THERE has been a lot of noise in recent months about the use of social media platforms and blasphemous material on these platforms. Indeed, over the past decade, this debate has been sparked on several occasions by global events, with damaging consequences at home. On Friday, it was announced that Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan had met the Facebook vice president of global public policy to discuss “various steps and actions being taken to remove blasphemous content”. This may prove a positive step; dialogue is certainly a better strategy than threatening to permanently block all social media platforms, as the interior ministry did in March. To belittle the faith of practitioners of one of the world’s largest religions is hateful and inflammatory, but it would also be helpful to see the ministry apply the same dogged determination to curtailing the online proliferation of hate speech and violent content of banned sectarian and militant groups.

Lacking in the ministry’s approach, thus far, is the circumspection to acknowledge the state’s culpability in cynically stoking religious sentiments and tolerating extremism to wield control over its citizenry — or how much matters have spiralled out of control. What makes this cycle of debate on internet freedom different from previous iterations is that the threat, as perceived by Chaudhry Nisar, stems from within. Recent detentions and campaigns to malign activists and journalists for alleged blasphemy or for expressing points of view critical of the state have conflated the two issues and produced a chilling effect on our ability to express dissent. ‘National security’ has become a rug under which all dissent can be swept, abetted by a murky cybercrime law. In such a climate, it is necessary that any measures to regulate social media have clearly stated and precise parameters, and that these measures are made transparent to the public. The state must unequivocally target the hate speech of extremists, while recognising that the path to mending our fractured polity requires respecting, not fearing, its peaceful citizens’ right to free speech.

Published in Dawn, July 10th, 2017

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