Pretexts on curbing free speech: Terrorism, extremism and blasphemy

Editor’s Note: Younes’article explains that journalists, scholars, human rights defenders and political activists are routinely attacked for writing and commenting on religious extremism and abuses by security forces. Journalists are killed and disappeared on the pretext that they are “extremists” or “terrorists”. This often leads to the suspension of licenses of private media houses where the journalists work. Similarly, the killing of liberal Muslim scholars and academics are justified on the pretext that they are “blasphemous”. Moreover, students in universities are prohibited from hearing lectures about repression on ethnic and religious minorities, notably on Balochistan. Human rights activists who openly defy this prohibition are killed. On top of this, the security establishment turns to internet controls, a more sophisticated form of curbing access to information and free speech. Younes points to the sweeping powers on internet control proposed by a draft bill. In the bill, the public telecommunication agency will have the power to block internet access and seize data without judicial oversight, to “manage intelligence” gathering. She concludes that the constitutional restriction that limits free speech for the “glory of Islam” and “defense of Pakistan” is used to justify curbs on any free speech.


by Javeria Younes

The founder of Pakistan, Mr. Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Qaid-e-Azam, made the following comment on the condition of the press in India at the Imperial Legislative Council, 19 September 1918: “I say, protect the innocent, protect those journalists who are doing their duty and who are serving both the public and the Government by criticizing the Government freely, independently, honestly, which is an education for any Government.”

In Pakistan, freedom of expression is a misnomer that exists only in name under Article 19 of the Pakistan Constitution, wherein this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference, and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media outlet.

Pakistan’s current civilian government, just like previous civilian and military governments, actively suppresses political dissent. It exerts political and economic pressure on any media group that dares to defy the unofficial ban on speaking the truth, and imposes a view that is, in fact, detrimental to state policies and economic interests. Journalists, activists, and human rights defenders are targeted for endorsing and airing any dissenting view. A media blackout on the problems of Balochistan and sectarian violence is particularly evident. The freedoms of those professing religions other than mainstream Islam continue to be denied.

According to the freedom index released by Reporters without Borders, an advocacy group working for media freedom around the world, Pakistan is ranked 159 out of 180 countries. The International Federation of Journalists has cited Pakistan as being the most dangerous country for journalists in the world, with 14 journalists killed in 2014 alone.

Maintaining a contemptuous stance on civil liberties, the State is enacting more laws to restrain free speech, such as the Prevention of Cyber Crime Act 2015, worsening the climate of suppression that has engulfed Pakistan with the ad hoc enforcement of black laws such as the Protection of Pakistan Act 2014, and harsh blasphemy laws. Freedom of expression is stifled in electronic and print media, especially in the vernacular press, which has deeper penetration among the masses. Freedom of expression, as guaranteed under the Constitution, has repeatedly been suppressed in the name of national security or the glory of Islam. Writing or speaking against the military, particularly the ISI (Pakistan’s intelligence wing) has been considered taboo, and no media house dares to cross the line. Raza Rumi, Hamid Mir and other outspoken journalists have been threatened or banished from the country, while others have resorted to self-exile. Those who have the courage to speak against institutionalized terrorism in the name of national security are made examples of by the military.

The Prevention of Cyber Crime Act 2015 is the State’s attempt to curtail freedom of expression over the Internet. The Bill contains three provisions that will allow the government to censor any content without referring to a judge, use overly broad criteria to criminalize many online activities, and gain access to Internet user data without any judicial control. Under Section 32 of the Bill, an authorized officer has the authority to seize data on his own without a court order. Moreover, Section 34 of the proposed law empowers the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to “manage intelligence and issue directions for removal or blocking the access of any intelligence through any information system.” The PTA can do this if it deems the information to be detrimental to “the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security, or defense of Pakistan, or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, or commission of or incitement to an offence under this Act”.

On 20 June 2014, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) suspended the licenses of private TV channels Geo Entertainment and ARY News for a period of 15 and 30 days respectively, for “violations” of the code of conduct. The channels were subjected to a fine of Rs. 10 million each. The move came just hours before Geo News channel was set to return to the Pakistani airwaves on 21 June 2014, following a 15-day license suspension by PEMRA imposed on June 6. Geo News had alleged that the military-led ISI intelligence network was behind the attack on senior TV anchor Hamid Mir in Karachi.

The phenomenon of murders committed by “unknown assailants” is actively used to silence dissent. Impunity perpetuates the phenomenon. Under these circumstances, journalists in Pakistan put their lives at risk every day. Many are labeled as extremists or terrorists. For a journalist, the choice is between keeping quiet in the face of evil, and facing the great unknown of whether they will wake up the next morning. While Pakistan is dangerous as a whole, Balochistan is now the most dangerous place for a journalist to engage in his or her profession. Even reporting on the Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces is problematic for journalists. They face the wrath of either the militants or the Military if they report in favor of one or the other. Media houses, for their part, often refuse to take any measures to ensure security and safety of their staff.

Apart from cracking down on print and electronic media, the State has recently been targeting intellectual discourse at different universities where free speech is encouraged. On 9 April 2015, the State authorities and the ISI forced the administration of Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) to cancel a presentation on Balochistan titled “Un-silencing Baluchistan”. This presentation was to feature Mama Qadeer, the Chairperson of Voice of Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP), Farzana Majeed, General Secretary VBMP, and I.A. Rehman, Director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), among other distinguished speakers. Ordinary citizens and students of LUMS used social media to vent their disappointment. Many termed it a violation of freedom of expression and restraint on intellectual discourse by the State.

