Taimoor Raza, a 30-year-old Shia Muslim from a “poor but literate” family, was sentenced to death in June by an anti-terrorist court in Pakistan. His crime? Allegedly insulting the prophet Muhammad on Facebook.
It occurred during an online debate with a man who turned out to be an undercover counter-terrorism agent. His death sentence, the first to result from a social media posting, is an extreme example of the Pakistani government’s escalating battle to enforce its blasphemy laws, which criminalize insulting Islam.
Established under British colonial rule, the laws have been criticized by both religious and secular reformers, who argue that they are used to persecute minorities, settle personal scores and stifle debate.
In recent months, Pakistan’s interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, has increased pressure on Facebook and Twitter to identify individuals suspected of blasphemy. On 7 July, Facebook’s vice-president of public policy, Joel Kaplan, met with Khan to discuss the government’s demand that Facebook either remove blasphemous content or be blocked in the country.
On Monday, Facebook confirmed that it had rejected Pakistan’s demand that new accounts be linked to a mobile phone number – a provision that would make it easier for the government to identify account holders. Currently, opening a Facebook account in Pakistan requires only an email address, while mobile phone users must provide fingerprints to a national database.
That social media would become the means for a government crackdown on free speech is a bitter twist for platforms that claim to want to increase openness and the free flow of ideas.
The advent of social media once heralded an opening for religious debate in Pakistan. Platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Viber allowed individuals in conservative, rural areas to engage in discussions that were once possible only for students and urban intellectuals, unconstrained by the conservative norms of their communities.
“Until recently, social media afforded a measure of privacy where you could discuss the hypocrisy of people whose behavior was loathsome but who wore the thick garb of piety,” said Pervez Hoodbhoy, a prominent academic and activist.
“Now the state is saying that we will track you down wherever you are and however you might want to hide,” Hoodbhoy added. “Pakistan is fast becoming a Saudi-style fascist religious state.”
The problem with engaging in potentially illegal speech on social media, of course, is that online speech leaves evidence.
In 2013, the Pakistan government requested data on 210 users, according to Facebook’s government request report. By 2016, government requests had risen to 2,460 accounts, with Facebook complying with about two-thirds. Facebook declined to comment on how many of these requests involved allegations of blasphemy.
Parents are now telling their children to self-censor on Facebook, Hoodbhoy said, especially in light of the lynching in April of Mashal Khan – a university student who was accused of offending Islam.
Ahmad Waqas Goraya, an activist and blogger, said that the standards for blasphemy had been lowered as the government used anti-blasphemy laws to crack down on dissent.
“What they now call blasphemy was everywhere before,” he said. “They use religion as a political tool. Almost all people detained have been critical of the state and the military.”
Goraya was one of five bloggers abducted for four weeks in January for being critical of the military establishment.
“You see what the problem [for authorities] is with social media. They cannot stop information. It levels the playing field for us,” Goraya said, adding that religious debate on Facebook had “been almost silenced”.
Pakistan is not the only country where Facebook is being asked to either censor content or be blocked. In May, Thailand threatened to block Facebook over pages that violate its lèse-majesté laws, which outlaw any criticism of the royal family.
Vietnam has pushed multinational corporations that do business in the country to stop advertising on Facebook and YouTube unless they remove “toxic” content, according to the Financial Times. A high-level Facebook official, Monika Bickert, met with the Vietnamese government about its concerns in April.
Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has defended the company’s willingness to comply with government censorship requests by advancing “a single guiding principle: we want to give the most voice to the most people”.
In a 2015 Facebook post, Zuckerberg wrote: “Some people say we should ignore government orders requiring us to restrict people’s voice, even if that means the whole service would be blocked in those countries. I don’t think that’s right … If we ignored a lawful government order and then we were blocked, all of these people’s voices would be muted, and whatever content the government believed was illegal would be blocked anyway.”
Goraya, for his part, suspects that Facebook’s motives have more to do with its financial interests than in the “voice” of Pakistanis.
“At the end of the day, all they care about is their business,” he said.
By next year, whether Facebook cooperates might not matter: Pakistan is in the process of rerouting its internet traffic through China, laying a 500-mile fiber optic cable from the China-Pakistan border to Rawalpindi. Some fear the project will lead to a block of Facebook in Pakistan, similar to the one in China. The project is expected to be finished next year.