On Tuesday, November 25, an anti-terror court in the semi-autonomous Gilgit-Baltistan region sentenced the owner of Pakistan's biggest private TV channel Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman to 26 years in prison for telecasting a "blasphemous" show. Veena Malik, a Pakistani actress and the host of the morning program, along with two guests on the show, were also convicted.
The reality TV show broadcast a devotional song about the wedding of prophet Muhammad's daughter.
The Gilgit court also ordered the four people to pay a fine of 1.3 million Pakistani rupees (13,000 USD), sell their properties and surrender their passports. "The malicious acts of the proclaimed offenders ignited the sentiments of all the Muslims of the country and hurt the feelings, which cannot be taken lightly and there is need to strictly curb such tendency," the ruling said.
The verdict is unlikely to be implemented because the orders of the Gilgit-Baltistan courts do not apply to the rest of the country. Observers, however, say the decision is damaging for the press freedom in the Islamic country due to its symbolic nature.
According to a Gallup TV Ratings Service report, Geo TV had seven million cable and satellite viewers in May 2013. In comparison, the state-owned channel, Pakistan Television (PTV), had only 1.5 million viewers.
Blasphemy, or the insult of Prophet Mohammad, is a sensitive topic in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where 97 percent of its 180 million people are Muslims. Rights activists have long called for reforming the controversial blasphemy laws, which were introduced by the Islamic military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s, albeit without success.
Pakistan's minority communities have been a target of blasphemy allegations. On November 5, for instance, a young Christian couple was beaten to death by a mob in a small town of Kot Radha Kishan in the Punjab province, a political stronghold of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
The angry crowd, which alleged that the Christian couple desecrated a copy of their holy book, the Koran, subsequently burned the couple's bodies in a brick kiln where they worked.
Human rights organization Amnesty International has decried the sentence against Geo TV. In an interview with DW, David Griffiths, Amnesty International's (AI) Deputy Asia Pacific Director, says the sentence against the channel will have chilling effect on media freedom in the country.
"It is very difficult to view the blasphemy charges against Geo TV, and the relentless manner in which they have been pursued, as separate from the wider attempts by the authorities to "punish" Geo TV for the accusations against the military's Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) agency," said Griffiths.
According to Griffiths, Pakistan is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. In a report released earlier this year, AI documented 34 cases of journalists being killed since the restoration of democratic rule in 2008 until April 2014, he said.
"This is something authorities must address urgently. A critical first step must be for Pakistan to investigate its own military and intelligence agencies and ensure that those responsible for human rights violations against journalists are brought to justice. This will send a powerful signal to those who target journalists that they no longer have free reign," the AI expert added.
A divisive decision
The row between Pakistan's largest commercial media group - the Jang Group of Publications - which owns Geo TV, and the country's ubiquitous military started earlier this year after the Pakistani army accused the group of defaming the country's spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
Historically, both Geo TV and its parent organization have been close to the Islamic Republic's powerful security establishment. Though the Jang Group had recently been critical in its reporting of the Pakistani army, no one expected an all-out war between the two until Hamid Mir, a renowned Geo TV anchor and journalist, was shot in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi on April 19.
Both Mir and his brother, a fellow journalist, subsequently accused the ISI and its former chief Zaheerul Islam of carrying out the assassination attempt. Geo TV itself came out and publicly endorsed the journalists' claims.
Rights organizations believe the Pakistani military wants to punish Geo TV for its critical reporting on the ISI, and that the blasphemy issue, too, has been orchestrated to harm the channel and its executives.
Pakistan's independent Human Rights Commission (HRCP) said in a statement in May that it could no longer stay silent on "the malicious campaign unleashed against Geo and the manner in which pressure is being exerted to close down the channel."
"Irrespective of what the HRCP or anyone else might think about Geo's editorial judgment, instigating people to come out on the streets following charges of blasphemy is an extremely dangerous trend," the rights group said.
Punishing Geo TV?
Pakistan's liberal sections and rights activists believe the blasphemy sentence against Geo TV's head is part of the security establishment's coercive methods to muzzle the independent media and silence opposition.
Islamabad-based journalist, Abdul Sattar, says that the real issue is not whether Geo TV has committed blasphemy or not. "The military does not like that independent media channels in Pakistan now criticize them and hold them accountable for their abuse of power," Sattar told DW, adding that the Pakistani military generals are also unhappy with Geo TV's "friendly" attitude towards the country's arch-rival India.
"The army thinks that an action against Geo TV is necessary to teach a lesson to independent journalists," he added.
Farah Ispahani, author of the forthcoming book "Waiting To Die: Pakistan's religious Minorities," and a former member of Pakistani parliament, shares the same view: "The case against Rahman is not about blasphemy; it is about Pakistan's intelligence establishment trying to punish the Jang-Geo group for not toeing their line."
Media ethics and independence
But Faheem Siddiqui, a creative manager at an advertising agency in Islamabad, told DW the members of the Pakistani media had been "misusing" its freedom. "Only when the media crosses its boundaries, the government and the military take action," he said.
Siddiqui says the blasphemy issue has nothing to do with Geo TV's rift with the ISI. "The TV station has offended many people by airing a blasphemous show. The head of the channel should have personally apologized to the nation."
But many agree that the freedom of Pakistan's press is at stake, and that those who are demanding greater control of the media are directly or indirectly trying to protect the ISI and its alleged crimes.