This article, originally published on April 11 2017, has been updated to reflect current news in Pakistan.
Could the brutal killing of a journalism student, Mashal Khan, change Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws? That’s what the BBC asked in a recent article about the brutal April 13 lynching and murder of a 23-year-old student by his peers, who had accused Khan of blasphemy, at the Abdul Wali Khan University.
On April 22, peace marches and vigils took place in several cities in Pakistan. The same week, several of Khan’s 35 attackers were arrested. The investigation also confirmed that the plot to kill him emerged from within the university.
This recent murder is just another disturbing consequence of the harsh anti-free speech measures taken by Pakistan’s government in the last five years.
Just recently, Pakistani authorities had won one such important battle. On March 27, the interior ministry announced that Facebook had removed 85% of “illegal, blasphemous” content found on its website. The estimated number of social media users in the country, according to a 2015 report, is around 17.3 million. Facebook is the top site, and Twitter is spreading fast.
The move was possible because of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan, which were inherited from British rule. The laws are aimed at anyone who displays “disrespectful” behaviour or words against religion. And those found guilty can be put to death.
The laws are known and criticised globally because they have led to many deaths over the past decade.
A war against online media
In January, five Pakistani bloggers disappeared. All were known for their extensive use of social media, public criticism of religion and statements against censorship in their country.
But none of them have yet disclosed who abducted them. And the others are still missing, adding to the many unexplained disappearances in Pakistan.
Cases of true blasphemy are rare and laws exist to address them. And there is also no evidence that there has been a surge of blasphemous content online.
The public has to accept the verdict of the government without really knowing what is wrong with the way people express their views on social media.
Confronted by technological changes, authorities or self-proclaimed moral groups stir panic over what they don’t understand and then justify extending their control.
The contempt of Pakistan’s ruling elite
The problem in the country is not simply a religious one. It’s a structural issue within the ruling elite, the “Pakistani brown sahibs”, who, argued Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought Zafar Bangash in 2005 look down on the common man.
They control permitted views, deeming some as inferior and wrong, he said, adding:
Almost all colonized people display two characteristics: total subservience to the colonial master, and utter contempt for their own peoples.
The role of Pakistan’s citizens in their country’s governance has, unfortunately, been fairly minimal. Even in the limited periods when democracy has ostensibly existed in the country, it has been of varieties restricted either by prevalent socio-political conditions that do not provide equality of opportunity to constituents, or by the manipulative politics of dictators and demagogues garbed in the camouflage of electoral popularity.
According to Said, post-colonial structures revert to an appreciation and the practice of colonial masters when disappointment with total freedom sets in. And distaste for popular opinion becomes ingrained in the system.
This is the reason why the very idea of freedom of thought, let alone freedom of expression or journalism, has become anathema to the governing structures in Pakistan.
A troubled relationship with the press
It is true that the abuse of social media and the incompetence of the mainstream media, especially private television, has created an environment that was traumatising for some.
The debate about responsible journalism is clearly not going anywhere when people such as Aamir Liaquat Hussain, a religious broadcaster, publicly accuse liberal activists, bloggers and journalists of blasphemy and treachery.
But there is a difference between regulation and punitive measures. The authorities in Pakistan never had a policy of developing a public information system that responded to people’s questions, educated them or empowered them to participate in governance.
In a world of information explosion, no iron curtain could work. Pakistan allowed private TV under former president Pervez Musharraf (2001-2008) in early 2000s, not because the ruling class changed its thinking, but because there was no other option left.
State-owned PTV was considered a poor tool to counter Indian channels, which carried their own version of stories involving both countries, such as the coverage of the Kargil war in disputed Kashmir. Bringing in private TV channels was a half-hearted allowance that was never meant for freedom. And herein lies the problem.
Media yes, but no freedom
Because of the regime’s attitude towards media, citizens barely got accustomed to what free press stands for. Which is also why the rise of social media in the country has had such an impact and given rise to new forms of freedom of expression, with few boundaries and dependent on the subjectivity of connected individuals.
It took Pakistan almost 15 years to get from email through direct dial-up connections in 1993 to high-speed internet in 2007. But it’s now one of the top 20 connected countries in the world by 2014.
But the use of this medium as a journalistic enterprise – one without sufficient professional ethics – has brought with it problems, not only for social media users, but for the mainstream media too and, beyond, for freedom of expression within Pakistani society.
As the bloggers’ disappearances showed, social media activists in Pakistan are among the first ones to suffer. Having only a “network” of sympathisers for support, they have to go through all the ordeals of censorship and repression on their own, while mainstream journalists can at least rely on wider structures.
The situation in Pakistan is no longer about who did right or wrong, whether social media is to blame or if the government or other powers are intolerant or retrogressive.
The question that haunts the free mind and confronts every intellect in the country is whether it would be possible to restore the semblance of freedom of expression we had six months ago. Or if we need to use scissors on our minds, tighten the locks on our tongues and hail neo-obscurantism.