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Media 'under siege'

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezNovember 27, 2014

A court has sentenced the owner of Pakistan's largest media group to 26 years in jail for blasphemy; a ruling that shows the country's blasphemy laws have become another tool to silence media, says AI's David Griffiths.

Pakistan TV Channel Geo News protest
Image: picture alliance/Rana Sajid Hussain/Pacific Press

In what seems to be the latest development in a long-running dispute between Geo TV and Pakistani authorities, an anti-terrorism court (ATC) sentenced in absentia Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, owner of Geo TV and its parent Jang Media Group, actress Veena Malik, her husband Asad Bashir and TV host Shaista Wahidi, to 26 years in prison each for airing a "contemptuous" program.

The ATC also fined the four convicts 1.3 million Pakistani rupees (USD 12,800) each and ordered them to sell their properties and surrender their passports.

The verdict was passed by a court in the city of Gilgit, which is controlled by Pakistan, but is part of the Kashmir region, also claimed by India. Analysts are of the view, however, that the ruling is unlikely to be implemented as Islamabad doesn't regard the Gilgit-Baltistan region as a full-fledged province.

Geo TV has been locked in a standoff with Pakistan's powerful military ever since its main anchor, Hamid Mir, accused the country's spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of being behind an assassination attempt on him, in April of this year. The standoff exposed divisions between PM Nawaz Sharif, who supported the channel, and the army.

David Griffiths Amnesty International
Griffiths: 'Pakistani media lives with harassment and threats from a range of state and non-state actors'Image: Amnesty International

In a DW interview, David Griffiths, Amnesty International's (AI) Deputy Asia Pacific Director, says the sentence against the private TV channel will have a chilling effect on media freedom in the South Asian country. But he also adds that Geo TV is far from the only media outlet in Pakistan living under some kind of threat as Pakistani media is effectively under siege.

DW: Mir Shakeel-ur-Rehman, owner of Geo News, was sentenced to 26 years for broadcasting a show the court said was blasphemous. What exactly did the show entail?

David Griffiths: The charges against Mir Shakeel-ur-Rehman and the three others date back to a show Geo TV aired in May this year, when Malik and Bashir re-enacted their wedding ceremony with a devotional song playing in the background - the song concerned the marriage of Fatima Zahra, daughter of Prophet Muhammad, with the Prophet's cousin, Ali.

There have been several disputes between the GEO TV and the Pakistani authorities. What is at the root of the conflict and could the latest ruling be related to this ongoing feud?

The Pakistani media landscape is intensely politicized. Geo TV has been locked in a tense standoff with the authorities since April this year, when the channel's main anchor Hamid Mir accused the Pakistani spy agency ISI of being behind an assassination attempt he narrowly survived.

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 ISI.

It's important to point out that Geo TV is far from the only media outlet in Pakistan living under some kind of threat. Pakistani media is effectively under siege, and lives with harassment and threats from a range of state and non-state actors, including security forces, the ISI and armed groups like the Taliban.

Judicial harassment of the media, however, is nothing new. In fact, in October this year, ARY TV - another private network and on the opposite end of the political spectrum to Geo TV - was forced off air for 15 days for "maligning" the judiciary.

Are you saying the blasphemy laws in Pakistan are being used as a political tool?

Pakistan's blasphemy laws are routinely used to settle personal scores. Because of the extreme sensitivity around the issue in the country, a mere accusation of blasphemy is often enough to put someone at risk of vigilante violence. The ruling against the Geo TV staff is sadly an example the blasphemy laws can just as easily be manipulated to serve certain political agendas by powerful actors.

There have been several blasphemy-related accusations and convictions in Pakistan over the past weeks. Are these accusations being made more frequently than in the past?

Although parts of the Pakistani blasphemy laws date back to the penal code introduced during the colonial era, their use and abuse has rocketed since the 1980s when then-ruler Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq introduced a number of new clauses as part of his "Islamization" process.

Hundreds have been convicted of blasphemy since then, and many others have been targeted in mob violence and extrajudicial killings.

A horrific recent example was the mob killing of a Christian couple outside Lahore earlier in November, which was triggered by unsubstantiated rumors that the wife had desecrated the Koran.

Estimates from activists monitoring blasphemy cases say more than 40 people are known to have been killed extra-judicially in cases related to blasphemy since 1990, and at least 17 people are on death row on blasphemy charges today. Hundreds more have been convicted of blasphemy over the same time period.

What does it take for someone to be accused of blasphemy in Pakistan?

Blasphemy accusations have been leveled more or less indiscriminately in Pakistan for a wide variety of perceived insults against Islam. Over the past years, we have, for example, seen blasphemy allegations leveled against individuals who have allegedly desecrated the Koran, insulted the Prophet Muhammad, or claimed to have been the Prophet.

Although non-Muslims and members of minority Muslim sects are disproportionately targeted through blasphemy accusations, it's important to bear in mind that no one is safe and many Sunni Muslims have also been affected.

Even defending someone accused of blasphemy can be extremely dangerous, as we witnessed in the high-profile killings of politicians Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti in 2011, both of whom had spoken out against the blasphemy laws.

What does the latest development reveal about the direction Pakistan is taking especially in terms of freedom of speech and freedom of the press?

Pakistani media is vibrant and fearless, but the threat level has had a chilling effect on freedom of expression and led to widespread self-censorship. Pakistan is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. In a report Amnesty International released earlier this year, we documented 34 cases of journalists being killed since the restoration of democratic rule in 2008 until April 2014.

Zindagi 50-50
Actress Veena Malik was also among those sentenced to 26 years in prisonImage: Media Connect

But the killings are really only the tip of the iceberg - countless more media workers have faced threats, harassment or other forms of violence. This is something authorities must address urgently. But despite promises to do so, few concrete steps have so far been taken.

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.

David Griffiths is Amnesty International's Deputy Asia Pacific Director.