad later came to agreements with major internet firms to block within Pakistan material that violated its laws, generally once the companies had performed their own cross-checks.

Yasser Latif Hamdani, a lawyer who worked to get YouTube unblocked, said previous web censorship had also originated with court orders and the judge could succeed in implementing a fresh set of bans.

"In this case you would have to apply to the Supreme Court to overrule it. Would they? He's going to couch it in religious language...It could create a lot of problems if he does that," he said.

(WION with inputs from agencies)