On January 4, 2011, Salman Taseer, then the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, was shot dead by his own security guard, Mumtaz Qadri. Five years later, after Qadri was hanged, approximately 30,000 people gathered on the streets to pay their respects to a man they’d dubbed “shaheed” (martyr). If you were watching Pakistani television news, however, you’d never guess there was this groundswell.
The reaction to Qadri’s hanging is very different from how some in Pakistan responded to Taseer’s killing. I was in office when the news of Taseer being shot broke and one of my colleagues immediately guessed that the murder was related to the blasphemy issue.
We did a short news package on Taseer for the South Asian Free Media Association, in which we spoke to approximately a dozen people off the streets. Every one of them believed Taseer had committed blasphemy and had met his rightful end when he was assassinated.
Taseer’s unpopularity stemmed from his decision to pick up the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian accused of blasphemy in 2009. Her case had many loopholes and one of the underlining issues was her being from a religious minority. However, not only had she been arrested, Bibi had also been sentenced to death. Taseer had argued for Asia Bibi’s pardon and opposed the blasphemy law as it exists in Pakistan, terming it a “black law”.
A magnate, connoisseur of art and an unapologetic liberal who was very much a part of Lahore’s elite, Taseer was depicted as the infidel by his opponents. He was hounded by reporters who asked him to prove his religious affiliations. However, it was Meher Bukhari’s show that did the ultimate damage. The show framed Taseer as a blasphemer and questioned his religious faith. This prime-time show introduced aggressive opposition in the language that the masses understood — Urdu.
Taseer’s privileged position made him an easy proxy target for an already vulnerable political party that was fighting extremism, poor governance, corruption cases and an increasingly intrusive army. After he was killed, the media reflected how divided the opinions were. The Urdu press by and large glorified Mumtaz Qadri for killing Taseer and presented him as a “shaheed” (martyr). The prominent English papers presented Taseer in a positive light. There was a clear rift between Pakistan’s English-speaking and liberal minority, and the rest of the country.
Qadri’s execution, on February 29, 2016, came as a surprise to some although insiders had informed his family that the hanging was inevitable because the presidential pardon had been denied. Pakistan had a moratorium on executions since 2008, but this had been lifted at the end of 2014 in the wake of the Peshawar school massacre. There have since been over 300 executions, and Qadri was merely the next in line.
When Qadri was hanged, the news was initially covered as “breaking news”. However, during the day, an advisory notice was issued by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), directing channels to refrain from airing or giving significance to the news, due to the fear of violence. By the time it was evening, Qadri’s hanging had slid down to third or fourth in the news headlines and there was virtual silence about it in the news shows, which is quite unusual for such a major event. Instead the focus was on a bill about violence against women that is under consideration in the Punjab Assembly.
PEMRA’s strategy to block the transmission may have seemed effective, but it was actually counter-productive. The muted coverage of Qadri’s funeral and his supporters frustrated the religious right. Media personnel in different parts of Pakistan were attacked.
There was an organised attack on the offices of an Urdu channel called Aaj TV in Lahore and Karachi on March 4. One the same day, protestors attacked the Hyderabad Press Club, injuring five people including four journalists. Media teams and vehicles were attacked in Lahore. In Islamabad, activists burnt tyres, chanted slogans against the government and offices while educational institutes had to be kept shut. On March 7, a bomb blast occurred outside a session court in Charsadda district of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The Taliban took the responsibility and threatened more attacks.
Meanwhile, Jamaat-e-Islami’s Karachi chief, Hafiz Naeem ur Rehman said what Qadri had done was in accordance with the teaching of Islam. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s own son-in-law, Captain Safdar, fiercely defended Qadri in a video on social media. The Minister of State for religious affairs, Pir Aminullah Hasanat Shah declared Qadri had moved from being a “ghazi” (survivor of war) to “shaheed” (martyr). He, along with leaders of other religious and political parties, attended the funeral, possibly to pre-empt any violence.
Cut to the chase
The civilian government’s blockage of nearly all the coverage of the protests and Qadri’s funeral on electronic media became even more obvious when the next day’s Urdu newspapers came out. They placed this news on their front pages, with photos of Qadri and flattering tributes to his martyrdom.
Front-page of a conservative Urdu paper, Daily Ummat. The headline says, “Jannat Ka Musafir Jannat Mein Dakhil [a traveller to heaven reaches heaven]”
This blackout was a reminder of Pakistan’s three dictatorships, which lasted for over three decades and kept even mildly-discomforting news out of the public eye. Now, a democratic government had used censorship albeit to curb religious extremism. This week, PEMRA reissued a notice saying it had not barred any channel from covering Qadri’s funeral and it had not ordered the protests be blacked out. Chances are it’s realised the media blockage did more damage than good, but the notice doesn’t explain why the funeral wasn’t covered as extensively as would be expected.
Media freedom in Pakistan has been won after a hard battle, and should be defended by a democratic government, instead of being eroded by it. Most critically, there is no evidence that the censorship was of any actual use. Qadri’s popularity, the tributes on ground, and the huge crowds that gathered for his funeral weren’t limited by the media crackdown.
The other person whose fate seems hanging in the air is, of course, Asia Bibi, who is on death row for allegedly committing blasphemy. Many opponents of Qadri’s execution have already voiced their opinion in favour of her hanging and the government might use that to appease the protestors. The Taliban have also threatened to avenge Qadri’s death, leaving the courts, PMLN leadership and civilians more exposed.
Asia Bibi’s fate will be a good indicator whether the decision to hang Qadri and censor the media — ostensibly to curb extremism — were part of a genuine change of strategy in the country’s establishment or just tactical moves following which the slightest risk of a backlash leads to surrender.