“Is this the right way to handle blasphemy?”

The BBC reports on the response to its own horrible question:

The BBC has apologised after a tweet from the Asian Network account asked, “What is the right punishment for blasphemy?”.

The tweet provoked criticism that the BBC appeared to be endorsing harsh restrictions on speech.

Well no. The BBC appeared to be endorsing the whole idea that dissent from religion should be impermissible and illegal and should be harshly punished. That’s what the BBC appeared to be doing.

In an apology posted on Twitter, the network said it intended to debate concerns about blasphemy on social media in Pakistan.

“We never intended to imply that blasphemy should be punished,” it said.

The post on Twitter was intended to publicise the station’s Big Debate programme with presenter Shazia Awan.

Fine but come on, they’re not children, they’re not Donald Trump. Surely the problem with phrasing the question that way should have been blindingly obvious. People get murdered for this fictional crime of “blasphemy.” The BBC shouldn’t be in the business of starting from the assumption that “blasphemy” is a real thing and also a crime.

It was prompted by a BBC report that Pakistan had asked Facebook to help investigate “blasphemous content” posted on the social network by Pakistanis.

In her opening script, presenter Shazia Awan said: “Today I want to talk about blasphemy. What is the right punishment for blasphemy?”

Explaining the context of Facebook’s visit to Pakistan and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s call for a social media crackdown, she asked: “Is this the right way to handle blasphemy? Or do you think that freedom of speech should trump all else?”

Talk about loaded questions. The first question assumes that blasphemy is real and bad. The second assumes that blasphemy is real and among the worst things.

Critics ranging from human rights campaigners to secularist organisations challenged the premise that it should carry any punishment.

Iranian-born secularist and human rights campaigner Maryam Namazie said on Twitter: “Disgraceful that @bbcasiannetwork @ShaziaAwan would ask what ‘punishment’ should be for blasphemy. You know people get killed for it.”

In Pakistan, blasphemy – the act of insulting or showing lack of reverence for God or a religion – can carry the death penalty and those accused can face intense public anger. Britain abolished its blasphemy laws in 2008.

Apparently the BBC hasn’t learned to adjust to this new reality yet.

The National Secularism Society described the tweet as “absolutely appalling”, while BuzzFeed science writer Tom Chivers said: “This feels a VERY odd question for the BBC to ask. Even ‘should blasphemy be punishable’ would be less when-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife”.

It’s really quite horrifying, and the limp apology doesn’t reassure.

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