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How your social media activity can land you in jail for blasphemy

Updated Dec 19, 2015 01:59am


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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.


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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Comments (27) Closed

Feroz Dec 18, 2015 06:43pm

Shocking to know that people can be so easily offended.

Skeptic Dec 18, 2015 07:11pm

Speak (or post) not all you think. That's the wisest thing to do, if you are an addict of social media. Otherwise, stay away from it.

Divergence Dec 18, 2015 08:32pm

I don't use facebook at all, it is lesser of the burden on mind. Trust me

Unshackle Pakistan Dec 18, 2015 08:37pm

There's a reason freedom of speech and expression are paramount. Unless one is physically using violence, breaking someone's heart of religious sentiments isn't grounds enough for punishment. Others have a right to peacefully respond in kind. If Pakistan is to ever rise from the ashes life, liberty, and property will need to be held sacrosanct.


Pakistan Khan Dec 18, 2015 08:46pm

There are accused of blasphemy because we have people, many Facebook pages and several Twitter accounts, who would mock Quranic verses and Hadith under the banner of 'liberalism'. Freedom of speech doesn't mean one should threaten religion in a country who came into being in the very name of it. Also, if one feel insecure s/he should simply quit social media just like I did after using Facebook for 5 years and Twitter for 4 years realizing I constantly voluntarily leak my privacy leaving me vulnerable to every sort of danger. So one should rather be careful than fear the charges of blasphemy or whatever you name it.

KARACHI WALA Dec 18, 2015 11:01pm

To cut the long story short, stay away from all digital media and anyone who can be offended by any word or action of you. If you have a Facebook account, unfortunately, nothing can be undone.

Malik Achakzai Dec 18, 2015 11:37pm

So sad; in a democratic country we are unable to have laws through public advocacy and parlaiment for controlling social media. But use the Blasphemy version of law in the future for anyone who's wanted for punnishment.

Rikshawala Dec 18, 2015 11:46pm

Government is not happy with its people because they are posting against them.

Rizwan Dec 19, 2015 12:08am

In this country there are a lot of sensitive subjects to talk about. So better not to express yourself openly on social media.

akhan Dec 19, 2015 01:02am

A progressive society gives full protection to its people and no protection to ideologies.

Saad Dec 19, 2015 02:50am

@Pakistan Khan Why can't people stop getting offended at someone else's opinions? Well they do have a right to get offended but they have no right to get someone punished because they do not agree with their religious views. This is a stepping stone towards barbarism. More importantly, the issue elicits such rash emotions in people that law enforcement caves into public opinion rather than the rule of law. Most of the arrested individuals are simply accused, not proven, yet they rot in jails. This law will take Pakistan back to the stone age.

indian Dec 19, 2015 05:51am

i must say author is a brave man.

Keti Zilgish Dec 19, 2015 06:54am

The trouble is that when too many clauses of a constitution contradict each other the interpreting authority gets overloaded with work.

Mustafa Baluch Dec 19, 2015 08:17am

Cyber crime laws and their implementation in both letter and spirit is vital for online media discipline which is totally absent among the users, the youth in particulars, in the current pakistani social media environment. The narrative of social media consciousness and its impact on people's lives and on society should be made an imperative curriculum for the masses so that freedom of speech is not outlawed.

adeeb Dec 19, 2015 09:08am

Write the word Hitler on your wall and you will get a nasty notification from Facebook admin and they will delete that word too. I am sharing my first hand experience.

Muhammed Dec 19, 2015 09:17am

wow - that is dangerous place - a jungle where there is now law ?

how you people live in such place ? wake up and change it - or it would only grow more and more !!!!

Syed Ahmed, Canada Dec 19, 2015 09:33am

Why Facebook alone, Twitter is also social website which can also be damaging.

Sadia Khatri Dec 19, 2015 09:58am

@indian author is a woman :)

Mir Jehan Zeb,MD California USA Dec 19, 2015 10:46am

Have heard of goingAnonymous, using fake screen name, deleting files etc?

Abbasi Dec 19, 2015 11:01am

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

Sabeeh Ahmad Dec 19, 2015 12:29pm

NO COMMENTS!!! AFRAID OF BEING CAUGHT!!! Brave Author though!!!!

Abid Hafeez Dec 19, 2015 03:13pm

@Pakistan Khan Well said. This is actually what happens, people, under the cover of liberalism start mocking quaranic verses. Most of the people who claim freedom of speech, infact start provoking religious arguements. Thses liberal people should not use it as a tool to ignite riots.

Jawad Dec 19, 2015 03:35pm

Police in Pakistan don't know how to use Facebook or Internet

Muzmo Dec 19, 2015 05:28pm

Recommendation of getting religious scholars involved? They are the ones responsible for the current mess. Get the so called religious scholars disengaged, and you might see some light end of the tunnel.

logicaldude Dec 19, 2015 06:42pm

Forget about hurting religious feelings or criminal activities, the only angle police are interested in how can they turn it into a money making opportunity. They can arrest the innocent and free the guilty either way money and connections will do the trick. Everyone is on the take the low and mean and the high and mighty.

Iftikhar bhutta Dec 19, 2015 10:09pm

Face book should be used for positive purpose and spreading awareness to develop better society without discrimination of minority rights .

Ali Dec 20, 2015 04:30pm

social media is all about killing your time & values, snatching families from users, if one cant avoid using it he must respect other opinions and religious belongings, freedom of speech doesn't mean to play with others