One arrest made in social media blasphemy case, interior ministry tells IHC
Updated about 8 hours ago
As the hearing of a petition seeking removal of blasphemous content from social media resumed on Wednesday, Islamabad High Court (IHC) Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui was told that the interior ministry had made one arrest in the case, while the names of several have been put on the Exit Control List (ECL).
The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) submitted its report on the matter and informed the court that they had registered a case two days ago after completing their inquiry.
The court expressed its disappointment at the speed at which the case was progressing and instructed the interior ministry to hand in a detailed report on the matter in the next hearing, which will be held on March 27.
The court reiterated that the country’s premier spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, should assist the government in the case.
Justice Siddiqui said a decision on banning social media in Pakistan will be made only after the interior ministry submits its report.
The issue has kicked up a political storm on the national level.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said on March 14 that blasphemy is an unpardonable offence and directed the state machinery to find those responsible for putting blasphemous content on social media and bring them to justice without delay.
Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar has also said that Pakistan will represent the global Muslim community on the issue of blasphemous content posted on social media platforms and take the fight to any extent necessary to get its message across.
On March 16, the National Assembly passed a resolution condemning blasphemous content posted on social media and unanimously agreed to the formation of a committee of parliamentary leaders to monitor such content.
Court seeks ISI’s assistance in blasphemous content case
Published Mar 18, 2017 07:08am
ISLAMABAD: Expanding the scope of investigation into the blasphemous content on the social media, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) on Friday sought assistance from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
Resuming the hearing of a petition seeking removal of blasphemous content from social media, Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui summoned a senior official of the intelligence agency to the next hearing on March 22.
At the outset, the judge asked Islamabad Advocate General Mian Abdul Rauf to apprise the court about the steps taken to block and permanently remove the blasphemous webpages, progress on amending the cybercrime act and enabling the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to act against uploading of blasphemous and objectionable content as well as the identification of those responsible.
Mr Rauf told the court that the blasphemous content had been removed and the government had expressed serious concerns with the Facebook management on the issue. He said the Facebook management had appointed a focal person and would also send a team to Pakistan in the near future.
The advocate general also informed the court about the progress on identifying the persons uploading the blasphemous content. He, however, said since blasphemy was an offence under the Pakistan Penal Code, there was no need to include it in the cybercrime act.
FIA Director Mazharul Haq Kakakhel informed the court that they were investigating about 75 people in connection with the blasphemy case. The FIA is also consulting a lawyer to take up the matter with the International Court of Justice (ICJ), he said.
The official, however, linked a tangible progress on the case with the active cooperation of the Facebook management.
The court expressed dissatisfaction over the reply of the advocate general and the FIA.
Justice Siddiqui asked the government’s counsel to ensure the attendance of the attorney general in the next hearing. He remarked that the court would also consult religious scholars and would seek their input on the misuse of the blasphemy law.
When the court asked about the airing of obscene content on television channels, Pemra Chairman Absar Alam conceded an indecency in some TV shows.
He told the court that Pemra had stopped the broadcast of Indian movies and dramas besides issuing directions against the airing of programmes that promoted violence.
An additional secretary of the information ministry informed the court about the steps taken to publicise Article 19 of the Constitution which ensures freedom of information with reasonable restrictions.
Senate slams blasphemous content on social media
Iftikhar A. Khan
Updated Mar 11, 2017 07:48am
ISLAMABAD: The Senate unanimously adopted on Friday a resolution condemning the blasphemous content circulating on social media and seeking exemplary punishment for those behind it.
The resolution asked the government to act under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code against those uploading the objectionable material on social media. The government was also asked to put in place a regular mechanism to check circulation of such material on social networking sites in the country.
The resolution, moved by Kamil Ali Agha of the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid, was endorsed by Leader of the House Raja Zafarul Haq and Leader of the Opposition Aitzaz Ahsan.
Pointing out that Pakistan was the only country in the world to have been carved out in the name of Islam, the resolution said the Constitution of the country guaranteed respect for all prophets, all sacred personalities of Islam, the last Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him), his family members as well as his companions.
The house lamented that some perverts were violating the law and committing blasphemy to create chaos in the country. It was stressed that Islam gave the right to freedom of expression but that was not an unbridled right.
Earlier, various senators, while speaking on the issue, called for some restrictions on social media in the country.
