The sentence announced by an anti-terrorism court in northern Pakistan against one of the country’s television channels on blasphemy charges will not augur well for freedom of expression, Freedom Network [FN] said in a statement on November 27, 2014.
The anti-terrorism court sentenced in absentia Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, owner of Geo TV and its parent Jang Media Group, actress Veena Malik, her husband Asad Bashir and morning TV show host Dr Shaista Wahidi, to 26 years in prison each for airing a “contemptuous” programme in May this year. The four convicts were each also fined Rs1.3 million (USD 12,800).
“At a time when media in Pakistan is already trying to face off several challenges and find its focus, the court judgment will not go well for it. Though of little legal effect in mainland Pakistan, the verdict symbolic implications for the struggling media can’t be underestimated,” the FN said in its alert, adding that several international human rights bodies such as Amnesty International have expressed serious concerns about the fairness of the trial.
FN calls on the Pakistan government to take immediate steps to review the court’s judgment and “stop actions that can have very serious negative effect on freedom of expression in the country.”
The controversy started when Geo TV (Entertainment) aired a programme in May this year, wherein Veena Malik and her spouse Bashir re-enacted their wedding ceremony with a devotional Qawaali.
The court verdict also comes at a time when Geo continues to have a tense relationship with the Pakistani authorities, especially the security establishment after an attack on Geo News famous anchor Hamid Mir in Karachi. The anchor’s family had accused the spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of being behind an assassination attempt on him.
Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman is based outside Pakistan, while Malik and Bashir have left the country after receiving death threats when the blasphemy allegations were first levelled against them. Malik told Amnesty International that she fears for her life if she returns to Pakistan.
On 6 June this year, the governmental body Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) had already, as a punishment, suspended Geo TV’s license for 15 days over the blasphemy allegation. In a published statement, Geo’s sister publication, The News International, argued that “this is the very same programme for which Geo has already been fined an unprecedented amount and had its channel taken off air.”
The newspaper also recalled that numerous apologies had been issued by Geo and scholars across the spectrum of religious thought had accepted these apologies. It also questioned the jurisdiction of the court to take such extreme step. “How is it that an anti-terrorist court in Gilgit has jurisdiction in the matter, especially when so many other FIRs against the accused have been dismissed, including in the city where Geo is based?”