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Demonstrators demand the authorities block social-media sites that are spreading "blasphemous" content in Peshawar on March 17.

Demonstrators demand the authorities block social-media sites that are spreading "blasphemous" content in Peshawar on March 17.

Three Pakistani bloggers have been accused of blasphemy in an Islamabad counterterrorism court, an offense punishable by death.

Three Pakistani bloggers have been accused of blasphemy in an Islamabad counterterrorism court, an offense punishable by death.

Police and government officials on March 24 said the charges were set against two bloggers from Pakistan's southern city of Karachi and one from Islamabad.

Officials said they were arrested earlier this week. They are being held for seven days while their online activity is probed, an official said.

One of the bloggers, using the alias Allama Ayaz Nizami, had 12,000 followers, said the official, who did not want to be identified.

Authorities said laptops of the detainees had also been seized for forensic analysis.

The arrests come after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on March 14 ordered that "blasphemous" content on social-media websites be removed or blocked.

He said those responsible for posting such material will be "strictly punished."

Blasphemy is a criminal offense in Pakistan and can carry the death penalty.

It is a highly sensitive issue in a country where dozens have been murdered over blasphemy allegations, according to the Center for Research and Security Studies.

At least five other bloggers were earlier charged with insulting Islam. They have since fled the country after receiving death threats, the Associated Press reported.

Those bloggers said the charges were in retaliation for their criticism of the military and intelligence agencies.

Based on reporting by AP, Reuters, VOA, and Dawn

A small protest in Peshawar Pakistan urged authorities to block social media sites for allegedly spreading blasphemous contents on March 17.

A small protest in Peshawar Pakistan urged authorities to block social media sites for allegedly spreading blasphemous contents on March 17.

Pakistan is cracking down on "blasphemous" content on social media, with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif urging swift punishment for those involved in "a nefarious conspiracy" against the country's Muslim majority.

Pakistan is cracking down on "blasphemous" content on social media, with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif urging swift punishment for those involved in "a nefarious conspiracy" against the country's Muslim majority.

But critics claim the real goal is silencing dissent that has flourished online about everything from politics and the military to freedom of speech and women's rights. Being labeled as "blasphemous" in Pakistan can make a person the target of violence.

The crackdown has caused concern, particularly after five bloggers critical of the government vanished in January. When they re-emerged, clearly shaken, they refused to talk about what had happened to them amid speculation they were kidnapped and tortured by Pakistan's powerful military intelligence service.

Living in the Netherlands, one said he felt he could never return to Pakistan after being called a blasphemer by a TV host.

Criticizing Injustice

Some rights activists, who asked not to be identified because of fears for their lives, said the bloggers were only criticizing social injustices and identifying ills in Pakistan's powerful establishment and their material was not intended to hurt any religious belief.

Last week, Islamabad High Court Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui ordered blasphemous content removed from social media and broke down in tears while issuing his ruling.

The National Assembly passed a resolution On March 14 condemning such material and authorized a special committee to suggest measures to block "sacrilegious and blasphemous" content on social media.

Sharif posted on Twitter that he expected daily updates from officials and told them to contact international social media platforms, such as Facebook, to seek their cooperation. The government has requested help from Interpol in tracking the sources of questionable content.

Established with a secular government, Pakistan has steadily leaned toward conservative Islamic policies in recent years, reflecting a social trend.

"All relevant institutions should trace the perpetrators behind such content and ensure they are handed out strict punishment in accordance with the law," Sharif's tweet said. "Love and affection of the Holy Prophet is the most precious asset for every Muslim."

Effort To Silence

Advocates of free speech in Pakistan think the government is trying to silence its critics.

Osama Khilji, an Internet freedom activist, said the government and the court seemed unable to deal with specific social media outlets and that the court order had created fear among users of all such platforms.

"Blasphemy is a tag and a label to silence critical views, since the government knows it is a tool that can stifle voices," he told VOA's Deewa service.

"Political dissent occupies a genuine space in democratic societies and is thus encouraged and not discouraged," added Haroon Baloch, an Islamabad-based social media activist. "Such restrictions on social media create an atmosphere of fear, and this is what we see being done in Pakistan."

The crackdown is also leading to questions about what constitutes blasphemy and what doesn’t, and whether the government might be behind any of the hundreds of pro-administration voices on Facebook and Twitter that blast dissidents and neighboring Afghanistan and India.

"I think in the presence of stringent laws, no one would do anything deliberately that might fall under the definition of blasphemous content," rights activist Mehdi Hassan told VOA's Urdu service. "The new order is a matter of concern as blasphemy is a hugely sensitive issue in Pakistan, where even unproven allegations can provoke beatings and mob violence."

Governor Slain

Salman Taseer, the liberal governor of the country's largest province, was killed six years ago by his own security guard, Mumtaz Qadri, after voicing support for amending Pakistan's already stringent blasphemy laws.