While seeking the chair’s permission to move the resolution, Mr Agha regretted that some blasphemous posts had been circulating on social media for some weeks.
The lawmakers said there would be chaos in the country if strict action was not taken against the culprits. It was pointed out that the government had the technology to identify the sources behind the malicious campaign.
Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani surprised the house by revealing that his fake twitter account was still operational and letters written by him to the FIA director general and the PTA chairman did not work. “I was told that only Twitter administration can do it,” he said.
The lawmakers asked the government to follow the UAE model to block the blasphemous content. It was pointed out that intelligence agencies had the capacity to track down the sources. Some senators were of the opinion that while there should be a check on blasphemous material, the sources of knowledge and information should not be blocked.
The Senate unanimously passed the Senate Secretariat Services Bill to regulate appointments and service structure of the employees of the house.
The chairman said that with this legislation, the Senate had become the first house among parliament and four provincial assemblies to have a law for its employees’ service structure.
The statement of objects and reasons of the bill says: “Article 87 provides that Majlis-i-Shoora (parliament) may by law regulate the recruitment and the conditions of the services of persons appointed to the secretariat staff of either House. Till date the affairs of the Senate of Pakistan are being run under the Senate Secretariat (Recruitment) Rules, 1973, which were formed with the approval of the President under the Article 87. Therefore, the Senate has assumed its constitutional obligation and this bill has been drafted after extensive deliberations.”
IHC orders blasphemers’ names be put on ECL
Updated Mar 09, 2017 07:45am
The Islamabad High Court (IHC) on Wednesday ordered the government to put the names of those involved in posting blasphemous content on social media on the Exit Control List (ECL).
Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui passed the order while hearing a case pertaining to the alleged presence of ’blasphemous content’ on social media.
The case was filed by Salman Shahid (son-in-law of Abdul Aziz of Lal Masjid fame).
In his petition, Shahid had argued that the presence of blasphemous content on social media websites was "hurting the religious sentiments of Muslims".
The petition also alleged that pages and videos against the Holy Prophet (Peace be Upon Him) and revered personalities had not been blocked by the respondents nor had any steps been taken so far to remove the content.
Federal Secretary Interior Mohammad Arif Khan, representing Interior Minister Chaudhary Nisar, Inspector General of Islamabad Police Tariq Masood Yasin, PTA Chairman Syed Ismail Shah and officials of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) appeared before the court today.
All the respondents were shown the ’blasphemous’ content on social media in the chamber of IHC Chief Justice Siddiqui. Subsequently, Justice Siddiqui directed them to place the names of those involved on ECL. He questioned PTA chairman what he had done so far to get the content off social media pages.
The judge said that the court will hear the case on a daily basis and directed PTA to take action immediately. He ordered the PTA chairman to submit his progress on the case to him on a daily basis as well.
In his remarks, Justice Siddiqui said he had been unable to sleep since he saw the materials available with the court.
"I will go to every extent to bring this case to its logical end and if needed I will even ban social media in Pakistan," he said.
Secretary interior assured the court that all possible measures would be taken to remove the content from social media and arrest the culprits.
How your social media activity can land you in jail for blasphemy
Updated Dec 19, 2015 01:59am
It comes out of nowhere. You log onto Facebook with the intention of scrolling through your news feed, sharing a post here, commenting there.
Your activity clutters up your friends’ timelines, and one ’friend’, or perhaps an individual following you, pays special attention to one of your posts. It is a post you find harmless, but the individual finds deeply offensive, perhaps blasphemous under their interpretation.
Or perhaps you are part of a group called ‘Liberals of Pakistan’ and are listed as one of its administrators. The friend, or individual remembers seeing – or hearing – that the group routinely features content critical of religion.
Taking matters into his/her own hands, the individual goes to the nearest police station and lodges a complaint against you, claiming blasphemy. Perhaps they have vendetta in mind, perhaps they believe this is a genuine case.
You are then summoned to the police station, and under the prying eyes of officials, forced to log into your Facebook. Or worse, they arrive at your doorstep.
No warrant or court order is issued to access your online activity. Policemen browse through your groups and private messages. Somewhere, they find a post that they interpret to be blasphemous. Already under pressure by the individual who reported you, they decide to take action.
You insist the post cannot be considered blasphemous. You argue that being part of a Facebook group does not mean you endorse all its views.
It doesn’t matter. You are now arrested and jailed. A blasphemy case is filed against you under section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code.
