Banwidth

Pakistan’s ban on YouTube has now entered its third month and is showing no signs of desisting. The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) blocked the website under orders from Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf “in order to ensure that Pakistan’s religious sentiments were not hurt.”

The PTA shut down YouTube on September 17, 2012, three days after nationwide riots began against an anti-Islam video on the website. The riots took 26 lives, injured over 200 people and caused 76 billion rupees worth of economic loss.

Here the Herald takes a look at the dilemma faced by YouTube: on the one hand, the government will not allow it to be resumed unless the contentious video is removed; on the other, Google (which owns YouTube) has stated that removing the video is against its policy.

First, there was only a trailer

It all began when a 14-minute trailer for an anti-Islam film, Innocence of Muslims, was uploaded on YouTube in the first week of September; a few days later violent protests broke out across the Muslim world. In Libya, armed protesters stormed the American consulate in Benghazi and killed four members of staff, including the American ambassador. Google immediately blocked access to the video in Libya and neighbouring Egypt, which was also witnessing huge protests against the video.

As violence started erupting in Pakistan, the government wrote to Facebook and Google to remove the video from the Internet — or at least from Pakistani servers. Facebook complied within 24 hours; Google did not respond. This prompted the government to slap a blanket ban on YouTube.

Many believe that the government should have engaged better with Google on the issue. “The [YouTube] ban does not mean much to Google, but it affects Pakistani internet users very deeply so it is our [government’s] job to convince Google [to remove the video],” says Shahzad Ahmad, the head of Bytes for All, an organisation that monitors internet freedom.

Google does present an explanation for the selective blocking of the video, although it does not convince many. The company’s statement, issued on September 12, 2012 said, “the video … is clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube.” But then it added that the company has temporarily restricted access to the video in “Libya and Egypt … given the very difficult situation in both countries.”

Next came the puzzling backstories

The question, then, that many in Pakistan are asking is: why did the company not apply the same yardstick for Pakistan where protests, and resulting violence, were more deadly than in most other Muslim countries? “It boils down to no reason other than discrimination,” says a PTA official who does not wish to disclose his name. “Corporations, such as Google, only care about profits and since we accrue no profit to them, we mean nothing to them,” he adds.

Sources in the industry say that Google blocked the video in Libya and Egypt mainly in response to severe criticism from internet users in the country that is both its largest market and its base – the US – over the killing of the American officials. The company acknowledged that banning the video was an “extraordinary” step and in fact at the Seventh Internet Governance Forum in Baku, Azerbaijan its officials admitted that allowing access to the video in the politically charged Middle Eastern countries was a mistake.

What becomes confounded in such accusations and clarifications is whether it is legally possible to block a video on YouTube in Pakistan. Google can only take Pakistan’s request for blocking the video into consideration, if the country has a localised version of YouTube. Since both India and Indonesia have a local YouTube version, they were able to make the video inaccessible quickly. The reason is that a localised YouTube follows local web content laws applicable to a specific country whereas the global version follows global guidelines as practised by Google.

The company, however, has clearly failed to implement its guidelines across the board in this case. Internet users in Libya, Egypt and Pakistan all use a non-localised, global version of YouTube. Why did Google block the video in the other two countries but not in Pakistan? “If Google could break its rules for Libya and Egypt then why can’t [those] rules be bent for us?” asks an official at the Federal Ministry of Information Technology in Islamabad who does not want to be named.

A web of laws

This raises another question: why has Pakistan failed to get a localised version of YouTube, especially when anti-Islam web content has been such a recurring issue in the country since 2006?

Some industry insiders suggest that the reason behind Google’s reluctance in localising YouTube in Pakistan is political instability. “For Google, Pakistan is another Afghanistan,” says a South Asia representative of the company who prefers not to disclose his name.

