Facebook rumors, censorship, and Pakistan’s blasphemy laws

Pakistan (MNN) — Pakistan has a reputation for being extreme when it comes to blasphemy cases. While the laws were written to protect all religions, it’s actually been used to abuse religious minorities. The effect is an extreme violation in freedom of speech and religion. So if Pakistan is so adept at punishing alleged cases of blasphemy, what are they willing to do to eradicate it completely? The latest in this discussion has to do with social media.

Earlier this week, rumors were spread that Facebook would be shut down in Pakistan on March 22nd. However, Facebook was still up and running in the country yesterday.

We spoke with Bruce Allen of FMI to get his take on the matter. He says there’s a lot of false claims surrounding the topic, which has riled people up. However, the tension surrounding the subject isn’t unfounded.

Allen says, “It is verifiable fact that the high court in Islamabad is trying to put the clamp down on Facebook and social media due to what they call blasphemous content, which they equate or identify with terrorism.”

The BBC reported last week that Pakistan has asked Facebook for help investigating blasphemy cases online. It is unknown how and if Facebook’s team will help them with any sort of censorship or investigation.

But in truth, a total shutdown isn’t out of the question. Allen says, “[Pakistan] shut down Facebook before. Back in 2010, the Pakistani court blocked Facebook for a period over the caricatures that had been posted about the prophet Mohammed.”

In 2012, Allen says, they banned YouTube because they identified a blasphemous video that they did not want playing in their country. YouTube created a separate branch for Pakistani servers. It’s possible they will seek the same from Facebook.

Censorship like this is always a concern. The question we had for FMI is whether or not it would affect their ministry outreach.
Social media and outreach
Facebook is just one of the avenues that groups like FMI use to have instant communication with their partners on the ground. Their messaging app is useful for this purpose. So, what would happen if it was no longer available? Allen says there are other means of communication that can be utilized. But what about when it comes to outreach? Well, there are a couple of things we need to understand.

(Photo courtesy of FMI)

First of all, Allen reminds us that people in Pakistan aren’t as tethered to Facebook as we are in the United States. There are a multitude of reasons why only a percentage of people have access to internet in the first place. This includes location, literacy, electricity, and so on. Within that group, only a small number use Facebook. Overall, Allen estimates, only about five percent of Pakistan’s population is on Facebook.

The second thing to understand, he explains, is that the pressure created by the blasphemy laws has already had an adverse effect on social media. In a word, self-censorship.

“What’s ended up happening is that many Christian bloggers, social media users have already stopped posting distinctively Christian content online for fear of now being construed as criminals under their current blasphemy laws.”

So, while social media is an increasingly important tool for ministry outreach, it isn’t perfect, and it’s not the only tool.

“Evangelism, discipleship, church planting, that’s been happening inside Pakistan long before Facebook or any other social media platform had ever been invented. So by God’s grace, those activities are still going to continue even if those tools get restricted or banned.”

In fact, Allen says it would be unwise to focus wholly on social media in Pakistan. Much of the Christian Church lives in remote villages, without access to smart phones, much less internet. They focus on audio or image-based tools to help spread the Gospel.
Awareness, empathy, prayer: examples from the early Church
Believers in Pakistan remind Allen of the early Church. As we learn through the New Testament, the first generation of Christ followers faced severe persecution. But they never gave up. Even after being imprisoned and beaten, they would come together again and continue their work of the Great Commission.

But in this early Church, there was also a strong network of communication, prayer, and support over far distances. That quality of unity doesn’t have to be left behind in history. There are ways you can get involved in supporting your brothers and sisters in Pakistan right now.

(Photo courtesy of FMI)

First, you can learn more about what life is like for everyone living under the restrictive governance in Pakistan. As you learn, try to empathize with Christians who are living under this oppression.

And finally, let that empathy drive you to constant prayer. Allen says, “We want to build awareness, but we also say, and our partners in Pakistan say, ‘Pray for us, that we will have courage to continue to speak.’”