Pakistan’s media regulator has banned one of the country’s most popular television talk show hosts over “hate speech” and “incitement to violence”, according to a statement, after he hosted a series of shows accusing five abducted activists and their supporters of blasphemy.
The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) banned Aamir Liaquat from appearing on his network Bol TV for an indefinite period on Thursday, until the body’s complaints unit issues a final verdict.
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Liaquat is one of Pakistan’s most popular television personalities, having previously hosted a religion-themed show, as well as a major gameshow. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In the past week, Liaquat levelled a series of accusations of blasphemy against five activists who were abducted within days of each other earlier this month, accusing them of insulting Islam and its prophet, and of running anti-military Facebook pages.
He also accused those calling for the release of the activists of supporting blasphemy, as he called out some activists by name while flashing their pictures on screen.
Insulting the Prophet Muhammad carries a mandatory death sentence in Pakistan, while other forms of “blasphemy” carry sentences ranging from a fine to life imprisonment.
There is also a significant risk of mob violence in blasphemy cases in Pakistan, where the matter is considered particularly sensitive.
At least 68 people have been murdered over blasphemy allegations since 1990, according to an Al Jazeera tally.
A right-wing group attacked at least one rally calling for the release of the abducted activists in the last week.
Activists say allegations of blasphemy are aimed at silencing dissent.
“Aamir Liaquat … has willfully and repeatedly made statements and allegations which [are] tantamount to hate speech,” said PEMRA.
The regulator added that Liaquat’s accusations of people being “anti-state and anti-Islam” constituted “incitement to violence against citizens”.
Liaquat has been banned from appearing on Bol TV and from declaring anyone an “infidel” or a “traitor” on any other television news channel, the statement said.
PEMRA said it made the ruling in response to hundreds of hate speech complaints.
“I am not in favour of banning speech, but this was not just speech. This was the only kind of speech that should be criminalised, because this is incitement to violence,” said rights activist Gul Bukhari. “Incitement to violence in the Pakistani context is different, because vigilantes can and do come and kill you here.”
Jibran Nasir, an activist who was repeatedly accused by Liaquat of supporting blasphemy, welcomed the decision, saying he has also registered a legal case against Liaquat under Pakistan’s anti-terrorism laws.
“Clearly there were many Pakistanis who felt extremely distressed, and I’m glad that that good sense has prevailed among the masses to identify someone who was spreading hate speech,” he told Al Jazeera.
“In the end it is the constitution that prevails, which provides everyone [with] the right to dignity, freedom of expression [and] also safety, liberty and protection from harm,” said media analyst Adnan Rehmat.
“In the presence of these clear guidelines on what is permissible and what is not, the insidious, incendiary, wanton and deliberate campaign by Aamir Liaquat was in violation of the constitution and the PEMRA laws,” he said.
Pakistan’s media regulator, which is connected to the government, has in recent months taken a more active approach in imposing a code of conduct on the country’s vibrant electronic news media, which consists of more than 45 24-hour news television channels.
Media rights activists and senior journalists have pushed, however, for self-regulation, fearing a crackdown on dissent by the state.
“We are all advocating not for a ban of any channel or individuals, but for self regulation,” said Owais Tohid, a senior journalist. “The media should hold itself accountable and implement its own code of conduct.”