The rulers of Pakistan have stepped up a campaign against blasphemy. That’s frightening news from an Islamic nation where insulting the official religion is a capital crime.
From an American perspective, this would merely be a distant nation’s horror but for one thing: Silicon Valley’s tech industry. 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.
Facebook has not commented publicly on the issue, but a Pakistani official says the company will be sending a team to discuss the government’s request. More recently, Pakistan’s Interior Ministry claimed Facebook’s administrators have been blocking and removing blasphemous content.
Facebook should adhere to its proclaimed goal of “protecting the privacy and rights of our users,” not only in the United States but around the world. That’s especially important in countries with repressive regimes.
Online companies have a complicated challenge in a worldwide array of cultures and standards. But social media sites have an obligation to directly refuse to cooperate with a repressive regime’s wish to squelch free expression and dissent, even if that refusal means having their sites blocked in those countries.
Google and Facebook have been blocked in China since 2009, unwilling to comply with requests there. Pakistan has banned both Facebook and YouTube temporarily in the past decade after they allowed posting of material the government deemed “objectionable.”
Michael De Dora, a 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 far from alone in rejecting free speech. 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, and 13 percent had laws or policies against apostasy, or rejecting religion entirely. Punishments range from fines to execution. The 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, and currently about 40 people are on death row or serving life sentences. Last week, three bloggers were arrested on blasphemy charges.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif calls blasphemy an “unpardonable offense.”
The truly unpardonable offense would be for any social media company to acquiesce to this pressure. Facebook and Twitter need to stand strong.