Gilgit case and intolerance

I. A Rehman 

THE government must address the issues raised by the Gilgit anti-terrorism court’s curious verdict against media persons, for much more is at stake than the legal rights of the defendants.

The court’s decision whereby the Jang group’s editor-in-chief, an anchor at Geo TV and two guests at a talk show have each been sentenced in absentia to 26 years’ imprisonment and a fine of Rs1.3 million, has caused anger and dismay in media circles at home and abroad.

The heads of the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors and the All-Pakistan Newspapers Society have categorically declared that “the unlawful conviction of media persons in Gilgit-Baltistan constitutes a major threat to the existence of a free press throughout the country”. Amnesty International has said the decision will have a “chilling effect on freedom of expression in Pakistan”. A similar concern has been expressed by Freedom Network.

That the case formed part of a well-orchestrated campaign to muzzle the voice of the media is evident from record. No less than 75 cases were registered against the defendants in different parts of the country on the charge of showing disrespect to the Ahle Bayt. This happened during a period when the Jang group was being punished in a variety of ways for stirring up a hornet’s nest. The Geo channel was duly punished by Pemra, the authority competent to deal with affairs of this nature, and the matter should have ended there. That it didn’t meant that vendetta was the objective of the campaign and not justice.

The Gilgit court has confirmed that the threat to media freedom — and the people’s right to freedom of expression — has assumed menacing proportions. Obviously, the entire body of human rights is under pressure. The authorities and human rights activists both have a clear duty to ensure that the challenge to media freedom is effectively thwarted.

Besides, the case indicates a gross abuse of the legal process. The accusation fell under Section 298-A of the Penal Code, punishable with three years’ imprisonment. The provision does not attract the label of blasphemy. Yet great noise was made that the accused had committed blasphemy. Once that was done the defendants lost their right to justice, even to a fair trial. The administration, subordinate courts, lawyers and journalists all have to be on guard against this kind of incitement to violence, otherwise the country will go on witnessing Kot Radha Kishan-type outrages.

It is doubtful that this case should have gone to the anti-terrorism court at all and whether the Gilgit court was right in invoking the sections of the Anti-Terrorism Act that it did to hand down stiff penalties. Complaints of inappropriate application of the anti-terrorism law have been growing over the years, especially following its application to trade union workers and civil rights activists, and it is time the Justice and Law Commission looked for ways to stop its misuse.

Several legal experts, including the president of the Supreme Court Bar, have criticised the conviction of the defendants on charges that had been dismissed by two anti-terrorism courts in Karachi and by another anti-terrorism court in Balochistan. Who will secure the victims’ right to protection under the principle that no one can be prosecuted more than once for a single offence?

The issue of the Gilgit court’s competence to try the media persons has been raised by all the critics and the flaw in the order under which the Gilgit courts are functioning cannot be left unattended. The very basis of the legal order in the sensitive Gilgit-Baltistan region is under attack. The urgency of swift remedial action is obvious.

From whatever angle one looks at the Gilgit court affair — threat to media freedom, abuse of law, the inflammable nature of the PPC provisions on offences relating to religion — the issue boils down to the rise of intolerance as the determinant of both individual and group behaviour. Nobody can advance ideas the custodians of power or faith or morality have arbitrarily put beyond the pale of tolerance, or even discourse. Herein lies the root cause of Pakistan’s troubles.

Those in authority do sometimes, when they are not engaged in saving their chairs, recognise intolerance as the biggest threat to Pakistan but they seem to have no clue as to what they should do about it. And they are not ready to accept the counsel offered from any quarter.

For instance, the Supreme Court in its widely acclaimed judgment of June 19 this year had advised the government to take a few specific steps. The court had taken up the cases of attacks on the Peshawar church and other non-Muslim prayer houses, and quite significantly the first three of the court’s seven recommendations called for a well-defined, long-term drive against intolerance.

First, the court asked the government to constitute a task force for developing a strategy for promoting religious tolerance.

Secondly, it called for reform of school/college curricula so as to ensure compliance with the UN call to protect the child from any belief-based discrimination and ensure his upbringing in a spirit of understanding, tolerance, friendship among peoples, peace and universal brotherhood.

And, thirdly, the court called upon the federal government to take steps to discourage hate speech in the media and bring the delinquents to justice.

Apart from its duty to honour the Supreme Court advice the government should have the good sense to realise the need to defuse the time bomb it has been foolishly sitting upon for so long.

Tailpiece: Asked about Pakistan’s future, Mortimer Wheeler, who added 5,000 years to this country’s history, reproduced a news item about a student pulling out his dagger when hauled up for cheating in a Matric examination. What would he, or anyone else, have said on reading of cheating by Pakistan’s PhD and M.Phil candidates? Progress?

Published in Dawn December 4th , 2014

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