When Eric Schmidt, president of Google, visited Pakistan earlier this year, he was told that Pakistan can offer the company a huge avenue for investment. The government was not off the mark in this assessment as the country has 23 million Internet users, according to the PTA. As a follow-up to his visit, a 10-person Google delegation came to Pakistan to assess the situation in September. “I could see that they were finally viewing Pakistan as a viable investment opportunity,” says Badar Khushnood, Google’s sole consultant for Pakistan. The protests against the video erupted while the delegation was still in Pakistan. “They witnessed the violence with their own eyes. I don’t think they will be back for a while,” he adds.

On the other hand, digital media agencies such as Digitz and media-buying houses such as Starcom explain that the real reason behind Google’s unwillingness to localise in the country is the fact that Pakistan’s digital media market is simply not large enough. According to Babar Anis, a former deputy group head at Starcom, Pakistan’s total advertising industry is worth 500 million US dollars but digital advertising is worth only 10 million US dollars. “If the digital advertising market is so small, why should Google bother investing in us?” he asks.

Zeeshan Sharfi, the chief executive officer of Digitz, also puts the size of the digital component at only one to two per cent of the total advertising market. This is further split between Facebook, Yahoo, Hotmail and Google, he says. In turn, he adds, “YouTube receives about half of what Google gets.”

The Middle Eastern countries, in contrast, have huge digital advertisement markets. “It is 10-15 per cent [of their media industry],” says Anis. So even though they are ‘politically instable’, YouTube and Google have to pander to the diktats of the market there.

Furthermore, Pakistan also needs to streamline its myriad laws and regulations governing web content and online technologies. As things stand today, the country does not have a coherent set of cyber laws. At one end of the spectrum, there is no law covering cyber crime after the Pakistan Electronic Criminal Ordinance lapsed more than a year ago. But, on the other, there are laws which are contradictory and confusing — while one of them guarantees freedom of speech, another puts severe restrictions on it and both can be applicable to web content. Similarly, some relevant laws exist but they never get implemented. There is, for instance, a law to protect intellectual property rights but its enforcement mechanism is weak to the extent of being non-existent.

In the absence of unambiguous and enforceable cyber laws, the PTA employs Article 19 of the Constitution to decide what to ban. “There is no law for content regulation — all we know is that no video or website which is against the ‘glory of Islam’ should be allowed,” says an official at the PTA who did not prefer to disclose his name. But what exactly constitutes “glory of Islam” remains undefined.

The Ministry of Information Technology, on the other hand, does feel there is no need to explain such generic terms as “glory of Islam”. “It is quite clear what is blasphemous and what is not,” says Amir Tariq Zaman Khan, the acting secretary of the ministry and the head of the inter-ministerial committee responsible for monitoring web content.

But this inter-departmental wrangling over definitions – or lack thereof – can easily scupper the chances of technology companies allowing themselves to come under Pakistani laws. “How can we expect YouTube to localise itself [in such a situation],” says Nighat Dad, the founder of Digital Rights, an organisation which promotes internet freedom.

Myriam Boublil, head of communications and public affairs for Google Southeast Asia, clearly supports this point of view. In an email response to the Herald’s queries, she says that offering local versions of YouTube takes time because “we research laws and build relationships with local content creators. Regulatory mechanisms are another consideration. Eventually, we hope to be localised wherever regulation permits,” she adds.

There were some losers

As the case stands, with Pakistan being a miniscule Internet advertising market, Google does not lose enough money from the blockade to start worrying about it. “Google does not lose out when [Pakistan] bans one of its websites [such as YouTube],” says Ahmad. “It is the country itself which will suffer,” he says.

Google refuses to comment on the financial aspect, making it impossible to assess whether or not it is suffering because of the ban. But a host of YouTube-dependent users are losing out — niche-music bands such as Poor Rich Boy who depended on YouTube to share their songs and videos; students from Virtual University of Pakistan who used the website to watch online lectures; news websites such as Dawn.com that used YouTube to upload and share their documentaries. Regular internet users also suffer as they are unable to watch their favourite religious, political and entertainment programmes.

