Date: February 24, 2020
Pakistan’s government approved a new law to monitor online platforms on 28 January, which would require social media companies to remove any “unwanted and slanderous” online content within 24 hours, or six hours in “emergency cases”, prompting concerns over “blasphemy” accusations.
Any company failing to share any data or remove any content under the Citizen Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules could be blocked or fined up to 500 million rupees (£2.5 million; $3.2 million; €3 million).
Prime Minister Imran Khan reassured business leaders on rule changes and urged them to continue operations in Pakistan.
A Barnabas contact flagged that this law could be a new route to falsely accuse Christians of “blasphemy”. “We already warn Christians to be careful of what they are posting. Christians are in danger of attack or arrest if potentially ‘offensive’ content is found on their Facebook pages, even if it was posted by someone else,’’ he said.
Firdous Awan, Minister of Information and Broadcasting, said that previous governments “did not know who was creating fake pages and harming socio-cultural and religious values’’. Her statement came three years after former Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar, had called upon Islamic countries worldwide to oppose “blasphemous” content posted on social media.
The possibility of being sentenced to death for “blasphemy” on social media is already a reality in Pakistan. In March 2013, Junaid Hafeez, 33-year-old university lecturer, known for his moderate Muslim beliefs, was arrested, accused of posting derogatory comments about Muhammad on social media. He was sentenced to death in 2019. Taimoor Raza (30), a member of the Shia Muslim minority community, was jailed after engaging in a debate about Islam on Facebook and sentenced to death in 2017.
Defiling the name of Muhammad carries a mandatory death penalty under section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, and, under section 295-B, “wilful defilement, damage or desecration of the Quran” carries a mandatory life sentence for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Christians are particularly at risk of false accusations of blasphemy. Furthermore, the mere accusation of these types of “blasphemy” is enough to incite a vigilante killing by a mob or violent attacks on whole Christian communities.