Defending freedom of the press in Pakistan

The church has got to use its available platforms especially when mainstream media ignores the voices of minority groups
Defending freedom of the press in Pakistan

Pakistani journalists gather outside a court during a hearing in Quetta, Jan. 14. (Photo by AFP)

This month Christians of Pakistan lost another "friend" after the Taliban killed a journalist in Karachi.

Khurram Zaki, the Shia human rights activist, always stood apart from others in church-held demonstrations.

"He used to carry a cross while others held placards," a Muslim journalist told me. On his Facebook page, I found several photos of Zaki with priests from Karachi, including Archbishop Joseph Coutts of Karachi.

But his loss is not only for Christians but also for the whole nation.

Zaki was editor of a blog that supported a progressive, inclusive and democratic country.

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He supported religious freedom, something that Pakistan's founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah did when talking to the first Constituent Assembly of Pakistan in 1947 stressing that "the business of the state" was distinct from "religion."

Unfortunately since then, the country spent 35 years under unconstitutional military regimes including one under General Zia ul Haq who changed the country with his religious agenda into the one that we are now living in.

Besides Islamization and introducing the highly controversial blasphemy laws, Zia is also noted for his censorship of the press. Four journalists were even flogged in 1978 for protesting.

Little has changed since 1978 and there have been a series of intimidation, violence and murders. There has been a total of 115 killings from 1990 to 2015 – the very recent being that of Zaki.

Opponents of free speech are not limited to those in the barracks or madrassas. Even lawmakers and the government are culprits.

The Punjab government recently banned 13 Ahmadi publications and periodicals including the entire published works of their founder of Ahmadiyyat. Now the Ahmadis, who are deemed as heretics under Pakistan law, are prevented from accessing their own books.

In all this, church people have decided to stay neutral in Pakistan. Caritas Pakistan has an editorial policy of not using the words "Taliban" and "terrorism" in its newsletter. In my 10 years of church journalism, it has always been difficult to get comments from priests about the wrong doings of the Pakistan army.

"We specifically ask our guest speakers not to speak anything against the state. An army officer closed our channel for two weeks after we aired the testimony of a Muslim in one of our prayer meetings," media coordinator of Isaac TV, Pakistan's first Christian satellite broadcaster, told me.

Similarly Lahore based Catholic TV goes off air every time it covers a church attack.

Such harassment or censorship won't work. It will only result in more awareness regarding access to information, promote a negative image of the already marginalized country and increase further insecurity.

After facing years of persecution and religious intolerance, it would be unfair to blame church media for publishing and airing only Gospel-related content.

But the church has got to use its available platforms especially when mainstream media ignores the voices of minority groups.

Freedom of the press, thought, expression and speech is after all a fundamental right of any democracy. Even Pope Francis acknowledges that religious liberty and liberty of expression are both "fundamental human rights."

People have the right to know and the journalists have to report the matters of public interest as opinion makers.

Journalists cannot limit themselves to reporting on press statements only.

Pakistan parliament made history in 2013 by becoming the first national assembly in the country's history to complete a full term in office. It's about time our democracy matures to protect its watchdogs.

Kamran Chaudhry is a Catholic commentator based in Lahore. 

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