An advocacy poster by Bytes For All for the restoration of YouTube. Courtesy Shahzad Ahmad

And an obvious villain

Banning YouTube, however, could well be the symptom of the illness called social, political and religious censorship which manifests itself in many ways. “Already there are scores of Baloch and Sindhi nationalist websites which have been blocked under government orders,” says Dad. With the election right around the corner, the government may be tempted to ban more websites and may be using the anti-Islam video as an excuse to do just that, she says.

Ahmad also agrees. “I feel the ban on YouTube is just a taste of what we are about to experience nearer to the upcoming election when the government will crack down on social media,” he says.

When PTA officials say they are trying to “find a permanent technical solution” to block “blasphemous and indecent videos” activists such as Dad and Ahmad are given cause for greater worry. The authority, under orders from the Ministry of Information Technology, is developing software to monitor the uploading of content on social media forums and filter anti-Islamic content. “This is pretty much the same software as used in Iran or China,” explains a PTA official.

As in the case for these two countries, this software may also be used for filtering political content. Kamran Ali, member legal of the Ministry of Information Technology, agrees that content-filtering software is vulnerable to abuse. “Imagine, if there is an election and the ruling party [through such software] clamps down on the opposition in the virtual world ,” he thinks out aloud.

Whether such fears become a reality or not, there is no will at the official level to create a financially conducive and legally clear atmosphere for digital media. The government certainly has no incentive to allow a greater institutionalisation of web content regulation and facilitate the growth of digital media market. And without these two factors Google and YouTube will certainly feel no need to cater to the sensibilities and sensitivities of Pakistanis.

Protests in Pakistan over the anti-Islam film lasted through much of September 2012

No end in sight

When Pakistan blocked YouTube in 2008 and 2010 over similar anti-Islam videos, Google eventually threw in the towel and removed the videos. This time round, it seems the company does not have the inclination to budge, having already turned down an unprecedented request from the White House to remove the video. Perhaps this is because the company does not want to send the signal that violent objections over any real or perceived insult to any group of people can force the removal of the content, thereby compromising the freedom of speech which is at the core of phenomenal growth enjoyed by websites such as YouTube.

But the government, too, seems to be in a bind. It has to block an entire website to deny access to one single video. “Our predicament is easy to understand, we cannot allow the website to be accessed if the blasphemous video is not going to be removed and we do not have the expertise to solely remove one video,” explains Ali.

Live discussion with Dr Osama Siddique

Dr Osama Siddique is a professor of law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). His research interests include legal empowerment of minorities and vulnerable citizens, the state of fundamental rights and civil liberties in Pakistan and miscarriage of justice and violent vigilantism stemming from laws such as those concerning blasphemy. Siddique is also an experienced practicing lawyer.

On September 24, Dr Osama Siddique conducted a live online discussion about the Rimsha Masih case as well as other issues related to blasphemy laws. The discussion has been edited for space, clarity and grammar.

Photo courtesy LUMS

Q. Can you please explain the difference between the blasphemy law for Muslims and non-Muslims in Pakistan? Or is the same law applicable to both?
– Ashfaq

OS. When we refer to the blasphemy laws in the current context, we more or less specifically refer to Section 295 (c) of the PPC which is about any blasphemy committed against the Holy Prophet. So while both Muslims and non-Muslims come under its ambit it is obviously a law that pertains to Muslim sensibilities. Sections 295-A and 298 of the PPC (which predate independence) protect the religious sensibilities of all faiths and prohibit the insult of any religion. These are the colonial anti-hate speech laws. Section 295 (c) was introduced despite the presence of these laws in our penal code.

