Pakistan's government has banned a controversial television host for making highly charged allegations of blasphemy and treachery against several social media activists who disappeared this month, as well as against other activists or journalists demanding their recovery.
Social media activists started to go missing in the first week of January. Within a few days, at least five of them — Salman Haider, Waqas Goraya, Aasim Saeed, Ahmed Raza Naseer and Samar Abbas, all famous for promoting liberal views and criticism of Pakistan's powerful military — had disappeared from major cities like Islamabad, the capital, and the country's second city, Lahore.
The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority said in a statement it made the decision to ban anchorman Aamir Liaquat Hussain's show after monitoring the program for several weeks and receiving hundreds of complaints against him. A complaint accusing him of hate speech also has been filed with police.
Hussain was not the only TV anchor who denounced the missing activists, but he was one of the most outspoken. He was not reachable for comment, and the management of his channel, Bol News, said it would issue a statement later.
The accusations against the missing liberal bloggers first appeared online soon after their disappearance, and were broadcast by several TV anchors who are considered to be religiously conservative.
Facebook postings draw fire
The bloggers, known as secular activists, have been accused of either supporting, or being associated with, Facebook pages religious conservatives believe have blasphemed Islam.
The allegedly offensive Facebook pages (Bhensa, Roshni and Mochi) have been around for several years, but the bloggers were not linked to them until after their recent disappearances.
The families of the missing and human rights activists fear talk of blasphemy is meant to divert attention from their disappearance, or perhaps to diminish the influence of demonstrations and statements demanding their return.
Zohra Yusuf, chairperson of the Independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said the allegations possibly were meant to " lessen sympathy" for the missing bloggers. Another possible motive, she added, "is that when [the bloggers reappear], there could be a charge against them, so that could be like a pre-emptive move."
Climate of intimidation
Farzana Bari, a human rights activist who has protested in Islamabad on behalf of the missing bloggers, complained about what she thought were efforts to intimidate other activists.
"There is a very systematic campaign against those who are raising this issue — people like Jibran Nasir, who are being threatened on social media and on mainstream media," she said.
Nasir, a Pakistani lawyer and human rights activist, was one of the loudest voices demanding recovery of the missing. Before becoming a target himself, he had railed against what he said were unsubstantiated allegations endangering the missing bloggers and their families.
"You all know that when such allegations are levied against someone, whether there is any proof of blasphemy or not, people become violent. We have a history of entire villages and communities being burnt down [for similar allegations]," he said at a news conference last week.
However, Tariq Asad, chairman of Civil Society of Pakistan, an organization that filed a police complaint of blasphemy against the missing men, told Reuters it was not part of any campaign. "Every Pakistani has awareness of this issue, and many have asked us to take this up. ... Whoever does not love the Prophet, peace be upon him, more than his own family is not a true Muslim," Asad was quoted as saying.
Government sees no blasphemy
Pakistan's interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, said last week that there was no truth to the allegations of blasphemy against the missing bloggers.
A charge of blasphemy is considered extremely dangerous in a country where religious vigilantes have killed more than 60 people, sometimes by mob violence, after similar accusations.
In 2011, a powerful Pakistani governor, Salman Taseer, was gunned down by his own police security guard after he demanded reform of the country's controversial blasphemy laws.
Many Pakistanis hailed Taseer's killer, who was convicted and executed, as a hero, and more than 100,000 attended his funeral.