Blasphemy is nothing new in Pakistan. Hundreds of people have been sent to their maker, either via the court or through rabid mobs hungry for vengeance. However, now a dangerous new precedent is being set.
Earlier in the month, 30-year-old Taimoor Raza was sentenced to death, via a military court, for allegedly committing blasphemy on Facebook. This is the first instance of a sentence being handed down, for an alleged crime, committed on social media. Further troubling is the fact that Raza was tried, not through regular courts, but via a military court, because the charge sheet brought against him included counter-terrorism offences as well.
It’s not that a new round of the blasphemy witch-hunt is underway. Something bigger and darker is brewing.
Earlier in May, it was reported that the government had ordered a large scale crackdown against those who were accused of posting anti-state content as well as maligning state institutions, the military in particular. At least 41 people were being investigated, and according to the same report, at least two dozen were picked up for interrogation. These included people from the social media wings of political parties, the PML-N and the PTI.
A group of concerned citizens, in their individual capacities, including Farieha Aziz, Zohra Yusuf, Afia Salam, Ziad Zafar, Ghazi Salahuddin, Nazim Haji, Uzma Noorani, Mahnaz Rahman and Jibran Nasir have filed a petition in the Sindh High Court against this crackdown by the interior ministry and FIA. They claim they “are aggrieved by the ‘respondents’ attempts to curb the fundamental right to free speech through, inter alia, unlawful detention and threats to and harassment of individuals”.
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Farieha Aziz, co-founder and director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights, says: “Criticism of the armed forces does not amount to a criminal offence and cannot be subjected to any coercive action by the State.
“In a democratic setup, it is a citizen’s right to criticise each and every branch of government and such right is essential in order to ensure good governance,” she adds.
At the same time, Article 19 of the Constitution states: “Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression…subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam, or the integrity, security or defense of Pakistan…”
To an untrained eye, the words ‘reasonable restrictions’ leave the room the state needs to act in the manner that it has, recently.
Advocate Salahuddin Ahmed, the lawyer of the petitioner mentioned earlier, disagrees. The phrase “reasonable restrictions imposed by law — far from enabling the state, further restricts it”, he says, adding, “Because if there is a law that allows for restricting that speech, it needs to be seen whether the law is reasonable or not”.
The position taken is clear: “There is no law that criminalises the criticism of the armed forces, and if there was such a law, it would be an unreasonable restriction on the freedom of speech.”
As mentioned earlier, the FIA picked up at least two dozen people for interrogation for alleged (and based on the advocate’s comments, not criminalised by any law) transgressions on social media. “If they (the FIA) have any information that a crime has been committed they can launch an investigation,” says Ahmed. “As per my understanding, they would require a warrant to search through or seize devices,” he says.
As the crackdown got underway, it was reported that in at least one instance, offices were ransacked, and computers, cameras and USB sticks went missing.
With no legal cover, except in cases of blasphemy, why is the state so rampantly clamping down on this basic human right? “A new, centralised state narrative is being produced”, says political scientist and author, Ayesha Siddiqa. “There is no space left for any sort of criticism of the most powerful state institution.” She believes that this new narrative is being forged so that a stronger, more unified image of Pakistan is made, and that “nothing that can embarrass the state gets out”.
Whilst this new image-building gets underway, a climate of fear is sweeping across the land. “There is more self-censorship today and over the last two three years than in the last two decades,” says Siddiqa. She claims that previously, Pakistan had one of the freest media in the region, but that is quickly changing.
However, in one instance, a person being harassed by the FIA fought back. Journalist Taha Siddiqui filed a petition in the Islamabad High Court, which then restrained the agency from harassing him. However, according to the committee to protect journalists, the FIA still delivered a summons order to the man in question, ordering him to appear for questioning. The hearing of the case has been postponed and no date announced.
Shahzad Ahmed, from the digital rights group, Bytes for all, believes that this push back by the journalist, “surprised those who were harassing him”. The fact that renowned lawyer Asma Jahangir also got involved, along with the Human Rights Watch etc. was not something they expected.
Still, according to Shahzad, the state is now acting with a kind of impunity that he hasn’t seen before. He adds that apart from the actions being taken by state institutions such as the FIA, there are numerous ‘cyber-armies’ present online, on who are taking this state narrative forward. They not only engage with those who differ in opinion, but also add fuel to the fire when the time is right.
What’s ironic is that while the state and its various seen and unseen arms clamp down on freedom of expression and speech, terror groups, right wing fundamentalists and neo-nationalists continue to thrive on social media. It seems, at least from the state’s perspective, that criticising the army is punishable, but calling for the murder of Shias, Hazaras and Christians is fair game.
Ayesha Siddiqa summed it up nicely: “The problem is the people who are saying this is the problem”.