When the case was first launched, did you think Rimsha would be awarded pre-trial bail, given that it has never happened before and that it is a non-bailable offence?
– Imran 

OS. No unfortunately I was not confident that Rimsha would be granted bail. And I say that in view of past cases where the policy lodged an F.I.R in similar fashion due to pressure from certain segments even though a fair investigation would have revealed that there was no merit to the allegation. What is unique in the Rimsha case is the revelation about the falseness of the allegation from another quarter and that too from Muslims. That is what finally provoked a reaction from the otherwise silent majority and the media and built some pressure to not just steam-roll this case like others and completely give in to the mob pressure. If this had not happened I am quite sure that Rimsha would not have been bailed. She is still far from being free

Q. Do you think the Rimsha Masih case is going to be used as a benchmark for future blasphemy cases?
– Shahana 

OS. I sincerely hope so. And the reason is that for the first time after a while we see some open questioning of Section 295 (c) as a mode for coercion, personal score settling and vigilantism. The fact that she is under-aged, possibly suffering from Downs’ syndrome and that the person behind it all has now been blamed by other Muslims, highlights how personal religious turf management or other political economy factors can motivate people to misuse this law. This is a tremendous opportunity to re-open the debate on this highly flawed law which we have to capitalize on

Q. Do you think it is possible to alter or repeal the blasphemy law over time? How can public sentiment be won?
– R K Khan

OS. The politicians, civil society, academics and ulema have a cardinal role in this — one that they have acutely neglected in the past. We need to rapidly raise awareness that this is a man-made law by a dictator who was using Islam for political mileage. We need to highlight that there is no precedent of such a law in Islamic history or in other contemporary Islamic nations. We need to highlight aspects of humanity and forgiveness in the Prophet’s life and use religion to counter this distortion. We may have to move in a step-by-step fashion and first introduce some vital security nets in the law to save innocent people and deter those who misuse these laws. An outright repeal is unlikely and may not even be necessary

Q. How do you see an amendment to the blasphemy provisions of the PPC playing out after the 18th amendment, given that by virtue of Article 142(b) both the provincial assemblies and national assembly have jurisdiction in the area. Is the national assembly empowered to overrule a provincial assembly’s act to amend the Section 295? Or does 142(b) require a unanimous consent of the parliament and the provincial assembly?
– Mustafa Ahmed 

OS. That does create an obstacle and there is some ambiguity on that. Which is why there has to be a concerted effort to build a national consensus on thus by involving ulema from all sects and regions and thus bringing about identical changes to the law in the provinces. Whether we get the provinces to sign off on this or whether there is a federal legislation that ultimately drives the law everywhere in the same direction is a legal issue that can be remedied in more ways than one. But that is not the real issue. The real issue is how to procure the political will which in turn requires informing and changing the mood of the average citizen who is ill-informed, misguided and emotional

Q. Is it possible to pinpoint when the blasphemy law began to be used to marginalize non-Muslims?
– Mustafa Ahmed

OS. My research clearly shows that it was only after Zia introduced Section 295 (c) that there was an escalation of complaints about blasphemy. This was not really the case before even though as I have mentioned earlier, there were colonial era laws that allowed for legal action for insulting one’s religious sentiments or insulting a religion. The primary reason for this is not just the ‘Islamization’ era politics and indoctrination but that Section 295 (c) is both very vaguely worded and hence allows for any direct or indirect imputation, innuendo and insinuation to be misread or falsely categorized as blasphemy. Furthermore, unlike the aforementioned laws it has no requirement of deliberate and malicious intent that required the police and court to ensure that nothing was taken seriously unless it had malicious deliberate intent motivating it. Add to this the growing misuse of Islam for a kind of obscurantist politics and you have an alchemy that creates the ideal milieu for misusing the law

Q. Can you tell us a brief detail about Rimsha’s legal proceedings? What is the next step for her?
– Kamran F

OS. Well the latest development I believe is that the police investigation has revealed that the cleric involved in the case made false investigations. Also, that there is no evidence of blasphemy against Rimsha. If this is confirmed and constitutes the final investigative findings then there is really no case against her and the FIR ought o be withdrawn/quashed. And the cleric should be proceeded against. Let’s just hope there are no further twists

