Tuesday January 18, 2022

False allegations and the law

December 24, 2017

When five online activists simultaneously went missing from different parts of the country in January this year, a malicious campaign quickly cropped up on social media accusing them of blasphemy. That campaign then spread to certain sections of the electronic media, who did not restrict themselves to the missing bloggers alone. These TV anchors went after critics and even levelled further false accusations against the bloggers, some even claiming they were seen in India. This was journalism at its absolute lowest. Now, nearly a year later, the FIA has told the Islamabad High Court that it has found absolutely no evidence that any of the five bloggers had ever published blasphemous content online. The FIA did add that it was still investigating the role of four bloggers who are now living abroad and had contacted Interpol to secure their arrest but Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui of the IHC categorically stated that if there is no evidence against them then there is no reason to proceed further. What is outrageous is that the FIA, rather than pursuing those who had levelled blatantly false allegations of blasphemy, was still trying to arrest those who were victims.

Now that we know that the bloggers did not commit blasphemy, we need to decide what to do against those who level false allegations. There is no accusation as dangerous in this country as that of blasphemy. A mere allegation is enough to put in danger not just the lives of those who have been accused but their families too. Four of the bloggers who went missing have now fled the country because of the danger they face, and even the judgement of the Islamabad High Court will not be enough to eliminate that danger. The court has recommended amending the law so that those who have levelled false allegations be given the same punishment as those who are found guilty of blasphemy. It has also recommended investigating those who made these accusations and said that the investigation should also include those who had incited hatred and violence against the bloggers in the media.

Using religion to threaten others for purely spurious reasons is as much of an insult to religion as any other crime. Everyone, from respected religious scholars to political leaders, is on the record as saying that false allegations of blasphemy should be a punishable crime. False allegations of blasphemy are levelled regularly in Pakistan, with many being killed by vigilante mobs – the case of Mashal Khan this year being the most glaring – and horrifying – example. Clearly, those who make such accusations feel they have complete impunity to accuse others of blasphemy without any proof. That would suggest the blasphemy laws need to be reformed to punish those who feel they can imperil others out of malice. The bloggers who were falsely accused, meanwhile, deserve justice. We still do not why who picked them up and why they were targeted. If they had indeed committed any crime, that should have been dealt with in a court of law where they had the opportunity to defend themselves. Instead, their reputations have been tarnished and they – and their families – live in constant fear. Justice is needed not just to clear their names but to prevent such campaigns from occurring in the future. Today it was these five bloggers; tomorrow it could be any of us.