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Pakistan's dangerous media war

Incitement to religious hatred on the airways is becoming alarmingly common

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Pakistan's dangerous media war

Pakistani activists hold images of bloggers who have disappeared, during a protest in Islamabad on Jan. 10. A virulent social media campaign to paint five disappeared Pakistani activists as blasphemers deserving execution has highlighted Islamist efforts to muzzle liberal voices using the country's draconian blasphemy laws. (Photo by Aamir Qureshi/AFP)

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Embattled Pakistan has a new war to worry about and this time it is between its own news channels.

The controversy erupted in January when human rights groups started to protest and call for the return of five progressive activists and bloggers who disappeared in Lahore and Islamabad. Soon, the missing men were also accused of sharing anti-Quran posts on social media thus committing blasphemy; an allegation often used against Christians and Ahmadis (the two most persecuted community in Pakistan).

Their families and supporters are now concerned about Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code that mandates the death penalty for defiling the name of Prophet Mohammed "by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly." This most lethal charge in Pakistan has prompted murders and mob attacks. Hence, their worries worsened when BOL News, a private TV channel, started identifying the controversial posts and quoting Quranic verses that suggest that blasphemers ought to be killed.


The propaganda

Preacher-turned-journalist, Aamir Liaquat has now taken it upon himself to be the ultimate guard of the dignity of Prophet Mohammed. The firebrand started ridiculing and branding anchors and journalists at the rival Geo News channel as "Indian traitors" and supporters of blasphemers. He has been inciting violence against them on his talk show.

The propaganda continued even after the missing activists returned home in early February. What happened next was obvious.

Liberal members of civil society were accused of insulting Islam. One of their demonstrations was attacked and pelted with stones by "lovers of the Prophet." The family of Asim Saeed, one of the bloggers, was forced to relocate from their home after receiving death threats on the telephone. Ahmad Waqas Goraya, another activist, fled to the Netherlands.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan condemned this vicious campaign. "The venomous preaching of hate seems to have been followed by a dozen or so small demonstrations and the lodging of a number of sedition cases against respected journalists who have dared to comment on some of the policies of powerful institutions of the state," it said.

The media industry of Pakistan is known for fierce competition to top the ratings and break news first. However, using this platform for a war of words in the name of religion and patriotism is a new and dangerous trend. Never before have I seen a news anchor regularly showing selective stills and videos to prove that a specific channel is anti-Islamic. Most of these screenshots can be seen on the Twitter page of Aamir Liaquat who is also the executive president of the BOL News.

This is not about freedom of expression; this is blatant incitement to violence. Identifying blasphemers in an already intolerant religious society neither serves Pakistan or Islam; in fact, it maligns both. As Pope Francis says "the path of violence and hate can never solve the problems of humanity! use the name of God to justify this path is blasphemy."

In his latest program, Liaquat even asked the people of Lahore to join a rally. "Congratulations everyone who is guarding the dignity of the Prophet," he said with a smile. Freedom of association is a democratic right but their credibility comes into question when such groups remain silent on mob attacks against non-Muslims.    

The media, parliament, judiciary and army are considered the four pillars of our nation. However, the apparent lack of objectivity and impartiality is now slowly eating away the morals of professional journalism. We are in desperate need of a measured tone on the mosque loudspeaker and in our media.


Government reaction

Fortunately, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority issued a notice to BOL News' management in January banning Liaquat's show for containing hate speech. The channel however continued airing the program until the Supreme Court banned it.

Many Islamic groups opposed the decision. "Amir Liaquat is the protector of Prophet's dignity and a fearless soldier protecting the Prophet's respect. Those who stopped his program cannot suppress the voice of righteousness," tweeted Ahmad Raza Qadri, a Naat (poetry praising the Prophet Mohammed) performer.     

As I mentioned in a previous opinion piece, as the media authority does not issue licenses for airing religious content, a faith-based program in the guise of current affairs is no different. The last thing our country needs is a manipulative host amplifying his views on TV. Both Pakistani and Indian media are known for being provocative and such examples only worsen the situation.

What Amir Liaquat means for Pakistan is exactly what Zakir Naik (who inspired one of the Dhaka attackers) meant for India. The question is, are we willing to learn from our neighbors mistakes?

Kamran Chaudhry is a Catholic commentator based in Lahore.

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