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Tad Stahnke

Tad Stahnke

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Pakistan's Crackdown on the Internet Shows What 'Global Blasphemy Code' Could Look Like

Posted: 07/12/10 01:18 PM ET

Pakistani authorities recently announced they will ban 17 websites and scrutinize seven additional websites for content considered offensive, or "blasphemous," to Muslims. The targeted sites are not your garden variety hate-filled pages. Rather, the list includes mainstream portals such as Google, Yahoo, YouTube, Amazon, MSN, Hotmail and Bing. Pakistan claims the move is to fend off Islamophobia. However, it marks another dangerous expansion of the nation's blasphemy prohibitions, which have been used to restrict freedom of expression, thought and religion. It also doesn't bode well for the international effort Pakistan is leading to establish a global code against blasphemy.

Under Pakistan's new initiative, individual pages of mainstream portal sites will be blocked if the content is judged insulting or offensive. This crackdown on the internet comes just weeks after Pakistan temporarily banned Facebook following a competition opened on the social networking site called "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day." Pakistani public opinion sided with the authorities when Facebook was banned, and Wikipedia and Flickr were also whisked away in the process.

Pakistan's Facebook ban was lifted by the end of May 2010, after the site removed the problematic page. The company's founder, Mark Zuckerberg, is reportedly now under investigation by the Pakistani police under a section of the penal code that renders "blasphemy against the prophet Mohammed" punishable by the death penalty. Some say the Facebook clash empowered Pakistan's government to take its more recent -- and more daring -- steps to ban and inspect new websites.

By criminalizing speech that defames the Prophet Mohammed, Pakistan aspires to become the world's champion in fighting Islamophobia. But the application of blasphemy laws in Pakistan tells a different story, one that has not advanced tolerance, peace or the rule of law. Accusations of blasphemy have resulted in arrests and arbitrary detentions and have sparked assaults, murders and mob attacks. Pakistani authorities have found it challenging to reign in the abuses that have resulted from these laws.

Beyond its borders, Pakistan wants to lead the world community to create internationally binding law to prohibit defamation of religions, essentially a global code against blasphemy. Its new ban on web pages that the government considers to be blasphemous provides a window into the world that the defamation initiative seeks to create: government censors -- likely spurred on by a barrage of purportedly authoritative religious determinations -- combing the internet for what the state decides to be blasphemous or not. And there is no reason to stop at taking down web pages. Under the Pakistan model and the current situation for Facebook, criminal investigations and prosecutions would easily follow. It is difficult to see how this helps Pakistan or any other society harness the power of modern communications technology to combat hatred or promote tolerance, not to mention advance good governance or economic development.

Blasphemy laws in Pakistan and several other countries have been used to provide cover for governments to restrict freedom of expression, thought and religion and prevent the peaceful expression of political and religious views -- all in the name of protecting religion from "defamation." By prohibiting controversial discussions in the realm of religion -- such as the role of women in society or of religion in the law -- the concept of "defamation of religions" permits States to determine which ideas are acceptable and which are not. It politicizes religion by drawing religious disputes into criminal law that applies to everyone, regardless of their religion or belief. It creates problems for adherents to minority faiths that may be deemed heretical or blasphemous by the majority or State-backed religious establishments. Vague standards empower majorities against dissenters, as well as the State against individuals.

It is no wonder that the defamation issue divides nations, rather than uniting them on how they can join forces to fight racism and religious intolerance. Recently, the tide has begun to turn at the United Nations against this initiative, and the current news from Pakistan should give states further pause to support it.

Despite the politically-driven agenda to launch a global blasphemy code, Human Rights First recognizes that a global initiative is needed to combat rising religious intolerance, not least a wave of violent hate crimes, discrimination and often virulent hate speech affecting Muslims and members of many other communities across the globe. This can and needs to be done without restricting freedom of expression.

Governments must acknowledge and condemn violence motivated by religious and other bias wherever it occurs -- and send strong consistent messages that violent hate crimes will be investigated thoroughly and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. More must be done to collect data, reduce fear and protect and assist victims. States must also use every opportunity to guarantee equal protection under the law without discrimination. This is what should be done.

Hateful rhetoric in the media and in political discourse is an important part of the context in which violent acts are being committed. States can do much more to respond through political measures to fight this trend. Governments and civic leaders must speak out publicly against expression of religious bigotry, racist and other intolerant language. Much can be done to fight hatred without restricting speech, such as this.

Human Rights First is calling on governments to reframe this divisive debate on defamation of religions. States should demonstrate their resolve to reverse religious intolerance by adopting an international program of action to combat bias motivated violence and discrimination and to address the impact of hate speech through political means that do not restrict speech. This will ultimately contribute much more to protecting freedom of religion and other fundamental rights -- of Muslims and everyone else -- than trying to seek out and take down web pages by deciding which ones are offensive or disrespectful, and which ones are not.