A Pakistani government minister has asked Facebook and Twitter to remove content considered insulting to Islam or Muhammad.

“We will go to any extent even if we have to go to the extent of permanently blocking all such social media websites, if they refuse to cooperate,” Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan said 16 March. His ministry has said Facebook will send a team to Pakistan, to address the government’s reservations.

Khan also lashed out at the West for not reacting sensitively to the government’s concerns, saying: “Questioning the Holocaust isn’t allowed, but insulting the Holy Prophet (PBUH) is justified as free speech. Is it freedom of expression or a disgusting conspiracy against Islam?”

His comments followed a statement by Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, who said that blasphemy against Islam was an “unpardonable offence”, and ordered authorities to arrest people who posted such content deemed offensive on social media.

“Law enforcers should search for people spreading blasphemous material and prosecute them under the law,” he said in the statement issued 14 March.

“The [posting of] blasphemous content on social media is an unclean attempt to play with the feelings of the Muslim Ummah [community],” he added.

Pakistan has made similar complaints to Facebook before. In 2010 the country’s courts temporarily blocked access to the social network in response to a contest urging Facebook users to post caricatures of Islam’s prophet.

Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws, made more stringent by military dictator Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s, are often misused, including against beleaguered religious minorities who exist in small numbers and lack the financial means to clear their names in court. Tightening the laws further will further intimidate non-Muslims, some of whom have already fallen foul of social media.

Sixteen-year-old Nabeel Masih, who is reportedly illiterate, was accused of blasphemy last September after allegedly “liking” and sharing a post on Facebook which “defamed and disrespected” the Kaaba in Mecca. A month ago he was refused bail, even though he’s a juvenile without previous conviction. His lawyers say they’ve been intimidated.

And last May labourer Imran Masih was accused of blasphemy following a row about an anti-Islam video on Youtube.

The politicians’ interventions came in response to a high court judge questioning the government’s failure to curb blasphemous material on social media, since when various political parties have tried to appear more “religious” than the other.

Islamabad High Court Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui started weeping while issuing an order to Interior Minister Mr Khan on 7 March “to eliminate access to blasphemous content on social media, even if it means blocking all access to social media platforms”.

In the unusual move, Siddiqui unsuccessfully ordered Mr Khan to “to appear in person before the court tomorrow (8 March) in the case pertaining to blasphemous pages on social media.”

Following Siddiqui’s emotional display in court, he was praised by a large number of people, after which he issued a notice not to praise him through advertisements in social media.

The judge’s emotional outburst occurred at a hearing into how five liberal bloggers were able to upload “blasphemous” content to Facebook and Twitter, were abducted by unknown entities, and, when released, managed to escape the country. A team has been formed to investigate how the bloggers were able to leave the country.

The bloggers went missing in early January, and then were accused of spreading “blasphemous” content on Facebook and Twitter, though they were not formally charged.  They included Salmaan Haider, whom a columnist for the New York Times described as “a poet and academic who has been a vocal opponent of religious extremism”. The missing bloggers were reported to have returned home by the end of January and later were reported to have left the country.

The justice called the bloggers “terrorists” and started hearing their case on a daily basis. At the hearing, the Chairman of Pakistan Telecommunication Authority informed the court that it was not possible to “filter one billion social media pages as he directed”. The justice replied “If you are unable to rise up to the task, quit the job. It is a serious issue; but the state is asleep.”

In recent years Pakistan has responded to a number of religious controversies by placing restrictions on access to internet content. In January 2016, a three-and-a-half year ban on the website Youtube was lifted only after a Pakistani version of the video-sharing site was launched; this allowed the government to demand the removal of content deemed offensive. In 2010 the government blocked access to Facebook and several other sites that were hosting a competition in which users were invited to draw images of Muhammad.
Asad Jamal, a human rights activist and lawyer, told World Watch Monitor that many observers see the abductions of the bloggers as a conspiracy attempt to thwart dissent on social media.

“The government introduced the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016, which was drafted and framed in a way to place greater curbs on freedom of expression, alongside actively promoting and developing a narrative around the idea that liberal expression of critical thought and religious and political dissent is blasphemous,” he said.

Justice Siddiqui’s “outburst”, he added, “strengthens the right-wing movement to push the agenda of blasphemy on one hand, and on the other hand it suppresses political dissent and weakens political institutions.” ­­

As general elections in Pakistan near, no political party wants to be seen not talking about religion. On 14 March a resolution was easily passed in the Punjab Assembly, the largest provincial assembly in Pakistan, calling for access to blasphemous material to be blocked. Assembly member Sardar Vikas Mokal, of the Pakistan Muslim League, submitted a resolution that reads:

“Pakistan is the only country in the world which is founded on the slogan ‘There is no god but Allah. Muhammad is Allah’s Apostle’. … [Blasphemy law] Section 295-C is enacted to protect honour of these personalities but we have seen in recent days that some wretched freely violated this law … Our law enforcement agencies are not taking action against these culprits.”

The resolution demanded a clampdown on culprits and their enablers who spread disrespectful content on social media. A local newspaper reported that the Minister for Law and Parliamentary Affairs, Rana Sanaullah, “even offered a committee of MPs, IT experts and religious scholars to continuously monitor online material for its content and intent.”

However Jamal questioned this move, noting that dissent online had not always been subject to the same controls as it was in other fora. “Political activity and dissent on the ground in real life is already well controlled for decades. Such was not the case with virtual reality i.e. the cyberspace. Political dissenters and critical thinkers who question political curbs and lack of political freedoms are seen as a threat by certain state institutions.”