Meanwhile, the police refer your post, or your group to the National Response Center for Cyber Crimes (NR3C), a wing of the Federal Investigation Agency. NR3C passes the matter onto Facebook and the social media giant promptly blocks the post/group based on a secret agreement between the state and the company.
No lawyer wants to take up your case and you cannot be released on bail. Unless you flee the country prior to arrest, chances are you will rot in prison for years until your case reaches trial. Death threats to you, your family, and your lawyer become routine.
While the above example is fictional, it is not unrealistic.
A recently-released report by the Digital Rights Foundation notes a rise in the number of incidents where people are accused of blasphemy based on online activity or text messages.
As an example, the report outlines the case of Professor Junaid Hafeez, an academic teaching English at Bahauddin Zakariya University in Multan, who is in prison for blasphemy. It is still not clear, the report says, whether Hafeez wrote blasphemous material that was posted on his Facebook group, ‘So Called Liberals of Pakistan’, but under pressure from hostile complainants, his fate was sealed.
Hafeez’s case was taken up by lawyer Rashid Rehman – who was shot in May last year. Hafeez is currently awaiting trial in a jail cell.
A country without cyber laws
Instead of protecting people from vigilante action against blasphemy accusations based on online activity, the state faces the danger of facilitating it.
Hafeez’s case particularly illustrates why Pakistanis need to worry about the Cyber Crime Bill and laws that do not regard for citizens online privacy and rights, the DRF report outlines.
Blasphemy cases are ridden with incidents of intimidation and threats against the accused. The DRF report contains interviews with several lawyers who spoke on the condition of anonymity, and confessed having faced death threats while undertaking blasphemy cases, even while their defendant was in jail.
With online reports, the matter grows more complicated. In the case of a blasphemy allegation, there is no coherent law defining online hate speech, or one that protects citizens’ digital rights, the DRF report states.
Facebook reports that the majority of bans it approves are based on “valid requests from the government”, which come from the NR3C. But neither the NR3C nor the PTA has legal authority to investigate or act upon blasphemy cases, though they routinely cite blasphemy as the reason for blocking or regulating online content, the report says.
It goes on to argue that without transparency on behalf of social media networks and local bodies, online users in Pakistan face a daily threat. Anything online – even if it is within a private email – can be released publicly, taken down, blocked/deleted, or charged under Pakistan’s rampantly misused blasphemy law.
A culture of bans and breaches
Blasphemy cases in Pakistan are already marked by a worrying trend of unfair trials. Lawyers told the DRF that public sentiment, in most cases, outweighs legal procedure. Human Rights groups have repeatedly asked Pakistan to rectify its blasphemy laws, which do not account for the intent of the accused, and routinely result in blocks on websites and social media networks.
When the state, through PTA, blocks a website for promoting ‘blasphemous’ content (as in the case of YouTube) it defies the very spirit of Article 19 of the Constitution that guarantees freedom of speech to every Pakistani citizen, the report states.
DRF also questions the conduct and responsibility of social media networks like Facebook, who approve requests by government departments like NRC3 that are not authorised to deal with blasphemy laws. It says that if these companies, along with government officials and policemen, are given free rein to snoop into personal e-mails and online conversations, privacy breaches will likely increase, and freedom of speech will be curtailed.
The DRF report recommends using social media as a tool in battling the misuse of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Social media, the report argues, can be used to build stories and counter-narratives of blasphemy cases. States should be susceptible to public opinion, and social media, which increasingly constitutes a large section of the public sphere, should take ownership in contributing to public opinion the report recommends.
The report also recommends reaching out to religious scholars via social media to build perspectives and narratives that align religious scholarship with human rights norms worldwide.
Why Pakistan’s cybercrime bill is a dangerous farce
Updated Apr 17, 2015 07:59pm
The past few months have been a struggle for those fighting for digital rights in Pakistan. While they are a small minority in the grand pool of activists in the country, they have had their hands full with the new proposed cybercrime bill (#PECB15) determinedly being pushed forward by the concerned officials.
Currently, the bill has been passed by the National Assembly Standing Committee on IT and seems to be moving swiftly along. A little background might help to understand why the bill is being pushed forward so quickly, and why this proposed bill should be important to us as citizens.