Q. Given that the task of procuring political will to amend the blasphemy law is likely to take time to culminate, do you think it is possible for there to be changes in criminal procedure to make it harder for cases like Rimsha Masih to occur?
– S Quamber 

OS. You have a point. Indeed in the past some administrative steps were taken to ensure that the initial police investigation is at a sufficiently high level and added attention and scrutiny ought to be extended to ensure no baseless FIRS are registered. It has not quite worked though. The mob pressure is simply too strong and the silent majority way too silent. So far it has only been the appellate courts that have saved various falsely implicated people in the past but then by that time there has been displacement, harassment and even loss of life through murders. The problem is that as drafted the law is simply too vague, all-encompassing and open to abuse and hence the necessary solution is to tweak it to make it just and fair and to require malicious intent. One other alternative is for the courts to consistently and as a matter of rigorous routine require intent and malice and to look for misuse. Many judges have done so in the past but there can be variations and we have also had zealous judges who were not only careless but even biased. And I am not sure the current judicial leadership is really sensitive to this issue. So legal amendment is the first and foremost option and if not that then some clear judicial understanding to expedite such cases and carefully expose any misuse.

Q. Given the Rimsha is underage, if her case had proceeded forward, under the blasphemy law, what punishment would she have been given?                                     — Rani 

OS. The age factor would surely have been a huge consideration and I don’t at all think that she would have been sentenced to death. By the way, as a matter of record, no one has been hanged for a blasphemy conviction in Pakistan to date. People have either been set free or have languished behind bars or have been killed on the way to court/in jail or have sought and gotten amnesty abroad. Also, we ought to remember that making death penalty mandatory was only a subsequent Shariat Court ruling and I could also foresee the current court possibly revisiting it. So in a nutshell if Rimsha were found guilty at the highest levels of the court (which I think would have been very, very unlikely given her age and the spuriousness of the case) she would have possibly received some kind of reduced jail term

Q. We generally hear about the blasphemy law being used against minority communities. Yet analysts say that in terms of actual conviction, more Muslims have been affected by this than any other community in Pakistan. Would you care to comment on that?
Curious Pakistani 

OS. Well here are the stats based on an analysis of blasphemy cases from 1960 to 2007. Roughly 35 % of the total reported cases (reported in law journals as they were cleared by appellate judges to be fit for reporting as they entailed an important legal point) pertained to Christians and Ahmedis. So while more Muslims were implicated, that is quite a high per centage of non-Muslims (as defined by the Constitution) given the much, much smaller size of their population. So minorities do get implicated much more on a proportional basis. Having said that, the motivations behind implicating someone is such a case can be other than religious. Will, marital, property or political disputes are also recorded to have misused this law and hence the cases against so many Muslims.

Q. In your opinion, do you think there was any local media pressure or international media pressure on the government? Is that why she was released on bail? Or was it simply because of her age?
– Lydia

OS. Like anywhere in the world, governments and courts have an ear out for public opinion and gauge the mood of different more empowered groups in society. The expose of the cleric who was the major factor behind her implication and the fact that this expose was discussed and the said person castigated by the media, many ulema and religious parties, important journalists and opinion-makers as well as politicians had a major impact in drawing attention to the laws’ misuse. I guess for many this was the first time that they seriously thought about the issue. Much as he is unpopular amongst many, the President of the country is one politician who has consistently spoken about this and other exploitative laws but this time others with far greater leanings towards the right were also forced to do so. The international media always picks up on such issues and that has some impact. But I think that domestic pressure played a greater part as it always ought to but seldom does.

