Censorship in the name of religion
The PTI leader demanded the relevant authorities to come up with a better monitoring system so the actual ‘blasphemers’ can be traced without having to ban online platforms
Islamabad High Court on Tuesday directed the government to remove blasphemous content from local social media platforms, even if it means blocking the social media entirely. IHC judge Justice Shaukat Aziz Sidiqqui went on to say that blasphemers are no less than terrorists and ordered the authorities to place names of all alleged blasphemers on Exit Control List so they cannot escape criminal proceedings.
Justice Aziz gave these remarks while hearing a petition against alleged blasphemous content shared on local social media pages. While listening to IG Islamabad police’s response, the bench remarked that “the matter needs immediate attention otherwise the patience of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)’s followers may run out.”
Following the IHC’s ruling, the Federal Investigative Agency (FIA) on Thursday released a public message asking people to keep an eye on ‘blasphemers’ on Facebook and other social networking sites and report them to the agency’s Islamabad office.
Blasphemy accusation is considered as a death warrant in Pakistan and those accused of the crime hardly get a fair trial. It has also been time and again observed how blasphemy law is used as a tool against minority communities of the country and for settling personal scores, but the authorities seem to be paving way for further violence by giving public the power to decide what is blasphemous. Activists fear the FIA’s move will give stalkers and online trolls the license to do what they do on social media with impunity.
Important to jog the memory
Justice Shaukhat Aziz Sidiqqui, who wants the entire social media banned, had last month given a verdict against Valentine’s Day celebrations in the capital, ordering the administration to ensure the day is not celebrated because it is against ‘Islamic values’. Islamabad police were seen arresting shopkeepers for selling red balloons on Valentine’s Day to enforce the ruling of the high court. The same judge also served as the counsel for Lal Masjid cleric Abdul Aziz in 2007.
It is important to remember that a reference filed against Justice Siddiqui for alleged corruption and misuse of power is being currently heard by the Supreme Judicial Council. According to the reference filed in April 2016 by Capital Development Authority (CDA) director Muhammad Anwer, Justice Siddiqui allegedly pressurised the CDA to construct special cage for his pigeons on the rooftop of his official residence. The reference also accused the judge of shifting his residence thrice is search of a ‘better’ place. It also alleged that the CDA spent Rs12 million to renovate his house.
Jamat-ul-Ahrar extends support to Justice Shaukat Aziz:
Meanwhile, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) splinter group Jamat-ul-Ahrar issued a statement supporting Justice Aziz’s orders about ban on blasphemous content online.
“We support Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui’s order, even though we are sure that the institutions concerned will not take practical measures (against blasphemy). The constitution of Pakistan is un-Islamic and it is the true root of all blasphemy”, the statement issued by Jamat-ul-Ahrar spokesman Asad Mansoor said.
This is probably the first time a major Taliban group has expressed support to a state official’s stance.
“The Islamabad High Court shouldn’t have directly taken up the petition about blasphemous content on social media for hearing. The petitioner could have simply lodged an FIR against the ‘blasphemers’ or filed a petition in the sessions court, because such matters are not usually heard at the high court level”, said legal analyst and lawyer Asad Jamal.
“Courts speak through judgments and not through arbitrary orders and sentiments”, he said, while commenting on the IHC’s remarks about banning the entire social media.
Jamal expressed concern over the FIA asking public to report blasphemous content on social media.
“Fair trial in blasphemy cases in Pakistan is not possible under the present form of law and by giving people the right to monitor activities on social media for blasphemy, we are digging our own grave”.
No space for dissent?
Many argue the PML-N government is intolerant towards criticism and dissent, which is why it has been finding ways to curb social media activism through draconian laws. It is also said that the action against social media platforms that criticise the government and military is being taken under the garb of anti-blasphemy drive and the FIA will be used for the purpose.
“Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar has been trying to put restrictions on social media since day one and his party does not seem to be a fan of online activism either”, said activist Marvi Sirmed.
There is currently no mechanism in place to find out if the complaints of blasphemy made are false and so no action is taken against false accusers, which is one of the reasons why the law is conveniently misused.
“If the FIA acts on every blasphemy complaint it gets, without checking the veracity, it will result in extra-judicial murders which we have witnessed before”, Marvi told DNA. She said the FIA should follow due process and that action should be taken against false complainants so misuse of the law for settling personal scores can be eradicated.
Will opposition resist censorship?
Opposition party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has a huge presence on social media and it is one of the few political parties that takes the online platform seriously. The party leadership also frequently uses the medium to interact with party supporters.
“We condemn all kinds of blasphemous content, but shutting down the entire social media is not a solution at all”, said PTI Information Secretary Andleeb Abbas.
“Social media reveals their (government’s) true colours so they want to ban it under the garb of action against blasphemers”.
The PTI leader demanded the relevant authorities to come up with a better monitoring system so the actual ‘blasphemers’ can be traced without having to ban online platforms.
“Take action against those involved in posting blasphemous stuff online but PTI will resist every move to block public access to social media”, she said.
The argument against banning social media sites is pretty simple. You don’t burn down the entire library if one of its books is objectionable. Gone are the days when governments could issue gag orders by the use of force. The PML-N is a democratic government and it needs to act like one. If the government introduces online censorship under the garb of action against ‘blasphemers’, all democratic forces should unite to protect free speech and internet freedom.