On 29 April 2015, Assistant Professor in the Department of Mass Communication at Karachi University, Dr. Waheed Rehman, well known by his pen name “Yasir Rizvi”, was shot dead. Four unidentified attackers on two motorcycles opened fire on his car. On 16 April 2015, the Vice-Principal of a medical college in Karachi, Ms. Debra Lobo, an American national, was shot and seriously injured. And, on 18 September 2014, a Muslim scholar Dr. Muhammad Shakil Auj, who had been accused of blasphemy because of a speech delivered in the United States, was shot and killed in Karachi. He was the Dean of Islamic Studies at Karachi University. It is pertinent to note that Dr. Waheed Rehman completed his PhD under the guidance of Professor Auj.

On 24 April 2015, Sabeen Mahmood, the Director of T2F, a popular gathering place for poets and intellectuals in Karachi, was shot dead by unidentified assailants. She was killed for hosting the lecture on Balochistan at T2F that was previously cancelled at LUMS. Sabeen, shot five times, died on the way to the hospital, while her mother sustained critical injuries. Sabeen was very vocal about the problems of Balochistan and had gone ahead with the event, titled “Un-silencing Balochistan Take 2”, despite having received death threats. Though a number of journalists and outspoken activists had been targeted earlier, the intelligence agencies intended to send a clear message by killing Sabeen. They have sought to instill fear in the upper and middle-class citizens who have more recently become politically vocal for rights and equality. They want this group to remain silent. The killing is thus a direct attack on freedom of expression.

The Asian Human Rights Commission’s senior researcher Mr. Baseer Naweed was also targeted by the intelligence agencies when he tried to travel to Pakistan to attend the seminar on anti- torture day, commemorated throughout the world on 26 June 2015. Mr. Baseer’s relatives and friends were intimidated by intelligence officials to divulge the details of his whereabouts.

More recently, the house of a New York Times Pakistan correspondent Salman Masood was searched by the Pakistan Rangers, a paramilitary force, on 11 January 2016 as part of a ‘terrorist’ search operation. Ranger officials entered the journalist’s house without any search warrant. Masood’s house was searched for evidence as part of a “routine search operation”. On 5 January 2016, Adnan, transgender human rights defender and co-administrator of the TransAction Page, an online platform of the TransAction Alliance, was shot and critically wounded in Peshawar. She was subsequently rushed to Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar. Before being operated on to have the bullet removed, she was allegedly refused treatment by doctors for approximately three hours, due to her being a person of transgender.

The United Nations General Assembly, in its session held on 25 November 2015, debated the draft resolution on the protection of human rights defenders. A total of 117 Member States voted yes on the resolution, entitled “Recognizing the role of human rights defenders and the need for their protection.”  It called for accountability for attacks on human rights defenders. It urged States to release defenders who have been arbitrarily detained for exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. Fourteen States, including Pakistan, voted no on the resolution. These included China, Russia, Syria, Kenya, Myanmar, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, South Africa, Iran, and Sudan. It is no accident that many of these States have poor records in their treatment of human rights defenders.

The fact that the resolution was not adopted by a consensus reinforces the concerns of human rights defenders about the shrinking space for civil society organizations. It is essential that civil society and the general public supportive of an independent civil society join their voices to defend and reaffirm the essential work of human rights defenders. It is a necessity for any society wanting to advance human rights and the rule of law.

Academics, journalists, human right defenders, and activists have been increasingly targeted for speaking out against fundamentalism and the militarization of Pakistan. Intellectuals continue being attacked in the face of calls for accountability by the civil society. This is creating discontent and upheaval in the population. That the civilian government is allowing military and intelligence agencies to infringe upon this right is a violation in itself. That it is allowing them to continue murdering civilians in broad daylight for speaking freely exposes the real state of Pakistan.

Prominent was the case of Dr. Shakeel Auj, Dean of the Faculty of Islamic Studies in the University of Karachi, who was shot dead by “unknown persons”. Reports reveal that Dr. Auj was shot at point blank range from behind while he was in a moving vehicle. Three other colleagues who were with him in the car at the time miraculously survived the shooting. Dr. Auj was a well-known personality and a distinguished scholar, renowned for his liberal and enlightened ideas on the philosophy of Islam. He remained a staunch critic of orthodox circles and conservatives. Before the incident, he had received threatening messages from different quarters, including several from professors in the University of Karachi. An Islamic seminary had, in recent days, issued a fatwa, declaring him as blasphemous and liable to be killed. According to reports, the police had themselves claimed to have known of these threats to Dr. Auj’s life since he had lodged a police complaint by way of an FIR in 2012. Despite such a complaint being lodged, the police neither provided Dr. Auj with any form of protection nor investigated the leaders of the Madrasah against whom the said complaints were made.

A prominent human rights defender and lawyer, Mr. Rashid Rehman, was gunned down in his office by Muslim fundamentalists for defending a professor charged with blasphemy. He had been threatened earlier, by fundamentalists during court proceedings. They said if he did not stop pursuing the case he would not be able to come to court again. The court was informed that Mr. Rehman had been threatened with death, prior to the Court sessions, but the judge did not take any action against the fundamentalists. Mr. Rehman was shot and killed on 9May 2014; the judiciary, government and the police all failed to protect him and failed to take any action against the perpetrators Rashid Rehman was shot and killed in his law office because of his willingness to take on the case of an English Professor accused of blasphemy by hard line student groups. The defendant had been unable to find further legal representation due to the fear surrounding blasphemy, which carries the death penalty in Pakistan. Previously, Hafeez had been in prison without a lawyer, until Rehman agreed to represent him in February 2014, almost a year after he was arrested.

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