Q. The Akhtar Hameed Khan case is one tragic example of victimization under the blasphemy law. Do you think it resulted from a certain carelessness of language on the part of the poet/writer A. H Khan or were there political reasons for bringing charges against him? Even when a person is acquitted, as he was, was the accuser who brought the charges against him ever made to pay for making an elderly man go through the travails of ‘court kutchery’ during his illness?
– Khasta 

OS. I am strongly of the considered view that the highly flawed and vague language of the law makes it an ideal tool for mischief and abuse. Akhtar hameed Khan’s tragic case was no different. So problematic is the way in which the law has been drafted that one can’t even conceivably have a perfectly respectful and academic discussion on religious themes without the apprehension that someone cannot twist one’s words and accuse one of blasphemy. So it is also a great impediment to free and academic speech. By the time an innocent person presents a defense, the flawed law and weak police and court systems ensure that you have already suffered a lot of harassment and possibly even greater harm

OS. Thank you everyone for your very considered and meaningful questions. I hope I was able to address them adequately. If you need more clarifications please search on the internet for research that I have done in this area and you will be able to easily find it. And please keep raising your voices against this highly problematic law.

 

 

Live discussion with Paul Marshall

Paul Marshall is senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. His areas of expertise are religious freedom, religion and politics and Islam and human rights. For eight years, he has been a senior fellow at the Freedom House’s Centre for Religious Freedom. Marshall has taught political science, law, philosophy and theology at different universities and authored and edited over 20 books including Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide, published in 2011.

On September 24, Paul Marshall conducted a live online discussion about the Rimsha Masih case as well as other issues related to blasphemy laws. The discussion has been edited for space, clarity and grammar.

Q. Could you please tell us about blasphemy laws in the West? What countries have them weaved into their law and how are they implemented?
– Asif

PM. Most western countries do not have explicit blasphemy laws, and those that remain usually have not been used for the last fifty years. There were occasional recent blasphemy cases in Russian and Poland. What many western countries do have is ‘hate speech’ laws, and these are being used a quasi-blasphemy laws

Q. What are the similarities and differences between Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and those in other countries?
– Iqbal

PM. The western laws try to avoid blasphemy questions as such — they focus on protecting people, not religions per se. People may be prosecuted for saying things that are insulting or liable to lead to discrimination against Muslims themselves, not against Islam. However, the boundary easily gets blurred — recently a man in England was sentenced to a two year prison term for burning a Quran. In Pakistan, the laws are explicitly focused on words etc that are thought to be against Islam itself, not Muslims per se. But in both cases, the law can be very vague.

Q. From your vast experience and understanding, do you think most blasphemy laws are fair?
– Sharif

PM. I think the laws are very unfair. Together with my colleague Nina Shea, we recently published a book Silenced (Oxford University Press, 2011) that includes a worldwide survey of how such laws (and private accusations) are used. The laws vary from country to country, and between regions in counties, and over time. Most of those accused are Muslims, and they are usually accused not because they have actually blasphemed or insulted, but because they have disagreed with some other interpretation of Islam

Q. You said that there was recently a man in England was sentenced to a two year prison term for burning a Quran. Was this under English law? Hate speech law? Can you please tell me more about this incident?
– Jahanzeb

PM. I won’t check the details now since time is short but the charge was under English law, but not a hate speech law per se, it was a general ‘public order’ offense whereby someone can be charged for doing something that upsets the public order and might lead to violence. In England one can also be arrested for “anti-social behaviour’
These laws are also vague.

Q. In your opinion, what is a practical solution to resolve blasphemy related issues?
– Anam

PM. I believe that having laws and carrying out physical attacks against people accused of blasphemy makes the situation worse. Brian Grim and Roger Finke have a very good book The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the 21st Century, which shows that the more you have state/government controls on religion, the more religious violence there will be. Attempted controls on blasphemy lead to more violence. Also, it is only since there has been publicity about and attempts to punish people in the West that burn Qurans or are accused of insulting Islam, that the number of incidents has increased. I don’t think there were any such incidents at all before a few years ago. Nobody would have thought of doing so. I think we have to move away from legal controls and stress good education and mutual understanding

