Warnings on the wall

June 18, 2017

People are being tortured and awarded punishments for exercising their right to freedom of expression

Warnings on the wall

A Lahore-based reporter associated with an English language newspaper was hit by a car on June 9. He survived but suffered horrific injuries to his leg and spine.

From what we know, this was not an ordinary hit-and-run case.

Rana Tanveer has been prolific in reporting incidents of persecution of religious minorities for many years. A few days back, unknown person/s on motorbike/s left a message for him on the door of his house, saying, ‘Qadiani nawaz Rana Tanveer kafir wajib ul qatal (pro-Qadiani Rana Tanveer deserves death).

"My landlord told me that some persons came on bike and asked about me," Tanveer tells TNS. "Next day, they scribbled the threatening message on my door."

Tanveer unsuccessfully pressed the police to lodge a complaint against the letterings outside his house in Lahore for a week, till a motorbike injured him. "Reporting on religious minorities, especially Ahmadis, carries ominous implications because of the well-entrenched clergy network in the country."

The news of the incident has been widely condemned across the country. It is seen as one in a series of assaults on media persons for criticising the establishment. The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has apprehended many social media activists for posting ‘anti-military’ and ‘derogatory’ content online.

The freedom of expression is also under attack from other corners. On June 11, journalist Bakhshish Elahi was killed by unknown assailants at his doorstep in Haripur, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. "Two motorcyclists intercepted him close to his house, sprayed three bullets, and escaped," Sabar Khan, a police investigator, tells TNS. "We are probing his murder. We are exploring if a fake Facebook account was created in his name and was misused."

Police are seeing Elahi’s murder as target killing.

This year Pakistan has seen an unprecedented crackdown by the government on the people’s freedom of speech.

In another case, an Anti Terrorist Court (ATC) in Bahawalpur, South Punjab, awarded death sentence to a 30-year-old Shia man, Taimoor Raza, for sharing blasphemous content on Facebook and entering a faith-based debate with a person apparently belonging to the Counter-terrorism Department (CTD) of Punjab police from Bahawalpur.

The accused, an employee of a small private organisation in Lahore, was picked up by the CTD officials from Defence, Lahore. He was taken to Bahawalpur where a fake First Information Report (FIR) was lodged against him on April 5, 2016. A day earlier, on April 4, 2016, his brother Waseem Abbas had already lodged a police case in Lahore Defence-A police station, alleging some unknown persons had secretly picked up his brother in Lahore.

Read also: Something darker is brewing

"He was initially charged for using derogatory remarks against a Muslim sect under section 298A of Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), and committing terrorism that amounted up to two years of imprisonment and fine," says his counsel Fida Hussain Ran.

He adds that PPC Section 295-C, which awards death penalty for uttering derogatory remarks against Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), was manipulated in the FIR two months after his arrest. "The severest blasphemy section was inducted after vaguely discussed reports were obtained by the CTD officials from the Islamic Studies Department of the Islamia University Bahawalpur."

Counsel Ran is sure the blasphemy charge against his client is "fabricated, to give him maximum sentence as the CTD official was personally involved in the case".

According to him, a police superintendent Ibrar Ahmed Khalil is investigating whether 295C is rightfully imposed.

"I completed the investigation in a day. It is correct that I did not record the statement of any witness or any other person who volunteered. I only heard the complainant and the witnesses which were already recorded by the previous Investigation Officer (IO). I cannot say with certainty how many posts were created by the accused himself and how many he shared/received from others on his Facebook ID. It is correct that I did not collect any new evidence in this case. I relied upon the evidence recorded by the previous IO," his court statement reads.

Interestingly, in both the cases -- the killings of Shia man and Bakhshish Elahi -- police has not apprehended anyone as yet.

Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), a non-government organisation, expresses concern on the failure of police in promptly acting on these incidents. "It is a well-known fact that working journalists in Pakistan are a beleaguered community threatened from all sides. Pakistan has been one of the most dangerous countries for media practitioners for years," the commission observes.

Veteran journalist M. Ziauddin believes there is need for a collective approach. "Journalist organisations and civil society groups must take up such issues of freedom of speech and expression. There is a need to change the society’s mindset. There is also a need to overhaul the education system. But, unfortunately, the state is afraid of that mindset which it has nurtured for the past several decades and is threatening coexistence."

This year Pakistan has seen an unprecedented crackdown by the government on the people’s freedom of speech. "It’s a dangerous precedent. No one should be hauled before an anti-terrorism court or any other court solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief online," says Nadia Rahman, Pakistan campaigner at Amnesty International.

Warnings on the wall