Blasphemy charges create climate of fear for Pakistani media

Pakistani students of Islamic seminaries chant slogans during a rally in support of blasphemy laws in Islamabad, Pakistan, on March 8, 2017. Hundreds of students of Islamic seminaries rallied in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, urging government to remove blasphemous content from social media and take stern action against those who posted blasphemous content on social media to hurt sentiments of Muslims. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)
Updated 18 March 2017
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Blasphemy charges create climate of fear for Pakistani media

ISLAMABAD: Ahmad Waqas Goraya couldn’t see anything through the black hood, but he could hear the screams.
A Pakistani blogger with a penchant for criticizing Pakistan’s powerful military and taking the government to task, Goraya was kidnapped in January along with four other bloggers.
“I could hear the screams of torture,” he said, struggling for words as the memories flooded back. “I don’t even want to think about what they did.”
But that wasn’t the worst of it, he said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. More terrifying was the accusation of blasphemy — punishable by death in Pakistan — hurled at him and his fellow bloggers. They were held in what Goraya called a “black site” on the edge of Lahore that some say is run by Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency.
Analysts and social media monitors say the blasphemy law is a powerful tool to silence critics. Some say it is being used by extremists to silence moderates at a time when Pakistanis are increasingly speaking out against violence and extremism, and voicing support for a government crackdown on Islamic militants.
In Pakistan, even the suggestion of blasphemy can be tantamount to a death sentence. It has incited extremists to take the law into their own hands and kill alleged perpetrators, often forcing people to flee the country, as Goraya and the other bloggers have.
Pakistan’s government heightened concerns earlier this week when it said it had asked Facebook and Twitter to ferret out Pakistanis posting religiously offensive material, promising to seek their extradition if they are out of the country and prosecute them on blasphemy charges if they are in Pakistan.
In one high-profile case six years ago, Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer was gunned down by one of his guards, who accused him of blasphemy because he criticized the law and defended a Christian woman sentenced to death for allegedly insulting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
“Right now they have made sure I cannot come back to Pakistan by introducing blasphemy charges,” Goraya said.
The lawyer who is arguing the case against the bloggers, Tariq Asad, has openly called for their deaths, while praising outlawed Sunni militant groups who want the country’s minority Shiites declared non-Muslims.
“They should have been killed,” Asad told the AP in an interview this week. “If I had the opportunity I would have killed them.”
Asad smiled at the suggestion that invoking the blasphemy law subdues the media and frightens social media activists.
“They should be scared,” he said.
The blasphemy charges against the bloggers being heard in Islamabad’s High Court were filed by Salman Shahid, who has ties to Pakistan’s Red Mosque, a hotbed of Islamic militancy where hundreds were killed in 2007 after security forces ended a months-long standoff with militants holed up inside. Asad is Shahid’s lawyer.
Zahid Hussain, a defense analyst and author of several books on militancy in the region, said invoking the blasphemy law is a form of “pushback” against the proliferation of news outlets and social media that amplify moderate voices.
Extremists “are trying to reassert themselves with this ideological battle and the easiest thing for them to use is the blasphemy law,” he said.
Hamid Mir, a popular Pakistani news anchor, says both media owners and journalists operate under a cloud of fear. Threats come from a variety of quarters in Pakistan, including the powerful spy agencies, but the most frightening are from those who would use the blasphemy law, he said.
Mir was shot six times in a drive-by shooting in Karachi three years ago. The culprits were later said to have been killed, but Mir pointedly accused Pakistan’s intelligence agency at the time.
“I am not afraid of bullets or bombs,” he said in an interview this week in his office in Islamabad. Even with three of the six bullets still in his body, he has refused to leave Pakistan.
But now he is having second thoughts. Last year, he was charged with blasphemy after writing a column condemning those who would kill in the name of honor following the burning death of a young girl.
“It broke me,” he said. “Here I had done nothing wrong and for four months I faced this blasphemy charge. Then I thought I should leave my country.”
Asad, the attorney prosecuting the bloggers, also argued the case against Mir.
A group of senior lawyers in Pakistan told Mir there was only one lawyer who could defend him, Rizwan Abbasi, who was defending the seven militants accused in the deadly 2008 multi-pronged assault in Mumbai, India, which killed 127 people. Abbasi had also defended Hafiz Saeed, the founder of the outlawed Lashkar-e-Taiba group and one of India’s most wanted men.
“I thought if the judge saw him by my side he would think ‘if he is with him then I won’t get into trouble if I free him,’” said Mir, explaining that judges and lawyers fear retaliation from militants if they exonerate someone of blasphemy.
But even Abbasi needed help. He had Mir send his column to five of the country’s top clerics to ask if it contained anything blasphemous. They all rejected the charge and it was dropped, but Mir says his approach to journalism has changed.
“I don’t talk about human rights any more. . . You become selective in your criticism,” he said.
The Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International have spoken out against the abduction of the bloggers and expressed concerns about growing fears within Pakistan’s journalist community brought about by the use of the blasphemy law.
“It’s not the elected government that is putting pressure on the media, but journalists express fear of offending religious and militant groups, and the military and intelligence organizations,” said Steven Butler, the CPJ’s Asia program director. “The latest fear is of being labeled as ‘blasphemer’ and that this could lead to attacks.”
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif did nothing to allay fears earlier this week when he demanded a review of social media to seek out offensive content, and when his interior minister said the government had reached out to Facebook and Twitter.
Facebook said it reviews all government requests carefully, “with the goal of protecting the privacy and rights of our users.” Twitter declined to comment.
In the past, Pakistan has banned YouTube after the circulation of videos deemed offensive to Islam.
“Our argument has never been about the law, but what is most dangerous is how it is used in Pakistan,” to stifle critics and muffle moderate voices, said Haroon Baloch with the Islamabad-based Internet advocacy group Bytesforall. He said radical religious groups use social media to attack moderate views, but there have been no restrictions imposed on them.
In an open letter to Pakistan’s interior minister, Amnesty International earlier this month asked that the government “protect journalists, bloggers, civil society and other human rights activists who are facing constant harassment, intimidation, threats and violent attacks in the country.”
Goraya, the blogger, is still haunted by his three weeks of captivity at the black site, where he said several cells were overcrowded with men both young and old, many of them in chains. One of his eardrums is damaged and he no longer has feeling in one hand.
“I was tortured beyond limits, beatings, different equipment used, psychological torture,” he said.


