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.
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.
It was prompted by a BBC report that Pakistan had asked Facebook to help investigate “blasphemous content” posted on the social network by Pakistanis.
‘People get killed’
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?”
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.
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”.
After the outraged response, the Asian Network posted an apology on Twitter: “Apologies for poorly worded question from #AsianNetwork yday. Q was in context of Pak asking FB to help we shd have made that clear.
“We never intend to imply Blasphemy should be punished. Provocative question that got it wrong.”
A BBC spokesperson said: “Asian Network’s Big Debate asks difficult and provocative questions every day.
“This programme was an engaging discussion on the subject of blasphemy, but we admit that the question could have been phrased better, as we have since made clear.”
BBC Asian Network apologises for tweet about blasphemy}