External Affairs

The Future of Free Speech in Pakistan Is Looking Bleaker Than Ever

The combination of a government-backed legal crackdown on religious speech and vigilante justice is creating a toxic mix of violent suppression.

An anti-blasphemy law protest in Pakistan. Credit: Reuters

An anti-blasphemy law protest in Pakistan. Credit: Reuters

Lahore: Pakistan’s relationship with its blasphemy laws appear to be entering a new and critical phase with the recent decision of a counter-terrorism court to sentence a Shia man to death for allegedly sharing blasphemous content on social media.

The verdict was handed out against Taimoor Raza on Saturday, June 10, after a court in Bahawalpur found him guilty of posting derogatory remarks on Facebook about Sunni religious figures and the wives of the Prophet Muhammad.

Raza was arrested in April last year as part of a government sting operation. Raza’s defense attorney, Rana Fida Hussain, maintains his innocence and will appeal the sentence, while few hold out hope that he will prevail.

Always a problem

Like other countries in the region, Pakistan has never had an easy relationship with free speech. The value of diverse thought has been far from self-evident, facing innumerable enemies and few defenders. Freedom of expression also had to contend with the frantic drive of a young nation carving out a coherent identity for itself, the results of which have seen uniformity win out over multiplicity. The country’s blasphemy laws stand out as a stark symbol of Pakistan’s predominant inclination to uphold singular versions of the truth.

Blasphemy is a highly sensitive and tumultuous issue in Pakistan and its laws – introduced by the British in 1860, expanded in 1927 and Islamised in the 1980s, under then military dictator General Zia ul Haq, to include the death penalty for offences committed against the Prophet – have proved to be a significant indicator of the measure and depth of intolerance in the country over the years. Prior to 1986, only 14 blasphemy related cases were reported. Since then, the numbers have surged and an estimated 1,274 people have been charged under the statutes.

Though the presence of such legislation is problematic, it is not the major issue. Many countries throughout the world regulate what can be said about religion. However, in the case of Pakistan, the laws are excessively harsh and the language is vague, providing no clear definition of what constitutes blasphemy or any minimum standard of evidence, leaving them open to abuse.

As things stand, blasphemy legislation is often used to provide cover for the settlement of personal scores, usually involving property and land, or to stigmatise and persecute religious minorities who are not considered equal to Muslims in the eyes of the law.

Outside of official procedure, the charge of blasphemy comes with another form of reckoning: vigilante justice. Since 1990, 51 people accused of blasphemy have reportedly been murdered in extra-judicial killings before the completion of their trial. In November 2014 a Christian couple were burned alive at a brick kiln in the town of Kor Rada Kishan for allegedly desecrating pages of the Holy Quran. Matters often don’t make it to the courts.

A government crackdown

But even set against such a grim historical backdrop, the verdict against Raza is being seen as a watershed moment as it marks the first time a death sentence for the charge of blasphemy has been issued for an internet-related crime. Whereas accusations of religious sacrilege formerly emerged from real-world interactions, blasphemy charges are now being applied in the cyber sphere. This has reduced the already limited space for freedom of speech and expression in the country.

One of the fundamental problems for free speech in Pakistan, particularly speech pertaining to religion, is weak institutions that are unwilling or unable to uphold pluralistic values. In a testament to the increasing government crackdown on blasphemy charges, the government has begun to take an active role in the process.

For months now, authorities have conducted a systematic campaign against activists, journalists and those deemed guilty of acting against the established national narrative, under the pretext that they are a danger to national security. The intense response of the government occurred after the passing of last year’s cyber-crimes Bill and speaks to the unhappiness felt by the unprecedented growth of free speech through social media.

At the beginning of the year, five liberal online activists known for their opposition to religious extremism mysteriously disappeared. Four of them have since been returned to their families, but not before a sustained campaign was undertaken to paint them as blasphemers and enemies of Islam. As the issue came to the fore, interior minister Chaudhry Nisar threatened to ban all social media websites which contained blasphemous content.

In a further escalation, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority sent a text message to millions of Pakistanis last month asking them to report blasphemous content online.

The future of speech in Pakistan

As liberals come under attack, the online activities of extremist groups seem immune to the clampdown. A recent investigative report published by the country’s leading English-language newspaper Dawn found that 41 out of 64 banned terrorist outfits in Pakistan were operating hundreds of pages, groups and individual profiles on Facebook in ‘plain sight’. Most of the content published was identified as sectarian and extremist, with users encouraged to make private contact with the organisations or even join them. While the story has prompted a deluge of criticism, there has so far been no direct response from the administration.

Where the government has led, the society has followed. The politicising of speech at the everyday level, through an insidious model of self-censorship, has brought a spike in violence against those accused of blasphemy.

In April, Mashal Khan, a journalism student at the Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, was savagely lynched to death in his dormitory by an angry mob for alleged blasphemous activities. The murder made international headlines and drew widespread condemnation. Several weeks later, another mob attacked a man accused of blasphemy during Friday prayers in the northern outpost of Chitral. Then in May, a ten-year-old boy was killed and five others injured when a mob laid siege on a police station in southwest Pakistan in a bid to lynch a Hindu man after he was accused of insulting Islam.

Liberal voices in Pakistan are now facing a frightening new frontier, as the pressure to suppress blasphemy and free speech increases. Many will now be forced to think twice about any sort of opinion in the public or on social media. Will it be okay to critique Islamic extremism? Can you post a picture of food during Ramzan fasting hours? Will passing a joke about a cleric be enough to have you arrested or even killed? The answer to these seemingly-ordinary questions will determine the outline and conception of free expression in Pakistan for years to come.