Editor’s note: The name of the journalist in this story has been changed for his protection.
Shahid’s eyes fill with tears as he recalls his story of persecution and imprisonment for a crime he says he didn’t commit in Pakistan’s Peshawar region. A famous journalist in northern Pakistan, he and his newspaper were accused of blasphemy against Islam, a charge he vehemently denies.
Denials rarely stop persecution or the punishment.
“It’s as if they took my soul,” he says, wiping his eyes. “They crushed my will and have left me less than the man and journalist I used to be.”
The authorities took exception to a letter to the editor, written by a Jew who took issue with Islamic teachings. Six people originally were rounded up and charged, but despite his less-than-hands-on involvement, he was made the scapegoat and punished. He was tossed in prison for more than two years and suffered mental and physical abuse at the hands of his captors.
A mob burned down the newspaper building.
In Pakistan it doesn’t take much for an accusation of blasphemy to take hold. Someone in a crowded market can shout incendiary remarks and suddenly a person will be surrounded by a mob demanding severe Islamic justice, usually punishment by death. Most attacks for blasphemy are against non-Muslims.
In November 2014, a Christian husband and wife were beaten and set on fire in a brick oven by a mob that accused them of inciting hate against Islam. The crowd didn’t wait for police to arrive to exercise their justice. They rarely do, Shahid said.
The Peshawar region where Shahid works made news last December when seven Taliban militants massacred 143 children and several soldiers at the Army Public School.
For journalists, the laws governing what a reporter can write or show on TV are lengthy. There is no shortage of government and military authorities standing behind these laws ready to thwart any information that holds officials and their offices in a bad light. Criminal libel laws stand separate from the blasphemy ones, giving power brokers and mobs equal resources to crush press reporting.
Pakistani codes of ethics, many written by government-influenced agencies, prohibit sharing anything that can present government officials, religion or heads of state in a negative way.
But, blasphemy laws are the quickest ways to death and imprisonment, and they are held against journalists, like Shahid, as an intimidation tactic — more so than libel.
“This hangs over our heads and it is used on a regular basis to control the press,” he said during a workshop on legal and ethics issues hosted by the International Center For Journalists. “It creates self censorship. We are constantly in fear that what we might say will be used against us, even when we speak the truth in a democracy. We need to talk about how to combat this, but merely bringing it up can cause much concern and anguish.”
He asks if the trainers of the workshop — myself, Professor Susan Benesch of American University or Aftab Alan, an Islamabad attorney — will talk about it without mentioning his name.
“I can no longer let them bring it up with my name. The consequences will be too bad,” he says. Caution is needed because some of the journalists in the group might share names later, a point that saddens him. “I wish I could at least trust journalists here.”
In Punjab Province, where these workshops were held, the former governor, Salmaan Taseer, was assassinated by his own chief of security in 2011 over the governor’s criticism of blasphemy laws. Since 1990 more than 60 people have been murdered for alleged blasphemy violations.
For Shahid and other journalists, the rise in accusations is particularly troubling because the law is easy to invoke. Calling out a politician for corruption quickly can be turned into an attack on his religion, even if by another Muslim.
U.S. trainers tell the more than 20 journalists in attendance no such laws exit in America where freedom of speech — even against deities — is protected.
“It’s hard for us to contemplate this,” I tell Shahid. “Freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are prominently displayed in the First Amendment of our Constitution. We are protected by the state. And, sadly, that can mean even vile and disgusting speech that makes fun of religion or questions religious doctrine. You can argue with many people over their words and views, but you can’t oppress them or suppress their speech. And, you certainly can’t kill them.”
For Shahid, whose life was upended, there is little solace in those words.
“I pray that these laws will change and we will stop killing ourselves over this. For new journalists coming up I pray they can do their jobs without fear, without being broken and condemned to a life of hiding in our work.”
(Footnote: The workshop had an off-the-record rule which prevents me from sharing the group’s open discussion on this subject. Aside from hiding the identity of “Shahid” I agreed not to report on the comments of others in the room for their safety.)