It comes out of nowhere. You log onto Facebook with the intention of scrolling through your news feed, sharing a post here, commenting there.

Your activity clutters up your friends’ timelines, and one 'friend', or perhaps an individual following you, pays special attention to one of your posts. It is a post you find harmless, but the individual finds deeply offensive, perhaps blasphemous under their interpretation.

Or perhaps you are part of a group called ‘Liberals of Pakistan’ and are listed as one of its administrators. The friend, or individual remembers seeing – or hearing – that the group routinely features content critical of religion.

Taking matters into his/her own hands, the individual goes to the nearest police station and lodges a complaint against you, claiming blasphemy. Perhaps they have vendetta in mind, perhaps they believe this is a genuine case.

You are then summoned to the police station, and under the prying eyes of officials, forced to log into your Facebook. Or worse, they arrive at your doorstep.

No warrant or court order is issued to access your online activity. Policemen browse through your groups and private messages. Somewhere, they find a post that they interpret to be blasphemous. Already under pressure by the individual who reported you, they decide to take action.

You insist the post cannot be considered blasphemous. You argue that being part of a Facebook group does not mean you endorse all its views.

It doesn’t matter. You are now arrested and jailed. A blasphemy case is filed against you under section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code.

Meanwhile, the police refer your post, or your group to the National Response Center for Cyber Crimes (NR3C), a wing of the Federal Investigation Agency. NR3C passes the matter onto Facebook and the social media giant promptly blocks the post/group based on a secret agreement between the state and the company.

No lawyer wants to take up your case and you cannot be released on bail. Unless you flee the country prior to arrest, chances are you will rot in prison for years until your case reaches trial. Death threats to you, your family, and your lawyer become routine.

While the above example is fictional, it is not unrealistic.

A recently-released report by the Digital Rights Foundation notes a rise in the number of incidents where people are accused of blasphemy based on online activity or text messages.

As an example, the report outlines the case of Professor Junaid Hafeez, an academic teaching English at Bahauddin Zakariya University in Multan, who is in prison for blasphemy. It is still not clear, the report says, whether Hafeez wrote blasphemous material that was posted on his Facebook group, ‘So Called Liberals of Pakistan’, but under pressure from hostile complainants, his fate was sealed.

Hafeez’s case was taken up by lawyer Rashid Rehman – who was shot in May last year. Hafeez is currently awaiting trial in a jail cell.

A country without cyber laws

Instead of protecting people from vigilante action against blasphemy accusations based on online activity, the state faces the danger of facilitating it.

Hafeez’s case particularly illustrates why Pakistanis need to worry about the Cyber Crime Bill and laws that do not regard for citizens online privacy and rights, the DRF report outlines.

Blasphemy cases are ridden with incidents of intimidation and threats against the accused. The DRF report contains interviews with several lawyers who spoke on the condition of anonymity, and confessed having faced death threats while undertaking blasphemy cases, even while their defendant was in jail.

With online reports, the matter grows more complicated. In the case of a blasphemy allegation, there is no coherent law defining online hate speech, or one that protects citizens’ digital rights, the DRF report states.

Facebook reports that the majority of bans it approves are based on “valid requests from the government”, which come from the NR3C. But neither the NR3C nor the PTA has legal authority to investigate or act upon blasphemy cases, though they routinely cite blasphemy as the reason for blocking or regulating online content, the report says.

It goes on to argue that without transparency on behalf of social media networks and local bodies, online users in Pakistan face a daily threat. Anything online – even if it is within a private email – can be released publicly, taken down, blocked/deleted, or charged under Pakistan’s rampantly misused blasphemy law.

A culture of bans and breaches

Blasphemy cases in Pakistan are already marked by a worrying trend of unfair trials. Lawyers told the DRF that public sentiment, in most cases, outweighs legal procedure. Human Rights groups have repeatedly asked Pakistan to rectify its blasphemy laws, which do not account for the intent of the accused, and routinely result in blocks on websites and social media networks.

When the state, through PTA, blocks a website for promoting ‘blasphemous’ content (as in the case of YouTube) it defies the very spirit of Article 19 of the Constitution that guarantees freedom of speech to every Pakistani citizen, the report states.

DRF also questions the conduct and responsibility of social media networks like Facebook, who approve requests by government departments like NRC3 that are not authorised to deal with blasphemy laws. It says that if these companies, along with government officials and policemen, are given free rein to snoop into personal e-mails and online conversations, privacy breaches will likely increase, and freedom of speech will be curtailed.

Recommendations

The DRF report recommends using social media as a tool in battling the misuse of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Social media, the report argues, can be used to build stories and counter-narratives of blasphemy cases. States should be susceptible to public opinion, and social media, which increasingly constitutes a large section of the public sphere, should take ownership in contributing to public opinion the report recommends.

The report also recommends reaching out to religious scholars via social media to build perspectives and narratives that align religious scholarship with human rights norms worldwide.

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