Ballooning Pakistan blasphemy charges engulf television stations

ISLAMABAD Tue May 20, 2014 7:00am EDT

Related Topics

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan's biggest television station said it was ramping up security on Tuesday after it became the object of dozens of blasphemy accusations for playing a song during an interview with an actress.

Geo Television is scrubbing logos off its vans and limiting staff movements after receiving scores of threats over allegedly blasphemous content, said channel president Imran Aslam.

"This is a well-orchestrated campaign," he told Reuters. "This could lead to mob violence."

The accusations pit Pakistan's most popular private television channel against increasingly vocal religious conservatives, just as the station was emerging from a bruising battle with the country's spy agency.

Blasphemy carries the death penalty in Pakistan but is not defined by law; anyone who says their religious feelings have been hurt for any reason can file a case.

Scores of people accused of blasphemy have been lynched by mobs and Aslam said despite broadcasting apologies, the station had received threats to kill journalists and their families.

The accusations follow Geo's high-profile tussle with Pakistan's powerful spy agency, whom it accused of shooting one of its most popular anchors last month.

The station did not support its accusations with evidence and later backpedaled. But a national poster campaign was launched proclaiming support for the military and denouncing the station. Cable operators pulled Geo from their content.

That controversy had barely died down when Geo was engulfed by a flood of blasphemy accusations over a show it carried last week.

The cases allege a traditional song was sung about the marriage of Prophet Muhammad's daughter at the same time a pair of shoes was raised.

Both elements are traditional in a wedding ceremony but the timing was insulting to Islam, dozens of petitioners have alleged. Others allege the song itself was insulting.

On Monday, Islamabad High Court accepted a petition brought by a lawyer representing a group of clerics affiliated with the radical Red Mosque in the capital.

Advocate Tariq Asad said his suit named the singers and writers of the song, cable operators, television regulators, a national council of clerics and ARY, a rival television station.

ARY repeatedly broadcast clips of the morning show, alleging it was blasphemous, an action that Asad said was blasphemous in itself.

Judges frequently do not want to hear evidence in blasphemy cases because the repetition of evidence could be a crime. Judges acquitting those accused of blasphemy have been attacked; a defense lawyer representing a professor accused of blasphemy was killed this month.

Clips of Geo's controversial program have attracted tens of thousands of views on YouTube, which was blocked in Pakistan in 2012 because of fears that it may show blasphemous content.

Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation of 180 million people, is struggling to contain two insurgencies, daily power cuts, widespread unemployment and rising crime.

Accusations over blasphemy are rocketing, from one in 2011 to at least 68 last year, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

More than 80 people have already been accused of blasphemy this year.

Activists say the accusations are increasingly used to grab property or money, target minorities and settle political scores. Cases can take years to go through the courts.

(Reporting By Katharine Houreld; Editing by Nick Macfie)

FILED UNDER: