Pakistan will punish social media companies that fail to take action against online blasphemy, the interior minister said, adding that he had requested a meeting with Facebook to discuss the issue.
Pakistan’s government wants social media networks to remove material deemed insulting to Islam or the Prophet Muhammad, and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif last week warned those posting such content would be “strictly punished”.
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“[Blasphemy] is not only a problem for Pakistan. This is an issue about the honour of every Muslim,” said Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, who is also seeking to meet ambassadors from other Muslim countries to tackle the problem.
“If we do not get a response from social media, I do not care about anyone, there is nothing greater than our faith. If social media and especially international social media stays on this route, then we will have to take strong action regarding social media,” said Khan.
He did not specify what action might be taken.
Those convicted of blasphemy could face the death penalty under Pakistani law.
Right groups say the law is frequently abused in a country where Islam is a highly sensitive subject, and where even rumours of blasphemy have sparked deadly riots.
Analysts say the blasphemy law has been abused to muzzle government critics.
Facebook is the most popular social network in the country. Khan said that the company was “ready to send a delegation to Pakistan” and would do so once a date was agreed.
Appealing to conservatives
Facebook could not be immediately reached for comment. However, a report by the company on Pakistani government requests for data lists 25 pieces of content being restricted between January and June 2016.
“Based on legal requests from the Pakistan Telecom Authority, we restricted access to content for allegedly violating local laws prohibiting blasphemy, desecration of the national flag, and condemnation of the country’s independence,” reads the Facebook page on the country.
According to analytics data from Facebook’s website, the social media app has about 25-30 million active users in Pakistan, where internet penetration remains poor.
Facebook’s Instagram unit and rival Twitter are also popular.
The ruling PML-N party’s tough talk against blasphemy will appeal to its conservative voter base before elections likely to take place next year.
At least 65 people, including lawyers, defendants and judges, have been murdered in Pakistan over blasphemy allegations since 1990, according to figures from a Centre for Research and Security Studies report and local media.
In one high-profile case six years ago, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was killed by one of his guards, who accused him of blasphemy because he criticised the law and defended a Christian woman sentenced to death for allegedly insulting Prophet Muhammad.