By Nafees Takar
For Pakistan’s leading media house, Jang group, the litany of troubles in recent weeks has not only grown but the troubles have become grave that may even prove to be mortal. After a tense stand off with the powerful military, intense opposition by fellow media groups, comes a blasphemy charge against Geo TV, Jang group’s flagship news and entertainment television station.
Blasphemy is a sensitive issue in Pakistan. Salman Taseer, governor of Pakistan’s most populous and politically strong Punjab province was killed in 2011 by a member of his police security detail for allegedly supporting amendments to the country’s blasphemy laws.
Now police have registered a blasphemy case against the Jang group’s owner Mir Shakeelur Rehman and participants of an entertainment show on Geo. A court in Islamabad ordered police to register the case under the country’s controversial blasphemy laws and charges relating to terrorism over the station’s airing of and participating in a show. The show sparked an anti-Geo campaign as rival media outlets and religious groups started accusing the Geo TV owner and program participants of committing blasphemy. Leaders of a religious group went as far to declare that watching Geo TV was haram, the Islamic word for thing forbidden for its followers.
The country’s media watch Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) has also sent a notice to the Geo TV to explain its position or a show cause notice in bureaucratic parlance and an indication of official displeasure. PEMRA says it has received more than 5000 complaints against the Geo TV May 14 program. Geo TV has offered apology for airing the show.
Using Blasphemy Laws for Silencing Opposition:
The Jang Group, historically known for a pro-government stance, angered Pakistan’s powerful spy agency ISI recently. It started with an attack on a popular Geo TV anchorperson Hamid Mir on April 19 in Karachi. Hamid Mir and his journalist brother Amir Mir later accused ISI of the attack.
Pakistan’s leading veteran human rights activist I. A. Rahman told New York Times last week: “Blasphemy has become a political battle. It’s no longer just a criminal or religious problem — it’s become a political issue that is used to silence voices and create a climate of fear.”
I. A. Rahman nephew Rashid Rahman was gunned down in Multan earlier this month for advocating the case of a university lecturer, accused of blasphemy.
Most of the victims of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are non-Muslims. However, in recent years the harsh laws have also been applied to members of the majority Sunni Muslims. Sometime a call for changes into the harsh laws have also led to violence. The assassination of Taseer is also a case in point.
The blasphemy laws are parts of Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) since colonial era of British India. However, the late military dictator Gen Zia ul Haq tightened the laws in 1986 by making blasphemy punishable to death.
Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws and It’s Victims
The PPC defines blasphemy as “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs; use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Prophet (PBUH) and use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of holy personages.”
As many as 30 Muslim countries have blasphemy laws with variation of punishments for blasphemers.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) says 33 Pakistanis are currently on death row or serving life sentence after their conviction in blasphemy. AlJazeera TV reported 17 of them face death sentence.
The latest blasphemy charges against Geo TV owner and three participants of an entertainment show coincides with the killing of a defense council of an alleged blasphemer and a member of the Ahmadi sect in Punjab province in May 2014. The attorney was killed for advocating the case of an alleged blasphemer while the Ahmadi man was gunned down in police custody for alleged blasphemy. Again in Punjab, police also registered a blasphemy case against 68 attorneys who were protesting and raising slogans against a police officer by the name of Umar Daraz in May. The lawyers’ chants against the policeman, named Umar, was stretched to be blasphemy against Umar bin Khittab (RA) who was a companion of the Prophet of Islam and the second ruler of the Muslim kingdom, known as khalifa, or caliph.