The borders of freedom: Blasphemy and the press in Pakistan

Source: CNN

By Rafia Zakaria, who is the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” (Beacon 2015) and Veil (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn newspaper in Pakistan, The Baffler and Guardian Books. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. This is the next installment in CNN Opinion’s series on the challenges facing the media as it is under attack from critics, governments and changing technology.

(CNN) On August 13, a day before Pakistan turned 70, I received a Facebook message from a Pakistan-based journalist and colleague.

“Please help me report this,” he said, linking to the Facebook page of a religious leader in Pakistan. In the post, written in Urdu, the leader accuses him of insulting a renowned 11th Century Sunni Muslim saint during an appearance on a privately owned Pakistani television channel.

In response, the leader demanded action from the Pakistani state and made a number of insults directed at the journalist, many of which were seconded by comments from some of the page’s 180,000 odd followers.

The post, along with its accusation and incitement to punish, has never been removed.

The journalist at whom the message was directed was right to worry. Journalists, constantly in the public eye, are easy targets for Pakistan’s vague and lethal blasphemy laws, which criminalize any statement that is “defamatory” to Islam, religious texts, the holy prophet or anyone associated with him. The laws are a relic of the colonial era, their bite made dramatically worse by military rulers and others seeking to woo the religious right and silence any potential opposition.

Pakistan is ranked seven out of the 12 most dangerous countries in the world by the Committee to Protect Journalists’ “2017 Impunity Index.” Together, these 12 countries account for 80% of the unsolved murders of journalists occurring in the last 10 years.

None of this is news in Pakistan, where journalists have long been subject to high levels of violence when dissenting against state policies or draconian and orthodox interpretations of Islam espoused by extremist elements. As Americans well know, a free and impartial media is essential to democracy and a bulwark against extremism of all kinds. The dire situation of Pakistani journalists is the canary in the mine for the world’s fight against terror of all kinds.

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The Muslim Times’ Chief Editor’s comments

We are generally for freedom of speech.

There are some very legitimate exceptions to freedom of speech. A good place to start is European Convention on Human Rights.

But these rules need to be established justly and no one can be above the law or below the law and only the worst offenders should be prosecuted.  I do realize this is a Utopian desire and humans will be humans and they always have been more attentive to social peck order than justice.

Article 10 provides the right to freedom of expression, subject to certain restrictions that are “in accordance with law” and “necessary in a democratic society”. This right includes the freedom to hold opinions, and to receive and impart information and ideas, but allows restrictions for:

  • interests of national security
  • territorial integrity or public safety
  • prevention of disorder or crime
  • protection of health or morals
  • protection of the reputation or the rights of others
  • preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence
  • maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary

Relevant cases are:

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