Q. My question is a little off the topic but does pertain to it given the current situation in the Muslim World. As far as my knowledge goes, there is a fine line between freedom of speech and hate speech, and like you said there are laws in the West that pertain to hate speech. Do you think that the documentary that has created a stir in all over the Muslim world leans more towards freedom of speech or hate speech? Especially when there are such huge restrictions over talking about holocaust then why are there no restrictions in offending someone’s faith especially if the law states that all faiths are to be respected? Could you elaborate more on this please?
– Obaid

PM.  Let me first state my own view that freedom of speech includes freedom to engage in hateful speech. I am opposed to the hate speech laws one finds in many western countries. I think they make the situation worse, and help contribute to violence e.g. as with Anders Breivik in Norway. I am also opposed to laws that ban holocaust denial, or denial of Armenian genocide etc. I don’t think such laws help the situation. They simply publicize people who should be ignored or shunned. They certainly don’t stop people saying and thinking things. I think this recent video trailer seems to be very insulting (I haven’t seen it, and don’t plan to) but I think it should be legal. The events of the last few weeks have given it publicity

Q. As far as the Rimsha Masih case goes, what is the international opinion on it?
– Junaid

PM.  Of course, I can’t speak for everybody internationally, but the case drew a lot of attention internationally because the situation was so stark. A young girl with development problems, who might not have known what she was doing, even if she were guilty under the law, and then the issue compounded by accusation that an imam had faked the evidence. I think this lead to more attention, and international condemnation of the laws, and the way they are carried out, than anything since the killings of Salman Tazeer and Shabbaz Bhatti. This view is widespread – not just in the west – I have spend most of the last month in Indonesia, and many Muslims there are outraged by what happens under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

Q. Do blasphemy/hate speech cases get as much media coverage in other countries as they do in Pakistan? I feel that the Pakistani media hypes these cases in an insensitive manner. What is your opinion about this?
– Maliha Q

PM.  In the Muslim-majority world, such cases get a lot of attention. Indonesia does not have many such cases but when they occur, there is a lot of coverage. Similar situation is there in Egypt and many other places. I think that in many places the media hypes it, and tries to incite anger. Radicals also try to get people worked up. In the west there is a similar pattern. When Terry Jones, an unknown pastor in Florida with a tiny congregation said he would burn a Quran, he became a centre of media attention in America and the world, and he had American cabinet ministers phoning him, which was precisely what he wanted. Last year he actually did burn a Quran, but most people just ignored him. If he is ignored, he will stop.

Q. You said that Muslims in Indonesia are outraged by what happens under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Can you tell us a bit about their blasphemy laws so we can have a comparison in our minds?
– Maliha Q

PM. Article 156(a) of the Indonesia penal code states that whoever “expresses a view or commits an act that principally disseminates hatred, misuses or defames a religion recognized in Indonesia, face at maximum five years imprisonment.” Hence the law (which is not used much) has a ‘hate speech’ element, and it also applies to all of the country’s six recognized religions. Also the penalties are less (in Pakistan, as you know, there can be, in principle, the death penalty) so the law is more general, and milder, than Pakistan (I am still opposed to it though). It has been used against Ahmadis, and now also against Shia, and there have recently been killings of Shia. The law, like many others tends to expand to cover a wider range of people, and also, I think, tends to encourage violence by others

Q. How does one define what qualifies as hate speech and what doesn’t? Who is supposed to be the judge for it?
– Dilawar

PM. I think it is very difficult to define it, it always gets subjective. In the west the judges define it but the definition remains vague. I think the laws should be dropped.
I think people should be banned from ‘incitement to violence’ but otherwise free to speak. I think the question of violence, not hatred, should be the standard

PM. I see that the hour is over, so can’t take any more questions, but thank you for the questions. They were very good (and difficult). Best regards.