Qadri was hanged after being convicted of murder, but an estimated 100,000 people attended his funeral, and his gravesite has become a shrine for conservatives who believe he gave his life for Islam's Prophet Muhammad. A mosque is under construction alongside the site.

A critical issue is just how far the government will go. "The government has to make sure that our civil liberties are not compromised," said Sadaf Khan, a digital rights activist. "The Internet is being seen globally as a fundamental right. And anything that restricts access to the Internet and restricts access to social media basically puts our people at a disadvantage. They won't be able to compete in the global market."

Khan, director of the nonprofit Media Matters For Pakistan group, added, "We have to ensure that the other activities of political speech are not affected. It is an era of digital technology. [If] the government bans or restricts access to social media, our people, and particularly our youth, will be isolated."

-- Paul Alexander, Aurangzeb Khan, and Pir Walayat Shah wrote this story for Voice of America.

Waqas Goraya

Waqas Goraya

WASHINGTON -- Waqas Goraya had planned to move back to his native Pakistan and settle down after his wife finished her postgraduate studies in the Netherlands this month.

Now the idea seems impossible to the social media activist, who paid an enormous price for blogging to raise political awareness and campaign against human rights violations, religious intolerance, and extremism in Pakistan.

Goraya, an IT consultant, vanished in January with four other secular activists in Pakistan -- a group that became known as the "missing bloggers."

Released three weeks later under mysterious circumstances, Goraya won't discuss the circumstances of his disappearance, where he was held, or who his captors were for fear of repercussions for his family and friends in Pakistan.

"Talking about extremism and criticizing the establishment in a country like Pakistan got me in trouble," Goraya told Voice Of America in a telephone interview from the Netherlands, where he returned after his captivity. "That's a no-go area for Pakistan, and no one talks about it."

Not Anti-Pakistan

"There can be confusion, but we've never been anti-Pakistan or anti-Islam or anti-society," said Goraya, who lived in the Netherlands before making a visit to Pakistan last year. "We're not losers sitting in a dark place and just blogging about negative things. That's not the case."

If his captors' goal was to shut him up, it's working, Goraya said. He is too frozen to resume his social media activism, at least for now.

"Abduction is 10 percent of the horror. The other 90 percent begins after you're released," he said. "I'll continue blogging, but it will take some time."

Goraya's wife, Mesha Saeed, said, "Waqas's abduction has jolted us as a family, and we need time to recover from the shock. When Waqas came back, he couldn't sleep for days. He just wanted to see me and our son all the time."

Pressured on all sides, Pakistan has become a dangerous, even deadly place for journalists. It ranks 147th in the World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

"Journalists are targeted by extremist groups, Islamist organizations, and Pakistan's feared intelligence organizations, all of which are on RSF's list of predators of press freedom," the group's website says. "Although at war with each other, they are all always ready to denounce acts of 'sacrilege' by the media."

Human rights watchdog Amnesty International recently wrote an open letter urging Pakistan's government to take concrete measures to protect the lives of bloggers, activists, and journalists.

Security Agencies Suspected

Human rights activists and lawmakers say enforced disappearances, including torture, have become a norm in Pakistan and that the country's security agencies are responsible.

"Human rights activists and NGOs, the broader community, and journalists believe the bloggers were abducted by the Pakistani intelligence agencies," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

"The missing persons are often mistreated and then told upon release that if they speak, there will be retaliation against them or their families or their friends," he added. "I'm not sure if this happened in the bloggers' case."

Pakistan's Interior Ministry and army have repeatedly and strongly denied any involvement in or link to the abductions of bloggers and other activists over the past few years.

"The army or intelligence agencies had nothing to do with the abduction of the bloggers," Major General Asif Ghafoor, director general of the armed forces media wing, said in a statement to VOA.

Pakistani defense analyst Ayesha Siddiqa said the bloggers were "made an example of" because they crossed the line by reporting on sensitive political issues controlled by the powerful military.

"The state doesn't want people to remember the way Balochistan is being run," Siddiqa told VOA. "It's a political problem, essentially, and that's how it should be dealt with, rather than militarily."

Goraya and several friends started their social media activism in 2011 to create "some sort of discourse," he said.

"The turning point in my life was the murder of Salman Taseer, who was killed in 2011 because he demanded to review the blasphemy law," Goraya said. "That was the time I realized, 'We have to speak.' "

Audience Expanded

The sole purpose was awareness. His anonymous blogging through the Facebook page called Mochi quickly grew a huge audience.

After his disappearance, he is pondering new plans for the future. There was a campaign against the bloggers on social media, and some well-known TV hosts blasted them, too. Amir Liaquat Hussain showed content and screenshots from their Facebook pages and labeled them as "blasphemers.'' The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority banned him from appearing on television for spreading hate speech.

