Blasphemy charges, threats loom for outspoken journalist in Pakistan
Forty-nine year-old magazine editor and publisher Shoaib Adil fled his home in the eastern city of Lahore last month and went into hiding with his wife and children. Adil faces threats and possible charges of blasphemy–a crime punishable by life imprisonment or death–in connection with a book he published in 2007, written by a judge belonging to a religious minority group in Pakistan, as well as with his magazine, which covers sensitive issues. For years, Adil has been able to navigate the challenges that come with his critical journalistic work. But now he faces the possibility of being unable to live or work safely in Pakistan.
The interview has been translated from Urdu and edited for length and clarity.
CPJ: Can you tell us about your work?
Shoaib Adil: In Pakistan, Urdu-language journalism differs vastly from English-language journalism. The latter is approached with a greater sense of objectivity but reaches only a narrow segment of the population. Urdu-language journalism, on the other hand, enjoys a much wider reach. What’s reported there has a greater impact, but it tends to be very biased. I felt compelled to bring a liberal-minded voice to that space. Amid the growing Talibanization of Pakistan, I launched an Urdu-language magazine called Nia Zamana in May 2000. The magazine began on a voluntary basis by a group of friends. In 2007 we launched a Web version. You’ll see that we covered a host of sensitive subjects ranging from blasphemy to religious violence, the abductions and forced conversion of Hindu girls, and the treatment of Christians. We’ve been critical of the role of the military, and have written in favor of friendlier relations with neighboring India. We were very critical of figures like Hafiz Saeed [a founder of the U.N.-designated terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba] following the 2008 Mumbai attacks when very few would dare to.
CPJ: What has it been like reporting on these issues?
SA: A few weeks after the criticism of Hafiz Saeed, we received threats. Members of Lashkar-e-Taiba showed up in person and asked me, “On whose orders are you taking this line?” In the past, I’ve been criticized by religious groups that claim I focus on the negative aspects of their work. I have been told that I should know full well the consequences of writing such things. We’ve been receiving ongoing threats and demands for apologies. Over the course of the years, I have learned to work around such challenges.
CPJ: But you’ve been under threat more recently as well. Can you explain why?
SA: Alongside my work with the magazine, I also work as a publisher to support myself. In 2007, I published an autobiography titled Adalat-i-Alia Tak ka Safar [My Journey to the High Court] written by former Lahore High Court Judge Muhammad Islam Bhatti, who belongs to the persecuted Ahmadi community. You may have seen the news that just a few days ago, members of the community were targeted and killed in Gujranwala. [Ahmadis are a minority sect rooted in Islam that is designated as non-Muslim under Pakistan’s constitution] In the book, Bhatti wrote about his religious upbringing as well as his professional life. But maulvis [clerics and religious activists] have taken issue with a book published seven years ago that is pretty much out of print, and have accused us of blasphemy. I don’t think it contains anything blasphemous.
The June issue of Nia Zamana put the spotlight on the murder of Rashid Rehman, a human rights lawyer in Multan, who was gunned down for defending Junaid Hafeez, a lecturer who is facing charges of blasphemy. There is a complete lack of sensibility here. How long will this continue? Shortly after the June issue was published I began receiving calls telling me there would be consequences.
On June 11, police accompanied by about a dozen maulvis arrived at my office and questioned me on the book. The maulvis ransacked my office and tried to attack me. The police then brought me to the station for further questioning that evening. In just a short time, the maulvis were able to gather 50-70 people outside the station demanding that a blasphemy case be registered against me. They stayed late into the night, and kept pressuring the police to register a blasphemy case against me. For my own safety, the police did not release me until the early morning when most of the mob had dispersed. The police advised me to disappear. In the meantime, the police initiated a case against me. They sent a copy of the book to be reviewed by an ulema board [a body of Muslim scholars] on whether the content is blasphemous; it would be sent for a legal review, and based on that, formal charges would be issued against me. But seeing that the police didn’t file charges immediately, the maulvis also approached the courts directly.
CPJ: Why has a book that was published seven years ago suddenly caused this uproar?
SA: A couple of points may have led me here as I and my friends surmise. First, powerful circles may be sending me a shut-up call that more of the kind of work done by my magazine won’t be tolerated. Religious groups are used as their instruments to further certain objectives. Second is the issue of Ahmadis and their ongoing persecution. Amid growing extremism in Pakistan, there are groups that are trying to find ways to target the [Ahmadi] community. They are engaging in a witch hunt for any materials and anyone in favor of Ahmadis’ rights. The book has not even been available in markets these days, but perhaps coming across a copy under such a witch hunt has led them to me.
CPJ: It seems blasphemy is a hot-button issue in Pakistan. In May, popular television broadcaster Geo faced accusations of blasphemy. In 2011, CPJ documented the threats made against journalist and politician Sherry Rehman for her opposition to the blasphemy law. That same year, Gov. Salmaan Taseer was assassinated for his opposition to the blasphemy law. And now your latest threats stem from accusations of blasphemy. Can you elaborate on the impact of the law?
SA: No one wants to talk about blasphemy. No one wants to consider it. It’s a landmine. The pressure is so immense that police will go along when blasphemy accusations are leveled against someone. Lawyers won’t touch the cases. Lower court judges are intimidated by “mob justice” by religious groups who are able to organize themselves at a moment’s notice. They are so powerful, they intimidate judges into silence. Judges are aware that they can be shot dead. Lower courts often sentence those accused to death, and leave it for the higher courts to have final say. Frequently, those accused are murdered. And anyone accused almost certainly will languish in prison for years, even if nothing is proven against them.
CPJ: How has all this impacted you?
SA: I have been feeling shock. I feel that I have escaped from the mouth of death because very few people escape blasphemy accusations. At first I was having trouble coming to grips with what happened. Now I am keeping a very low profile and minimizing my time in public. It’s become impossible for me to work here. Almost two months on, my office remains shut. And after sending my wife, son, and daughter to live with relatives, and spending almost a month away, we’re together again but still in hiding.
CPJ: What does your situation say about the climate in Pakistan?
SA: Conditions in Pakistan are gloomy. Religious groups say they raise funds for relief, but they also lead efforts for jihad and promote their toxic ideology. Our establishment considers these religious groups instruments for their policies against Afghanistan and India. Foreign journalists can’t even cover the ongoing operations in [North] Waziristan.
The mainstream media remains stifled. It is difficult to speak against religious groups. Journalists are aware of the reality that they must practice self-censorship in order to survive. I’ve written for [publications including] Aaj Kal, which was published by Salman Taseer, Dawn, and Jang. At Jang I was told to soften my criticism of the military and religious groups. But I cannot water down my criticism. It’s not how I work.