Pakistani Islamists hold a poster displaying Catholic woman Asia Bibi in a Feb. 1 protest in Lahore against the Supreme Court's decision to reject a final petition challenging her release from a blasphemy charge. (Photo by Arif Ali/AFP)
Media coverage of Pakistan’s non-Muslim population is stereotypically linked to sensitive themes like blasphemy, according to a new study.
“The minorities are generally painted in a victimhood framework. Most coverage about them does not include their views, opinions or perspectives, rendering them voiceless to their own cause. Most news stories and images are about them, not for them,” according to the study by the Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development (IRADA) released on Feb. 2.
Religious minorities make up about 4 percent of Pakistan’s population of 220 million.
The “Narratives of Marginalization” study claims that almost all news coverage about minorities is reactionary or event-related, with few stories about them.
Minorities were reported as sanitary workers, slum dwellers, bootleggers, domestic workers and victims of discrimination or forced conversions. Radio channels didn’t air a single story on them, the research found.
The study analyzed 12 Pakistani media outlets including newspapers, TV channels, radio stations and websites from Oct. 8-21, 2018, after the Supreme Court reserved its verdict in the final appeal by Catholic mother Asia Bibi to escape capital punishment in a blasphemy case that began with a dispute with farm workers a decade ago.
Bibi was handed the death sentence in 2010 under the country's draconian blasphemy laws. After the Supreme Court ordered her release on Oct. 31 last year, Pakistan’s top court rejected a final petition challenging her release on Jan. 29. She is believed to have been reunited with her daughters in Toronto, Canada, later that day.
“Of 39.4 percent of stories focused on the Christian community, 28.9 percent were about Bibi. The theme of blasphemy was dominant in 24.5 percent of stories only highlighting the Christian community. Almost all of them spoke about its [the blasphemy law's] perceived misuse,” IRADA media analyst Adnan Rehmat told ucanews.com.
Other themes included minorities’ archeological and cultural heritage and encroachment on their properties, interfaith harmony and cultural festivals. Minority women featured in only one in every 10 stories, he added.
The study also pointed out a 0.19 percent drop in the minority population between the censuses of 1998 and 2017. Christians have decreased from 1.59 to 1.27 percent, Ahmadis from 0.22 to 0.09 percent, scheduled castes from 0.08 to 0.07 percent, and other minorities from 0.07 to 0.02 percent.
“There has been no media investigation of this phenomenon; no reasons are officially recorded,” the report said, adding that non-Muslim journalists only comprised 1.3 percent of about 20,000 journalists in Pakistan’s media industry.
IRADA suggested raising public awareness of news diversity, training media in religious pluralism, holding communication workshops for minority associations and training non-Muslim journalists.
Peter Jacob, the Catholic director of the Centre for Social Justice, appreciated the research. “Only such action-based studies can fix a broken system. We hope it sparks new discussions. Minorities should rise above being victims only. Persecution of one vulnerable group affects all,” he said.