From bad to worse

Lots of innocent people are behind bars. Photo Courtesy Ayesha Vellani/White Star

Blasphemy laws have frequently captured the attention of the local and international media for the apparent flaws of their form and procedure. Having served the less-than-bona fide political needs of the authoritarian regime of their sponsor General Ziaul Haq and later as a major tool in the hands of religious groups to torment their religious, sectarian and political rivals, these laws continue to be a cause of grave concern for the human rights activists and advocates of religious freedom.

Though most critics of the blasphemy laws directly blame Zia for their introduction in the form they exist now, it was, in fact, his Majlis-e-Shoora in 1980s that made them a part of the law books. The laws as adopted originally, however, did not provide for mandatory death penalty for blaspheming about the Prophet of Islam. In 1990, theFederal Shariat Court, a superior religious court also set up by Zia, decided on a constitutional petition filed by lawyer Ismail Qureshi that “the penalty for contempt of the Holy Prophet … is death and nothing else”. The court also directed the then government of prime minister Nawaz Sharif to make the necessary legal changes in this regard. Initially, the government filed an appeal against the verdict at the Supreme Court’s Shariat Appellate Bench but later withdrew it. Qureshi claimed in his book that Sharif withdrew the appeal on his request. In any case, the withdrawal allowed theFederal Shariat Courtverdict to become final and legally binding.

This is, however, not to say that blasphemy laws did not exist on the statute books before Haq. They existed but they were neither specific to Muslim religious personalities and Muslim religious texts nor did they carry such stringent punishments as they do now. Their origins lie in 1920s, when in a number of cases inPunjaballeged blasphemers were killed by young men inspired to act against them under religious fervour. The purpose of the original legislation in the British colonial era was to cater to the Muslim religious feelings that were hurt by the incidents of blasphemy and to avoid the repetition of incidents in which people would kill an alleged blasphemer without any recourse to law. These laws provided for punishing “deliberate and malicious acts intended” to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs. Originally these laws were not known as blasphemy laws; they were just part of the penal code. It was only under Haq that they acquired the new moniker and omitted the mention to deliberation, maliciousness and intention.

Changes made into these laws since the 1980s, were inspired by sectarian reasons as well as the rising tide of Islamisation of Pakistan under Zia. “Sequence of interventions in the Pakistan Penal Code should be kept in mind while discussing the blasphemy laws. First of five amendments [in the blasphemy laws] were made in 1980 when sectarian tensions were rife in the country, owing to the Shia-Sunni conflicts over the collection of ushr and zakat by the government,” says Peter Jacob, an activist for religious liberties. This amendment extended the scope of blasphemy laws by making them applicable also on those who insulted the wives of the Prophet, his family and any of the first four caliphs.

“The second intervention was made in 1982, which provided for life imprisonment for defiling the Quran. The amendment also allowed that anyone accused of defiling the Quran could be arrested without a warrant. In 1984, the Zia regime institutionalised the segregation of Ahmadis, barring them from calling themselves Muslims and observing religious and social Islamic  practices,” says Jacob. Anyone found violating these bars was to be tried under the blasphemy laws. “In a 1986 amendment, death was added to life imprisonment as a penalty for blaspheming about the Prophet of Islam,” he adds.

The third intervention in 1986 provided that blasphemy about the Prophet of Islam could be punished either with death penalty or life imprisonment. In the original draft of this amendment, Qureshi and a Jamaat-e-Islami legislator Apa Nisar Fatima had proposed death penalty alone but the ministry of law amended their bill by adding the alternative of life imprisonment. It was this change by the law ministry that Qureshi challenged in front of the Federal Shariat Courtin 1987 and got a verdict in line with the original draft.

The consequences of the all these amendments have been immense, to say the least. Since 1986, more than 1,000 cases of blasphemy have been registered inPakistanas compared to almost none in the preceding years. More than half of these cases have been filed against Muslims and at least 39 people accused of blasphemy have lost their lives to vigilante violence.