"Right now, it looks like I may never be able to go back to Pakistan," Goraya said. "I'll be a marked person due to blasphemy, and it doesn't matter how hard I try to explain myself. They'll not listen to me."

Human rights defenders, social activists, and families of bloggers believe that such blasphemy allegations are aimed at punishing activists for criticizing the government and the military.

"The best way in Pakistan to silence voices is to accuse somebody of blasphemy, and people will come and dispense justice in their own way." Siddiqa said.

-- Written by Madeeha Anwar for Voice Of America

People attend the funeral of Pakistani journalist Imran Sheikh, who was killed in Quetta in 2013. Pakistan is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists.

People attend the funeral of Pakistani journalist Imran Sheikh, who was killed in Quetta in 2013. Pakistan is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists.

In the face of threats and little government action, Pakistani press clubs have established so-called "safety hubs" to provide greater protection to the country's beleaguered reporters.

In Pakistan, a country where journalists are often the targets of threats and deadly attacks and have little protection from authorities, many reporters are left to fend for themselves.

Now, Pakistani journalists are banding together and establishing so-called "safety hubs" where reporters can formally document cases of intimidation and physical abuse. The hubs, located in press clubs in all four provincial capitals, will then take up the cases with authorities.

The initiative is part of an effort to highlight attacks on the media in a bid to spur authorities to protect Pakistan's estimated 18,000 journalists, many of whom face threats and violence from militant groups, criminal gangs, and even the country's own military and intelligence agencies.

Gohar Ali, the head of the safety hub project in the volatile northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and adjoining lawless tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan, says they have reported more than a dozen cases of threats since the project was rolled out in January.

'Fear More Trouble'

A large banner is plastered on the Peshawar Press Club, a two-story brick building opposite the railway station in the provincial capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The sign urges journalists facing threats and violence to come forward.

But Ali says many journalists are still afraid to report threats and violence, fearing a backlash from militants, criminals, and intelligence agents in the region.

"The major problem is that many journalists do not mention the threat because they fear more trouble," Ali said. "This is especially the case with journalists from the tribal areas who are facing many threats."

Ali says there have been many cases where journalists have shared their concerns, but have refrained from formally documenting their complaints.

Dilawar Wazir, a BBC reporter in Peshawar, moved with his family from the Waziristan region in the tribal areas due to persistent threats.

A Pakistani journalist holds a poster with a photo of a news cameraman killed in a suicide bombing in August 2016.

A Pakistani journalist holds a poster with a photo of a news cameraman killed in a suicide bombing in August 2016.

The region, many parts of which are off-limits to reporters, is a hotbed for militant groups and the scene of sporadic military operations.

"The majority of journalists have moved with their families from Waziristan because of threats and fear," says Wazir. "The homes of many journalists have been attacked in the past. They were physically attacked or their family members were threatened."

Apart from recording cases, the safety hubs also offer legal advice for journalists facing prosecution for their reporting and even provide financial assistance to the families of reporters who have been killed in the line of duty.

The project is managed by International Media Support, a development organization that works with local media in conflict areas.

The project comes a year after journalists formed a group called Editors For Safety, vowing to report on and highlight attacks on the press in an attempt to spur the authorities and their own employers into action.

Culture Of Impunity

Pakistan has long been among the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, with 102 reporters and media workers having lost their lives since 2005, according to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). The organization adds that, since 2010, 73 journalists and media workers in Pakistan have been killed: almost one journalist killed every month.

Most of those killed were local journalists reporting on war, politics, corruption, and human rights.

In a 2016 report on Pakistan, which ranks 147th out of 179 countries on Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index, the IFJ said that an "atmosphere of lawlessness" in the country, aided by "widespread impunity," has "not only contributed to more attacks on journalists but also forced the journalists to self-censor."

"In many of the cases, there were reports suspecting Pakistan's intelligence services' involvement but the government has failed to investigate these cases and punish the murderers. With only three verdicts and one case in the court in more than 100 killings since 2005, impunity in Pakistan is at its worst."

In August, DawnNews cameraman Mahmood Khan and Aaj TV cameraman Shehzad Ahmed died at Quetta Civil Hospital when a bomb killed at least 70 people -- many of them lawyers -- among a crowd that was grieving the assassination of the head of Balochistan's Bar Association.

There have been dozens of high-profile cases of journalists targeted in Pakistan in the past decade, including U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl, who was slain after his abduction in the port city of Karachi in 2002; Salem Shahzad, who was found dead in the capital Islamabad in 2011 after reporting on the infiltration of militant groups in the army; and Hamid Mir, one of Pakistan's most prominent reporters, who survived an attack on his life in Karachi in 2014.

Written by Frud Bezhan, based on reporting by RFE/RL Radio Mashaal correspondent Zaland Yousufzai

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