New Delhi: Even as social media platform Twitter has been claiming that it does not hinder the right to freedom of speech in view of the attack that it is facing from investors and likely to be its new owner, Elon Musk, a US Senate Committee on Intelligence, while hearing on the topic of “Foreign influence operations-use of social media platforms” in September 2018 had castigated the then Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Twitter, Jack Dorsey for bending to Pakistan’s demand of taking action against users who spoke against the controversial “blasphemy laws”, thereby indirectly validating these laws.
Marco Rubio, the Republican Senator from Florida, while questioning Dorsey, who subsequently moved on from Twitter in November 2021, grilled him extensively on how Twitter had allowed its platform to accommodate requests made by Pakistan to remove tweets that were against the implementation of blasphemy laws in the country.
“Twitter has a policy of accommodating countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression by selectively blocking tweets and accounts. For example, one of the countries you complied with is Pakistan, who has asked you to block sites for blasphemy. The blasphemy count—647 cases of blasphemy. Fifty percent of those cases were on non-Muslim Pakistanis—in a country with three percent non-Muslim,” Rubio, in the hearing that was attended by 13 other Senators said.
Dorsey was also questioned on Twitter accepting demands that come from Pakistan regarding removing content supporting Asia Bibi, who was sentenced to death by a court under the blasphemy laws in 2011. It is pertinent to mention that two prominent Pakistani politicians, then Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti and Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, were assassinated for advocating for her and opposing the blasphemy laws.
Senator Rubio, during his questioning of Dorsey, asked Dorsey as to why the request to adhere to Pakistan’s blasphemy law was accepted by Twitter. “One high-profile case is Asia Bibi, who has been sentenced to death after a personal dispute over drinking water with a group of women. They accused her of insulting the prophet. She’s arrested, imprisoned, sentenced to death. Not relevant to Twitter but relevant to the blasphemy laws that Pakistan has asked you to comply with,” Rubio said.
In his response, Dorsey said that Twitter had enacted a policy some time ago to allow for per-country content takedown, implying that anti-blasphemy content would not be visible to users in Pakistan but would be able to be seen by users in the rest of the world.
Unperturbed by the Senate hearing and the grilling, Twitter continued to enforce the Pakistani blasphemy laws even for users who are not based in Pakistan. Days later, it issued notices to Canadian columnist Anthony Furey for breaking a slew of Pakistani laws including insulting the Prophet Mohammad through drawing cartoons of the Prophet several years ago.
Along-with Furey, Saudi-Canadian activist Ensaf Haidar and Imam Mohammad Tawhidi, a progressive Muslim scholar from Australia, were also served notices by Twitter during the same period for breaking the blasphemy law. All three are well known critics of religious extremism within Islam. When they contacted Twitter, they were told that the notices came on request made by Pakistan. Furey, later, wrote about how this act by Twitter amounts to “validating their absurd blasphemy laws”.
As per Pakistan’s own Supreme Court, since 1990, 62 people have been murdered as a result of blasphemy allegations, even before their trial could be conducted in accordance with law. This included Mashal Khan, a student of Abdul Wali Khan University, Mardan, who in April 2017 was killed by a mob in the premises of the university merely due to an allegation that he posted blasphemous content online.
Last year in December, a Sri Lankan national, Priyantha Kumara, 40, was brutally lynched—all his bones were broken and his body was 99% burnt in Pakistan’s Punjab province over allegations of blasphemy. The post-mortem report of Diyawadana cited skull and jaw fractures as the cause of death. All his vital organs, liver, stomach and one of his kidneys, were affected, while torture marks were visible all over his body and his spinal cord was broken at three different points, the report said. The post-mortem report of the Sri Lankan national revealed that 99% of his body was burned, and with the exception of one foot, all his bones were broken.
In October 1996, Ayub Masih, was accused of blasphemy by his neighbour Muhammad Akram. The accused was arrested under the blasphemy law, but despite the arrest, houses of Christians were set ablaze and the entire Christian population of the village (14 families) were forced to leave the village. Ayub was shot and injured in the Sessions Court and was also further attacked in jail. After the trial was concluded, Ayub was convicted and sentenced to death, which was upheld by the High Court. However, the Supreme Court set him free after it emerged that the complainant wanted to grab the plot on which Ayub Masih and his father were residing and after implicating him in the said case, he managed to grab the said plot.
In the case of Asia Bibi, who was a poor labourer, it later emerged that she was implicated by her neighbours over a trivial fight over the fetching of water. The Muslim complainant did not allow her to fetch water as Asia was a Christian. The argument turned into a fight after which an FIR was filed against her for insulting the Prophet. She was later sentenced to death. The said decision was later overturned by the Supreme Court in October 2018. In May 2019, she had to flee to Canada along with her family.