Asia'a war on free expression must end

Islamabad/Bangkok, June 19, 2017: At the start of this week, a man named Taimoor Raza was sentenced to death by a court in Pakistan. His crime? Posting an allegedly blasphemous comment on Facebook.

It has been pointed out that this marks a milestone in Pakistan’s history: the first time someone has been handed the death sentence for activity on a social media platform. But in other respects, it is depressingly familiar, representing only the latest incident in a long-running crackdown on freedom of expression across Asia, where blasphemy and defamation laws are frequently used to muzzle dissent and persecute religious and ethnic minorities.

It is difficult to describe the scope of repression that activists, bloggers, and journalists in the region are facing. The number of recorded prosecutions under blasphemy legislation (which is rising, rapidly) is one part of the story. But this figure does not capture the largely undocumented epidemic of harassment, intimidation and vigilante violence faced by civil society operating in the region. 

If precedent is any guide, Taimoor Raza is unlikely to be executed – similar cases in Pakistan have all resulted in a commutation of the sentence. But this isn’t to say that expressing oneself can’t have fatal consequences in our region. In Bangladesh, for example, 11 bloggers have been killed since 2013 (with only one perpetrator ever prosecuted). In January, five left-leaning social media activists and bloggers in Pakistan mysteriously disappeared, resurfacing three weeks later with no explanation; the identity of their abductors as yet unconfirmed. The bloggers were subsequently subjected to online smear campaigns accusing them of blasphemy, and death threats. Three are thought to have since fled the country. As the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) put it, Pakistan is now “firmly counted among nations where expression in cyberspace makes activists extremely vulnerable.”

The relationship between this unofficial regime of intimidation, and formal means of repression – like prosecution through anti-blasphemy laws – is not always easy to define. But it is clear that anti-blasphemy laws provide a favourable climate for the actions of religious extremists; and both governments and non-state actors justify themselves with recourse to an overly broad interpretation of “hate speech”, a phenomenon we documented in our recent report, Desecrating Expression. Understood in this way, a wide range of protected forms of expression, from criticism of government officials, to mocking of religious figures, are labelled as hate speech.

Troublingly, we’ve also found that tech companies operating in the region – notably Facebook – are coming under increasing pressure to enforce national blasphemy laws on their digital platforms. These companies often find themselves caught between national laws and their obligations under international human rights law; raising difficult questions about the role of (often multinational) tech businesses as gatekeepers of free expression.

It’s important to stress that misinterpretations of hate speech do not stem from a lack of guidance. The grounds on which free expression can be restricted in the name of hate speech are clearly and unambiguously outlined in the Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18 and The Rabat Plan of Action (2012) which clarifies the scope of state obligations under Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and provides concrete guidance – including step by step tests – to determine when restrictions to freedom of expression on the grounds of hate speech are valid. Yet five years on, this guidance is still being ignored, and legitimate expression is still being criminalised.

What can be done? As civil society groups in Asia, we need to do much more to ensure that our governments stand by and respect their obligations under international human rights law.

Next week, Bytes for All will be bringing representatives of civil society groups from across the Asia region to a meeting in Bangkok to take stock of these trends, identify the relevant regional and international mechanisms that can be leveraged in advocacy, and discuss ways forward. We hope this will help us towards developing a more robust and strategic response to an escalating trend of repression which threatens the rights of everyone in the region.