Islamabad [Pakistan] : Social media platforms like Facebook, WhatsAPP and Viber were once welcomed in Pakistan as mediums for engaging in religious debate and afforded a measure of privacy, but today government pressure is building on these platforms to reveal names of individuals or groups engaging in blasphemy or any other kind of “illegal” speech or discourse.
In recent months, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan had increased pressure on both Facebook and Twitter to identify individuals suspected of blasphemy.
Earlier this month, The Guardian reported that Facebook Vice President (Public Policy) Joel Kaplan met with Khan to discuss Islamabad’s demand that Facebook either remove blasphemous content or be blocked across Pakistan.
That social media would become the means for a government crackdown on free speech was seen as a bitter twist for platforms that claim to want to increase openness and allow for free flow of ideas.
Facebook has rejected Pakistan’s demand that new accounts be linked to a mobile phone number, a provision that would make it easier for the government to identify account holders.
Currently, opening a Facebook account in Pakistan requires only an email address, while mobile phone users must provide fingerprints to a national database.
According to prominent academic and activist Pervez Hoodbhoy, platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Viber were places “where you could discuss the hypocrisy of people whose behavior was loathsome but who wore the thick garb of piety.”
He said the government’s decision to track down people “wherever you are and however you might want to hide,” suggests that “Pakistan is fast becoming a Saudi-style fascist religious state”, claimed Hoodbhoy.
Last month, 30-year-old Taimoor Raza, a Shia Muslim was sentenced to death for allegedly insulting Prophet Muhammad on Facebook.
According to The Guardian, he was participating in an online debate with a man who turned out to be an undercover counter-terrorism agent.
His death sentence was the first to result from a social media posting, and is an extreme example of Islamabad’s escalating battle to enforce its blasphemy laws, which criminalize insulting Islam.
Established under British colonial rule, these blasphemy laws have been criticized by both religious and secular reformers, who argue that they are used to persecute minorities, settle personal scores and stifle debate.
In 2013, the Pakistan government requested data on 210 users, according to Facebook’s government request report. By 2016, government requests had risen to 2,460 accounts, with Facebook complying with about two-thirds.
Parents are now telling their children to self-censor on Facebook, Hoodbhoy was quoted, as saying, especially in light of the lynching in April of Mashal Khan – a university student who was accused of offending Islam.
Ahmad Waqas Goraya, an activist and blogger, said that the standards for blasphemy had been lowered as the government used anti-blasphemy laws to crack down on dissent.
Goraya was one of five bloggers abducted for four weeks in January for being critical of the military establishment.
Pakistan is not the only country where Facebook is being asked to either censor content or be blocked. Thailand and Vietnam are the two other countries where strictures are being applied.
Pakistan is in the process of rerouting its internet traffic through China, laying a 500-mile fiber optic cable from the China-Pakistan border to Rawalpindi.
Some fear the project will lead to a block of Facebook in Pakistan, similar to the one in China. The project is expected to be finished next year.