ISLAMABAD: A study on ‘Blasphemy in the Digital Age’ has revealed that blasphemy accusations increased by almost 200 times after Gen Ziaul Haq amended the blasphemy law.
Presented by the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) on Friday, the study drew comparisons between the period before and after the current blasphemy law was introduced in 1987. Prior to this, there had been only seven blasphemy accusations between 1927 and 1986.
Speakers said that prior to the 1987 law, the Pakistan Penal Code did not contain a specific provision for blasphemy related to Islamic holy figures.
The number of blasphemy cases has jumped to 1,335 since the current law was introduced, with the death penalty or life imprisonment as punishment and no room for pardon.
PPC sections 295-C and 298-B proscribe acts deemed to be offences against religion. Offences include: misusing religious epithets, willfully defiling the Holy Quran, deliberately outraging religious sentiments and using derogatory remarks in reference to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
Study calls for fair blasphemy trials and amendments to reduce abuse of blasphemy law
The event, which was organised to announce the launch of DRF’s study, also included a discussion on how the misuse of the blasphemy law for personal gain has led people to fear expressing themselves on the internet.
The report aimed to examine Pakistan’s blasphemy law and assess its effects on freedom of speech in the digital space. It also aimed to highlight strategies for human rights activists to strengthen the cause of freedom of expression, reform the law and better protect those accused of blasphemy.
At a workshop following the launch of the report, participants looked to the state to repeal the blasphemy law.
“We should not just talk about how to prevent abuse of the controversial law, but talk about how to abolish the blasphemy law,” one participant said.
According to another, the steady rise in blasphemy accusations had made people increasingly intolerant, violent and indifferent. She said that the law was used not only against religious minorities, but also against people from other sects, socioeconomic backgrounds and even women.
“The mob takes it to have legal sanction because of the blasphemy law,” said Romana Bashir of the Peace and Development Organisation.
Along similar lines, National Party (NP) Senator Dr Ashok Kumar suggested that the root cause was hate material in school textbooks.
“Children should be taught humanity, the universal faith,” the senator said.
While some participants were of the view that repealing the law would have little effect, others argued that religion and the state should be separated in order to gradually instil tolerance within the populace.
Participants said that the blasphemy law affects Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and that the media was part of the problem in blasphemy cases.
The report’s author, Waqqas Mir, said that the solution was not simply to repeal the blasphemy law, but to bring a paradigm shift in society. Given the pressure on ruling governments, Mr Mir also discussed how laws against hate speech can be ineffective, and said that free speech and hate speech laws can also be problematic.
In support of freedom of expression, the study recommended that Pakistan remain cognisant and faithful to its international human rights obligations and the right to equal treatment before the law. It suggested that the government make blasphemy trials fair and reduce injustice. Procedural amendments should be introduced to the law to prevent abuse, if it is not repealed entirely.
Published in Dawn, December 19th, 2015