India’s marathon national election reaches the finish line

An Indian election officer (R) marks the finger of a voter at a polling centre on the outskirts of Amritsar on May 19, 2019, during the 7th and final phase of India's general election. (AFP)
Updated 5 min 19 sec ago
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India’s marathon national election reaches the finish line

  • Modi visited West Bengal 17 times in an effort to make inroads with his Hindu nationalist agenda, provoking sporadic violence and prompting the Election Commission to cut off campaigning there
  • Indian television channels have had a mixed record in the past in predicting election results

KOLKATA, India: Voting in India’s mammoth national election ended Sunday with the seventh and final phase of a grueling poll that lasted more than five weeks, as exit polls predicted a victory for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party and its allies.
Vote counting begins on Thursday, and the election result will likely be known the same day.
The election is seen as a referendum on Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party. The BJP’s main opposition is the Congress party, led by Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has produced three prime ministers.
Exit polls by four leading television news channels — Republic, TimesNow, New Delhi Television and India today- projected a victory for the BJP and its allies with 287 to 339 seats out of 543 — far ahead of the 272 seats needed to form the next government.
The Congress party and its allies are likely to win 122 to 128 seats, the TV channels said. Indian television channels have had a mixed record in the past in predicting election results.
Total voter turnout in the national election was 64.9%, the national election commission said, up from 58% in the last national vote in 2014.
Gandhi questioned the way the election was conducted by the autonomous Election Commission, saying the election schedule was manipulated to help Modi’s party.
“The EC used to be feared & respected. Not anymore,” Gandhi tweeted Sunday evening, without giving any details.
Sunday’s voting covered Modi’s constituency of Varanasi, a holy Hindu city where he was elected in 2014 with an impressive margin of over 200,000 votes. Modi spent Saturday night at Kedarnath, a temple of the Hindu god Shiva nestled in the Himalayas in northern India.
The final election round included 59 constituencies in eight states. Up for grabs were 13 seats in Punjab and an equal number in Uttar Pradesh, eight each in Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, nine in West Bengal, four in Himachal Pradesh and three in Jharkhand and Chandigarh.
In Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, voters lined up outside polling stations early Sunday morning to avoid the scorching heat, with temperatures reaching 38 degrees Celsius (100 Fahrenheit). Armed security officials stood guard in and outside the centers amid fear of violence.
While the election, which began April 11, was largely peaceful, West Bengal, located in eastern India, was an exception. Modi is challenged there by the state’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, who heads the more inclusive Trinamool Congress party and is eyeing a chance to go to New Delhi as the opposition’s candidate for prime minister.
Modi visited West Bengal 17 times in an effort to make inroads with his Hindu nationalist agenda, provoking sporadic violence and prompting the Election Commission to cut off campaigning there.
On Sunday, Nirmala Sitharaman, a BJP leader and the country’s defense minister, accused Banerjee’s supporters of attacking her party members and preventing them from voting at several places in six of the nine constituencies in West Bengal. She did not provide details.
Banerjee denied the accusation and said Modi’s government used security forces to intimidate her party’s supporters.
Prodeep Chakrabarty, a retired teacher in Kolkata, said Modi’s BJP was desperate to win some seats against Banerjee’s influential regional party.
“People are divided for many reasons. We have to wait for a final outcome to see who people are voting for. Things are not predictable like before,” he said.
Minorities in India, especially Muslims, who comprise about 14 percent of the country’s 1.3 billion people, criticize Modi for his Hindu nationalist agenda. Modi’s party backed a bill that would make it easier to deport millions of Bangladeshis who have migrated to India since Bangladesh’s independence in 1971. The bill, however, eases a path to citizenship for Hindus, Sikhs, Parsees and Jains — non-Muslims — who came from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan over decades.
Voters were also up early Sunday in Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh state, where election workers arranged for drinking water, shade and fans to cool them down.
“I straightaway came from my morning walk to cast my vote and was surprised to see enthusiasm among the voters,” said Ramesh Kumar Singh, who was among the first to vote. “There were long queues of people waiting patiently to cast their votes, which is a good sign for democracy.”
During the election campaign, Modi played up the threat of Pakistan, India’s Muslim-majority neighbor and archrival, especially after the suicide bombing of a paramilitary convoy in Kashmir on Feb. 14 that killed 40 Indian soldiers.
Congress and other opposition parties have challenged Modi over a high unemployment rate of 6.1% and farmers’ distress aggravated by low crop prices.
Some of Modi’s boldest policy steps, such as the demonetization of high currency notes to curb black-market money, proved to be economically damaging. A haphazard implementation of “one nation, one tax” — a goods and services tax — also hit small and medium businesses.
Voter turnout in the first six rounds was approximately 66%, the Election Commission said, up from 58% in the last national election in 2014.
Pre-election media polls indicate that no party is likely to win anything close to a majority in Parliament, which has 543 seats. The BJP, which won a majority of 282 seats in 2014, may need some regional parties as allies to stay in power.
A Congress-led government would require a major electoral upset.