MARCH 29, 2017 — In March, the rulers of Pakistan stepped up a campaign against blasphemy, frightening news from an Islamic nation where insulting the official religion is a capital crime.
From an American perspective, this would merely be another, distant nation’s horror — if it weren’t for one aspect of the story.
As part of the crackdown, Pakistani leaders have asked executives of Facebook and Twitter to help them help root out people who post blasphemous material on social media sites from anywhere in the world.
In response, Facebook said in mid-March that it planned to send a team to Pakistan to discuss the government’s request. Really?
Later, Pakistan’s interior ministry claimed Facebook’s administrators have been blocking and removing blasphemous content from the site. Really?!
It’s heartening to read that Facebook said in a statement that, in considering government requests, it keeps in mind “the goal of protecting the privacy and rights of our users.”
However, the situation calls for stronger assurance that Facebook will do its part to defend the basic human values of free thought and free expression.
It’s understood that social networking companies have a complicated challenge in dealing with an array of cultures and standards of freedom in countries all over the world.
But Facebook and Twitter — or any American company facing pressure such as this from Pakistani leaders — must bluntly refuse to cooperate in any way with a repressive regime’s efforts to forcibly squelch free expression and dissent, even if their refusal means having access to their sites blocked in those countries.
As Michael De Dora, the main representative to the United Nations from the nonprofit Center for Inquiry, said: “We do not want to see the people of Pakistan cut off from such a powerful and far-reaching platform as Facebook. But we hope Facebook makes clear that it will not compromise its users’ safety or freedom through disclosure.”
Pakistan is, sadly, far from the only country that doesn’t understand the right to free speech that most Americans take for granted.
The Pew Research Center found last year that, as of 2014, 26 percent of the world’s countries and territories had laws or policies against blasphemy (that is, showing a lack of reverence for a god or sacred thing), and 13 percent had laws or policies against apostasy (the renunciation of a religion), the offenses calling for everything from fines to execution. Such laws are most common in the Middle East and North Africa.
But Pakistan’s policies, and its leaders’ rhetoric, are worse than most. According to unofficial tallies, since 1990 at least 68 people have been killed there over allegations of blasphemy, including a provincial governor shot dead six years ago by a police guard who accused him of blasphemy after he defended a Christian woman who insulted the Prophet Muhammad; and currently about 40 people are on death row or serving life sentences for blasphemy. Last week, three bloggers were arrested on blasphemy charges.
In Pakistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif calls blasphemy an “unpardonable offense.”
Here, the unpardonable offense would be failing to push back against such backward thing. Facebook and Twitter should help to lead the push.