A well-known Pakistani TV anchor facing renewed accusations of hate speech is fighting a court order that temporarily bans him from appearing in print, on television or on social media platforms. Legal experts and rights activists are monitoring the case, which has raised the issue of free speech.
In December, an Islamabad court imposed the ban on Aamir Liaquat Hussain, a controversial yet influential TV host accused of instigating hatred and religious intolerance. A final decision is pending.
Hussain — called the "king of ratings" because of the huge audiences he commands — denies the accusations and created a website on which he posted a video expressing his desire to continue exercising his right to free speech.
"The voice may be banned 100,000 times. The picture is forbidden — or even giving analysis on any program is banned. But the water carves its own path," he said.
Hussain also questioned the restriction.
"I have submitted a petition in the Supreme Court to intervene and to look into the decision that blocks me from appearing on television. I have no clue as to why the Islamabad High Court has placed a ban on my appearances," Hussain said in the video.
Legal experts have a different opinion, and say his decision to create the website is in open defiance of the court ban.
"The law is above all, and no one is above the law," Ikram Chaudhry, a senior Supreme Court advocate, told VOA. "I believe what Hussain has done is a direct trespassing and transgression of the court ruling, and the court must act accordingly."
In his video, Hussain claimed respect for the law.
"No one respects the courts more than me," he said. "Those who openly defy the court rulings are roaming freely, and I'm being barred from any appearance."
Chaudhry said the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, or PEMRA, should devise new rules to regulate social media and the internet.
"With millions of users with internet access, who needs television anymore to connect to the people?" Chaudhry asked.
Following the court decision, PEMRA issued a notice to its TV and radio licensees to ensure that Hussain is not allowed to appear on their platforms.
In 2008, during a live television broadcast, Hussain and a group of clerics criticized Mirza Ghulam Qadyani, founder and religious leader of the minority Ahmadi community. Following the program, two prominent members of that community were killed in Pakistan. The nation's constitution does not recognize Ahmadis as Muslims, as Ahmadis do not believe in the finality of the Prophet Muhammad.
In another live broadcast in 2014, Hussain applauded a religious cleric who stated Ahmadis were enemies of Islam. Days later, another Ahmadi lost his life.
Human rights activists believe the slain Ahmadis paid the price for Hussain's rhetoric in a country where religion remains one of the most sensitive issues.
"Influential TV anchors with massive followings such as Aamir Liaquat Hussain have a huge burden on their shoulders to stay vigilant and to abstain from provoking religious sentiments," Zohra Yusuf, a rights activist from Pakistan, told VOA. "Unfortunately, Hussain has done it repeatedly on television. No one should be allowed to spit venom against any race, religion or community.
"In this case, the Ahmadis, unfortunately, paid the price."
In the past, PEMRA banned Hussain following TV programs that violated the code of conduct set by media regulatory authorities.
In January 2017, five secular bloggers who were reported missing re-emerged after a few weeks. On TV programs during their disappearance, Hussain broadcast content from their social media accounts and called them "blasphemers." PEMRA briefly banned Hussain following the program for inciting hatred.
Blasphemy remains a controversial and divisive issue in Pakistan. Those charged with blasphemy risk death sentences.
Critics in Pakistan maintain they do not advocate court interventions on freedom of speech, but said limits on free speech need to be defined.
"Freedom of speech is very important for any society and I personally do not agree that anyone, including Hussain, should face a lifetime ban," Yusuf said.
"I believe, if Aamir Liaquat Hussain complies with the code of conduct set by PEMRA and takes care of the intricacies of sensitive religious matters and issues related to the minorities, he should be allowed to appear on the TV," she added.
Rasul Baksh Raees, an analyst based in Lahore, maintains that freedom of speech is a necessity for any society, but that Pakistani media in the past, have made some grave mistakes due to lack of editorial judgment and the urge to attract large audiences and ratings.
"I do not advocate that courts should be controlling the media. That should not be the case. But there is a responsibility by our media, too, to have a clear editorial policy so that no one is allowed to use TV, radio or social media as mediums to incite hatred or violence just to gain ratings," Raees said in an interview with VOA.