BBC apologizes over tweet asking about proper punishment for blasphemy

(Reuters/Faisal Mahmood)People chant slogans during a gathering to mark the death anniversary of Mumtaz Qadri, who was executed for murdering a popular governor over his call to reform the country's blasphemy laws. March 1, 2017.

The BBC issued an apology after a post asking "What is the right punishment for blasphemy?" on the broadcaster's Asian Network Twitter account sparked outrage on social media.

The BBC's Asian Network posted the tweet in an attempt to promote a debate about blasphemy on social media. Shazia Awan, the local presenter, explained in an accompanying video that Pakistan had recently called on Facebook to help the government crack down on blasphemous content on its website.

"Is this the right way to handle blasphemy? Or do you think that freedom of speech should trump all else?" Awan asked.

The post was criticized by several human rights campaigners and secularist organizations who challenged the premise that blasphemy should carry any punishment.

Iranian-born secularist and human rights campaigner Maryam Namazie said that the tweet was "disgraceful," while the National Secularism Society described it as "absolutely appalling."

Following criticisms on social media, the network posted an apology, saying the question was "poorly worded" and that it was never intended to imply that blasphemy should be punished.

Under Pakistan's blasphemy laws, anyone found guilty of insulting Islam or Muhammad can be sentenced to death, according to The Guardian.

Last week, Interior Minister Chaudhary Nisar said that an official in Pakistan's Washington embassy has asked Twitter and Facebook to help identify Pakistanis who shared content deemed offensive to Islam.

According to the interior ministry, Facebook has agreed to send a team to address the government's concerns about blasphemous content on its website.

The social media giant has not issued any public comment regarding a delegation being sent to Pakistan, but it said in a statement that it viewed government requests with care, keeping in mind "the goal of protecting the privacy and rights" of its users.

"We disclose information about accounts solely in accordance with our terms of service and applicable law. A Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty or other formal request may be required for international requests, and we include these in our Government Requests Report," the statement said.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif expressed his support for a crackdown on blasphemy, saying it is an "unpardonable offense."

"The blasphemous content on social media is a nefarious conspiracy to hurt the religious sentiments of the entire Muslim ummah," the prime minister was quoted as saying.

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