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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.

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