The borders of freedom: Blasphemy and the press in Pakistan

Updated 8:43 AM ET, Fri November 24, 2017

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Rafia Zakaria is the author of "The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan" (Beacon 2015) and Veil (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn newspaper in Pakistan, The Baffler and Guardian Books. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. This is the next installment in CNN Opinion's series on the challenges facing the media as it is under attack from critics, governments and changing technology.

(CNN)On August 13, a day before Pakistan turned 70, I received a Facebook message from a Pakistan-based journalist and colleague.

"Please help me report this," he said, linking to the Facebook page of a religious leader in Pakistan. In the post, written in Urdu, the leader accuses him of insulting a renowned 11th Century Sunni Muslim saint during an appearance on a privately owned Pakistani television channel.
In response, the leader demanded action from the Pakistani state and made a number of insults directed at the journalist, many of which were seconded by comments from some of the page's 180,000 odd followers.
The post, along with its accusation and incitement to punish, has never been removed.
The journalist at whom the message was directed was right to worry. Journalists, constantly in the public eye, are easy targets for Pakistan's vague and lethal blasphemy laws, which criminalize any statement that is "defamatory" to Islam, religious texts, the holy prophet or anyone associated with him. The laws are a relic of the colonial era, their bite made dramatically worse by military rulers and others seeking to woo the religious right and silence any potential opposition.
Pakistan is ranked seven out of the 12 most dangerous countries in the world by the Committee to Protect Journalists' "2017 Impunity Index." Together, these 12 countries account for 80% of the unsolved murders of journalists occurring in the last 10 years.
None of this is news in Pakistan, where journalists have long been subject to high levels of violence when dissenting against state policies or draconian and orthodox interpretations of Islam espoused by extremist elements. As Americans well know, a free and impartial media is essential to democracy and a bulwark against extremism of all kinds. The dire situation of Pakistani journalists is the canary in the mine for the world's fight against terror of all kinds.
    Pakistan's constitution does establish freedom of the press, but it is a frail freedom, circumscribed by laws that protect Islam and the security and defense of the country.
    There are official curbs on speech and unofficial ones. Officially, the press is free in Pakistan, but the individuals who constitute it are not. Pakistan's blasphemy laws dangle like the sword of Damocles over journalists who report on issues that can irk religious conservatives, the military or the powerful strongmen who regularly rob the country's coffers, any one of whom can orchestrate an accusation that can put an end to talk of those issues -- or to lives.
    But the blasphemy laws are not the only tool in the government's persecution kit. In early October, Shabbir Siham, an Islamabad-based journalist with the Daily Times, was indicted on terrorism charges by the Anti-Terrorism Court in the Pakistani province of Gilgit-Baltistan. Days prior to receiving the summons from the court, Siham had written a newspaper column critical of members serving in the regional assembly. Like the blasphemy statute, Pakistan's Anti-Terrorism Act defines terrorism very broadly and includes "creating a sense of fear and insecurity in society" and can thus be applied to actual terrorists but also journalists like Siham who criticize government officials.
    Others, like Taha Siddiqui, Pakistan bureau chief for the Delhi-based World is One News, have been investigated under Pakistan's cybercrime crackdown law: Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2015.
    While Siddiqui, whose harassment began in May of this year, is not yet charged, another journalist, Zafarullah Achakzai, was arrested and charged in July of this year under the same law. He had posted a Facebook comment questioning whether a particular military deployment was adequately doing its job after a suicide bombing had occurred in the area.
    Like the anti-terror laws, the Electronic Crimes Bill creates broad categories of crimes related to "cyberterrorism," hence allowing the government and military unchecked powers to threaten, intimidate and charge online speech and make it the basis for prosecutions, including those of journalists like Achakzai.
    But persecution is not limited to lone journalists. In 2014, blasphemy charges were leveled at Pakistan's right of center television channel Geo TV, after a morning program re-enacted the wedding of its female host during which they played a religious hymn recounting the wedding of the prophet's daughter. This upset some people who felt the host was in fact pretending to be the prophet's daughter, a re-enactment not viewed as permissible by many Sunni Muslims.
    The ensuing outcry led to blasphemy charges against the owner of Geo TV and the show's male and female hosts. Later that year, the owner was sentenced in absentia to 26 years in prison, a sentence bound, in the words of Amnesty International, to have "a chilling effect" on media freedom in Pakistan.
    The case involving Geo TV is instructive because commentators alleged that the real reason for going after the channel was not the show's use of the hymn, but rather an opportunity