I was watching a political talk show on a TV channel recently and was amused by a fleeting comment made by one of the ministers of state against the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. The programme was debating the merit of the latest uproar against the uncontrollable social media. The interior minister had, apparently, in a fit of manufactured rage, threatened to shut down the social media in Pakistan if the blasphemous content was not taken off it. The minister of state was adamant in supporting the proposed social media blackout and scoffed at the PTI’s stance, saying the PTI’s defence of social media was understandable as the party only existed online. The comment was ludicrous and heartless, betraying both a lack of understanding of social media and disrespect for the millions who voted for the PTI. It did, however, reveal a rather fearful appreciation of social media, its lightning fast ubiquity and transformative impact on shaping public opinion.
To be fair, I am a bit clueless about the rants against social media as a purveyor of blasphemous material. By definition, social media allows everyone without discrimination, a platform to voice opinion. This freedom is taken advantage of by some callous people who intentionally upload content that incites hate and anger by disrespecting the religious beliefs, personalities and books of other faiths. The choice of accessing this content, however, remains with the individual user as Facebook or Twitter, for instance, do not impose it on other users. I can, therefore, choose to stay away from such content and continue to enjoy the social media for what it truly is: a beautiful melting pot of cultures and people and opinions that blurs geographical boundaries to bring people together, that enlightens without being didactic and that allows all to speak without prejudice.
The government now proposes to include blasphemy in the cybercrime bill. It is, however, not easy to lay the ground rules for defining any content as blasphemous. The blasphemy judgment is subjective and informed by a slew of factors, including education, faith, sect, geography and bent of mind. Jews have made it virtually a crime to deny and dismiss the Holocaust on any media. This, however, did not happen overnight. They went about it in a structured manner, embedding their views in both the legal and social consciousness over a long period of time by engaging people, governments and institutions. Perhaps we need to do the same. But first, we need to define as to what truly constitutes blasphemy and then permeate the idea among our people using the pulpits of media, mosque and madrassa and most importantly through rewriting taught history and reinterpretation of religious scripture. We can only then hope to rewire our society, curb its violent instincts cultured over decades and render sterile the poisonous religious narrative infused into the fabric of society. Let me also say that food adulteration, rape, deceit, murder are perhaps the real desecrations and not the online abuse we so passionately croak about.
The Pakistan Cybercrime Bill establishes, among other things, electronic forgery and fraud, cyber terrorism (cyber-attack on critical infrastructure), use of viruses, identity theft as crimes. There is now talk of including online blasphemy in the list. The bill has been criticised by the civil society for its potential of curbing freedom of speech and giving enormous powers to law enforcement agencies. It has been declared to be a muddle of punishments and vaguely-defined crimes, intended to leash the power of social media, given its increasingly transformative impact on shaping public opinion. The beauty of any law lies in its clarity and precise definition of the crime so as to mitigate the risk of subjective and malicious interpretations. Unlike historians who take pride in spinning opposing narratives around the same historical events, lawmakers frame unambiguous laws to converge divergent interpretations. This is definitely not the case with some of the clauses in the Cybercrime Bill and a piqued state can summon this bill to unleash hell for dissenters.
The clause dealing with the criminal subversion of “critical infrastructure” conveniently leaves “critical infrastructure” undefined. The UN definition of the term includes power generation and transmission, air and maritime transport, banking services, water and food supply, and public health infrastructure. The UN also urges every country to define its own infrastructure. The Pakistani law proposes a fine of up to Rs50 million or 14 years of imprisonment for threatening the security of the as yet undefined ‘infrastructure’. The notion of ‘national security’ is no different, equally obscure and potentially open to abuse by the State to muzzle freedom of speech and opinion. The law rightly bars superimposing the face of a natural person on sexually explicit images but then stretches to also rope in those who distort the natural face. Caricaturists and Photoshop users seem to be at risk now. Sadly, adding blasphemy to the bill would only mean adding another nebulous concept to an already hazy construct.
Broad definitions of what is deemed punishable invests too much power in the authorities to prosecute and censor. People fear that online criticism of the government, judiciary or armed forces may invite the state’s wrath and the invocation of the Cybercrime Bill. The PTI is convinced that government is using the issue of blasphemy as a fig leaf to defang a very potent weapon in the PTI’s armoury. Whatever the truth is, shutting down social media will be utterly nonsensical and as retrogressive an act as the historical Muslim blunder of shunning the printing press. Social media is continuously evolving and warrants an equally dynamic set of clearly defined laws. Regulation and not strangulation should be the spirit and laws must not stifle free opinion, debate and access to information. Pakistan’s march on the road to democracy has been cheered on and helped significantly by an independent media. To be truthful, the credit for middle-class political activism, politicisation of women and increased pressure on rulers to perform can be squarely laid at the door of a media given leeway to run its course. Let’s not backtrack as Pakistan marches on.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 24th, 2017.