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,