Four people at embattled Geo TV given in absentia sentences after Qawaali wedding broadcast
Long prison sentences for blasphemy handed down today by a court in Pakistan against four people including the owner of a major TV channel and one of its star actresses will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and the media, Amnesty International said.
Earlier today an anti-terrorism court past in absentia prison sentences of 26 years each against four people - Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, owner of Geo TV and its parent Jang Media Group, actress Veena Malik, her husband Asad Bashir and TV host Shaista Wahidi - for airing a “contemptuous” programme. The court also fined the four 1.3 million Pakistani rupees (£8,000) each.
The blasphemy charges relate to a programme aired by Geo TV in May when Malik and Bashir re-enacted their wedding ceremony with a Qawaali, devotional music sung to dictate the life and teachings of Prophets, which concerned the marriage of Fatima Zahra, daughter of Prophet Muhammad, with his cousin, Ali. Malik and Bashir have fled the country after receiving death threats when the blasphemy allegations were first levelled against them, and Malik has told Amnesty that she fears for her life if she returns to Pakistan.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws violate international human rights law and standards and Amnesty is urging the government to reform the laws as a matter of urgency to provide effective safeguards against their abuse, with a view to their eventual repeal.
Amnesty International Asia Pacific Deputy Director David Griffiths said:
“This sentence will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression in Pakistan.
“It is appalling that someone should be sent to prison for decades over a TV programme. Today’s judgment shows how Pakistan’s deeply flawed blasphemy laws have become another tool to silence media.
“There are also serious concerns about the fairness of this trial as the defendants were sentenced in absentia and never had the opportunity to answer the charges in court.
“Although the blasphemy laws are disproportionately used against religious minorities, today’s sentencing underlines the fact that no one in Pakistan is safe from being targeted.”
Geo TV and the authorities
GEO TV has a tense relationship with the Pakistani authorities and on 6 June was taken off-air for 15 days by the governmental body Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) following the blasphemy allegation. PEMRA imposed a similar ban on another private TV station - ARY TV - on 20 October for “maligning” the country’s judiciary. Geo TV has been locked in a stand-off with the Pakistani authorities since April when its main anchor, Hamid Mir, accused the country’s spy agency - the Inter-Services Intelligence - of being behind an attempt to kill him.