An antiterrorism court in Gilgit-Baltistan has sentenced Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, the man behind Pakistan’s largest media enterprise, and three others to 26 years imprisonment, fined them each Rs. 1.3 million, and ordered the seizure of their properties and passports.
“The malicious acts of the proclaimed offenders ignited the sentiments of all the Muslims of the country and hurt [their] feelings, which cannot be taken lightly and there is need to strictly curb such tendency,” reads the Nov. 25 verdict, which was issued by an antiterrorism court on the complaint of the deputy chief of Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat, the Sunni supremacist militant organization, alleging that Rahman and three others committed “blasphemy.”
Given Gilgit-Baltistan’s constitutional status, this brazen overreach of a verdict is unlikely to be implemented in Pakistan proper. But it has turned up the heat on the besieged Jang Group—the “blasphemy” convictions bring with them the very real threat of vigilante action—and opened the court, and possibly the Army, to ridicule and worse.
In another country, the charges would have been laughed out of the court. Here, the proceedings were conducted ex parte, i.e., the defendants were not represented by their own counsel in court. Even worse, Jang’s English-language daily The News points out that the complainant is himself facing murder and terrorism charges. For terror-hit Pakistan, where blasphemy laws are abused and misapplied for political and personal agenda and where antiterrorism courts are notoriously supine, these convictions set a deeply troubling precedent.
What brought this on? At issue, apparently, is the May 14 broadcast of the now-defunct morning show Utho, Jago Pakistan hosted by Shaista Lodhi celebrating the marriage of actress Veena Malik and Asad Khattak. Rival broadcasters pounced on that show as “blasphemous,” prompting the media regulator to suspend Geo Entertainment for a month, fine it Rs. 10 million, and ban Lodhi for life from television.
It didn’t end there. Within days of the original broadcast, Jang, despite its multiplatform apologies, was facing whack-a-mole blasphemy cases, including the one in Gilgit-Baltistan. It still has 75 other cases it hopes to have consolidated and heard at the four provincial high courts. Of course, none of this would have happened had it not been for one of Pakistani journalism’s most shocking events almost a month earlier.
On April 19, Hamid Mir, Geo News’s primetime anchor, was shot in Karachi. Geo News ran with his brother’s allegation that the attempted murder had been masterminded by Lt. Gen. Zaheer-ul-Islam, the-then chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency. Furor ensued. Transmission companies forced Jang’s five channels off air or relegated them to cable backwaters, advertisers welched on their deals, and hawkers stopped selling the group’s dailies Jang and The News. Even the ruling party eventually distanced itself from Jang, with embattled defense minister Khawaja Asif claiming he had proof the media group was “anti-state.”
Seven months after the Karachi attack, Mir is back on air but Jang’s channels are still being shuffled around. Rival media houses have draped themselves in the flag and miss no opportunity to hit out at “traitorous” Jang, even with blatantly false allegations, setting the stage for a media-will-eat-itself dystopia. And Imran Khan, chief of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, continues to insist Jang is operating on the instructions of foreign interests, including India and the U.S., even though Jang has conclusively debunked these allegations. Accusations of “treason” and “blasphemy” are as serious as they are routine and they often lead to violence: several Geo reporters covering PTI events have been manhandled by Khan’s supporters.
In the public perception, the threats Jang faces point in one direction. Upcoming news channel BOL—the provenance of whose funding remains a state secret—has vowed to decapitate Geo News and poached several of its top people. BOL and Khan are widely considered to be working with the allegedly antigovernment military establishment. And the “nonstate actor” whose complaint led to the four convictions in Gilgit-Baltistan belongs to a militant organization with past ties to Pakistan’s questionably deniable wars. The military denies any involvement in either of the two ongoing sagas, the PTI’s protests and the war on Jang. But perceptions to the contrary persist and do great damage to Pakistan.
For sure, Rahman’s Jang has been an imperfect media pioneer. It may not have spoken up when others were being persecuted by the Iftikhar Chaudhry-led Supreme Court or being media-trialed without proof. Its judgment may not always have been sound, its perceived alliances may not always have been principled, and its campaigns may not always have been the right calls. But none of this excuses the criminal silence of journalists and their audiences over how Jang is being undone. Rahman, Lodhi, Malik and Khattak’s convictions are a travesty. It would be dishonest and self-damaging if we chose not to recognize that.