Pakistani people watch and listen to a speech given by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on television in Islamabad on April 5. All church-run TV stations in Muslim-majority Pakistan have been forced shut by the government. (Photo by AFP)
Pakistan has ordered a mass shutdown of all church-run TV stations leaving the country's beleaguered Christian minority dumbfounded.
Since Sept. 23, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) sent a notice to all regional general managers to "stop transmitting 11 illegal TV channels immediately." The notice was largely ignored; until a crackdown began on Oct. 15.
Six people were arrested when cable TV operators were raided for broadcasting Indian Christian channels. Now staffers at the closed stations are on indefinite leave. Pakistan's oldest Christian satellite broadcaster, Isaac TV was silenced and was followed by Catholic TV, run by Lahore Archdiocese.
PEMRA's ban is a setback for interfaith harmony in a country that is already riven with sectarian violence. The closure of Christian channels further isolates the religious minority.
Legally speaking, the government has a right to pull down channels that do not have landing rights, the right to broadcast foreign TV content in Pakistan, or a PEMRA license. Landing rights are granted for programs on a number of subjects but not religious content.
Owners of Christian channels knew they were taking a risk by broadcasting foreign religious programs but, everybody thought that, if Islamic channels could do so, then Christians should also have their say.
They still had to be careful, after all, Christians have long faced discrimination in the Muslim-majority nation, so they broadcast their religious content from abroad.
For example, Isaac TV recorded its programs in Lahore but broadcast them from Hong Kong. Similarly, God Bless TV aired its content from Dubai.
While drafting this column, I turned on the TV and counted 11 Islamic channels airing 24 hours a day. Among them was Peace TV which broadcasts Zakir Naik, a preacher who was accused of inspiring the terrorists behind the July 1 Dhaka cafe attack in Bangladesh that left 20 people, including 17 foreigners, dead.
After the attack, the government of Bangladesh was quick to block Peace TV broadcasts. Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani Christian leaders backed the move.
Even though jihadists continually attack targets in Pakistan, the country still allows unlicensed Islamic TV channels to broadcast. I do not mean to object to Islamic programs, but if they are allowed then other religions should also be allowed as per Article 25 of our constitution which states that "all citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of the law."
Furthermore, while Peace TV has been accused of encouraging jihad, there have been no such complaints against the 11 Christian TV channels which mostly broadcast prayer services and programs on Gospel music.
The shutdown is nothing more than persecution, according to Father Morris Jalal, founder and executive director of Catholic TV. "What is the future of church media in Pakistan? It is a very difficult time for us. We were just trying to reach our own community who are generally ignored by other TV channels," he said, as his team packed up their equipment.
Christians and other religious minorities are already being sidelined by electronic media. State run, Pakistan Television only shows Christian dramas and the bishop's address on Christmas and Easter; that's less than an hour of Christian content per year.
Other channels only give news coverage to minorities on special feasts. Bishops rarely appear on talk shows and mob attacks on non-Muslims go unreported.
I still remember local coverage of the 2009 Gojra riots on Geo News which described it as a mere "collision" between two groups. Only the foreign media carried the real story — that an angry mob killed 10 Christians with seven burned alive, following a blasphemy allegation.
How can Christians find a platform to guide their own people who account for 1.6 percent of the total population?
The internet could also offer a refuge. Karachi Archdiocese's Good News TV, the first satellite Catholic channel in Pakistan, became a web-based channel after it was closed down amid a financial crises in 2011.
There is some hope for the Christian channels in Pakistan. Change in government, change in the PEMRA director, and improvement in their relationship with India could lead to more Indian channels being able to broadcast to their neighbor.
In the meantime, church leaders must use social media to reach out to both the Christians and Muslims and they must speak up against this unjust censorship.
In his World Mission Sunday message, Pope Francis said that "all peoples and cultures have the right to receive the message of salvation … This is all the more necessary when we consider how many injustices, wars, and humanitarian crises still need resolution."
In our terror-hit country, the church needs all the prayer and support it can get to carry on its missionary mandate.
Kamran Chaudhry is a Catholic commentator based in Lahore.