Know more: NA committee approves ’controversial’ cyber-crime bill
In December 2014, a not-for-profit digital advocacy group I work for, Bolo Bhi, filed a petition in the Islamabad High Court to challenge the legality of the Inter-Ministerial Committee for the Evaluation of Websites (IMCEW).
Bolo Bhi had found, after filing in the Right to Information requests, that the IMCEW had no legal standing and yet, were passing directives to block content online, even if they were not of a blasphemous or pornographic nature.
The IMCEW was disbanded in March, after it became obvious that the courts were convinced that the body was unconstitutional. However, as expected, our Prime Minister stated that the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) would now have the authority to manage content online, without paying any attention to the lack of transparency and accountability in the current process.
The PTA was created by act of Parliament, which means the powers vested in the PTA are to be granted through law, not by a statement made by the prime minister.
And that is all the more reason why it is so critical to know what this new proposed law holds for us.
The addition of Section 31 of the Proposed Cybercrime Bill gives PTA:
“Power to issue directions for removal or blocking of access of any intelligence through any information system…if it considers it necessary in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, commission of or incitement to an offence.”
This has created an excessively broad scope to justify blocking material online.
For example, criticism of The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, or the United States of America, could fall under “friendly relations with foreign states”. Thus any newspaper, online media, or material on social media in regards to such criticism can and most likely will be blocked. There will be no need for a direct order from the Supreme Court, or an evaluation of the material, it will just disappear off the Internet.
We have already seen that happen with the disappearance of Fahd Hussain’s column on the UAE minister’s statement; we may have power to dispute such blocking today, but if this bill is passed, there will be very little we would be able to do.
I could come up myriad examples of what all can be blocked/banned by twisting around the aforementioned "justifications”; but we are all already well aware of the blocks and bans Pakistan is known to impose under the garb of “national security” or “terrorism”.
To take away our right to fight the constitutionality of the banning and blocking of websites, the government wants to pass the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2015. This will allow the PTA to block anything, on ANY information system (which could possibly include your phones, your televisions, even your Xbox and PlayStation, because they have the ability to connect to the Internet), and there will be very little you can do about it.
But besides taking away our ability to challenge, this bill has found its way to infringe upon our freedom of expression and opinions.
Article 19 of the Pakistan Constitution says:
“Freedom of speech, etc – Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with Foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, 1 [commission of] or incitement to an offence.”
It would be good to mention here that the website of a well-known Human Rights Group, Article19.org, is blocked on a certain ISP here in Pakistan, ironically. When asked about it, they said: “The PTA directed them to do so”. This was on April 15, 2015, even before the bill had been passed.
How does a website on the freedom of speech upset the “glory of Islam” or “security, integrity or defence” or effect Pakistan negatively in any way? It doesn’t; it just irks the government, that’s all.
This proposed bill will do just the same; it will suppress our ability to express our opinion, to write freely, to create memes, or cartoons, especially ones that are political in nature or even upload pictures of people without asking their permission.
In fact, you will not even be able to send out a mass text, e-mail or any such thing without explicit consent of the receiver. Just read the most recent draft of the draconian cybercrime bill. In other parts of the world, spamming is dealt with differently, and penalties are only imposed if spamming is done for commercial purposes. Not so here.
In the event that you get charged with a crime under this bill, a warrant will either exist as a formality or not at all. The wordings of the act regarding the warrants is so vague and open-ended, that it seems it was just added to make it sound like defendants were being given the right to due process.
The Law mandates ISPs to retain your data for 90 days, and thus, can be forced to give up your browser history and/or other information that we once believed to be private. In fact, if you’re charged under this law, you may be forced to give investigating officials open access to all your data, online or on your computer/information devices.
In the absence of a Data Protection Law, the introduction of a loosely worded cybercrime law would be devastating for civil liberties and businesses in the country.
These provisions in the proposed bill are an infringement on the right to free speech; the right to expression; the right to free media; the protection from undue searches and seizures; the right to NOT incriminate oneself; and the right to conduct business. From how it looks, even media outlets would be severely persecuted under this law.
The draftspersons of this bill seem to have forgotten that there are some inalienable rights given to a Pakistani citizen and that no law violating them can be passed. The fact that the law has moved forward on the floor of the assembly is incredibly worrying.
It seems as though lawmakers have no clue that this law will be in violation of our constitutional rights. It is important that we as citizens identify and understand the problems with this bill, and not stand by while it is in the process of being enacted.
We need to break the silence.