A War of Words: Pakistani TV Host Banned For Hate Speech After Making Blasphemy Accusations

Pakistan’s media regulator, Pakistan Electronic Media Authority (Pemra), has banned high-profile television host Aamir Liaquat Hussain after accusing him of hate speech.

On his show ‘This is Not Acceptable’, Hussain accused five missing liberal activists and their supporters of blasphemy. Such an accusation can have very severe consequences in Pakistan where blasphemy is a crime that can result in the death penalty. Even the mere suspicion of blasphemy can incite murder and public lynching.

Though despite the seriousness of committing blasphemy in conservative Pakistan, Pemra said it had received “hundreds” of complaints about Hussian’s show, which is no stranger to controversy, and after monitoring his programme for several weeks made the decision to ban the controversial religious broadcaster  “with immediate effect” . This was a significant and symbolic act in Muslim majority Pakistan. However Pakistani media reports that, in an act of defiance, Hussian went ahead with his show this Thursday, hurling abuse at Pemra for their decision to ban him.

This case also serves to revive the debate over blasphemy laws. While religious freedom is a fundamental human right it can be seen that blasphemy laws, which seek to restrict religious insult, violate the human right of freedom of expression. Though freedom of expression can be limited with respect to defamation against individuals and incitement of hatred and violence, it is argued that blasphemy laws in practice go far beyond these limitations. Religious insult laws in practice prohibit and problematize expression when it comes to the asking of questions and the offering of criticism in relation to religion.

The accused activists, who had all aired views critical of the military or militancy on social media, mysteriously disappeared earlier this month. This past Sunday, one of the missing activists reappeared, though it has not yet been disclosed where he had been.  While no group has admitted to holding them, Human Rights Watch has expressed concerns of government involvement, which officials and intelligence sources have strongly denied.

Given the seriousness of blasphemy in Pakistan, Perma’s decision to ban the broadcaster after his inflammatory allegations represents a positive and deeply symbolic act on behalf of the liberal activists, and consequently free speech. However, Pakistanis blasphemy laws remain intact and the disappearance of the activists, four of whom remain missing, reveals the troubling consequences of speaking out against the government, militia, or religion in Pakistan. This is particularly dangerous for no institution, group, or governing body should be above respectful, legitimate and often necessary criticism.