The owner of Pakistan’s largest media group has been handed a 26-year jail term after he was found guilty of blasphemy, reports say.
Mir Shakeel-ur-Rehman, owner of Geo News, was sentenced by an ‘anti-terror’ court in Gilgit, northern Pakistan on Tuesday after the TV station aired a broadcast showing people dancing to a song about the wedding of Prophet Muhammad’s daughter.
The channel faced a slew of blasphemy complaints about the show, provoking accusations that the country’s draconian blasphemy law was being used to silence critics of the military.
The charges were brought soon after the station publicly blamed the shooting of one of their top journalists on the military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency.
The army denied the accusations.
“The malicious acts of the proclaimed offenders ignited the sentiments of all the Muslims in the country…which cannot be taken lightly and there is need to strictly curb such tendency,” the court said in its verdict.
The channel’s owner, the host of the morning show and two guests – including actress Veena Malik – were ordered to pay fines of $16,600, surrender their passports and sell their properties.
The order is unlikely to be implemented because verdicts by courts in the northern Gilgit-Baltistan region do not apply to the rest of Pakistan.
The News, a daily newspaper owned by Mr ur-Rehman, announced on its front page on Wednesday that it would appeal to the Supreme Court against both the verdict and sentence.
Pakistani media has become increasingly free and vocal in recent years but public criticism of the army or the ISI is still largely taboo.
Mr ur-Rehman’s sentencing is the latest twist in a long-running standoff between Geo and the army.
The verdict also exposes the divisions between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who supports the channel, and the army, which has ruled the country for more than half of its history.
In June, the state media regulator shut Geo News for 15 days and imposed a $101,500 fine.
The channel also publicly apologised for reporting against the ISI.
Pakistan’s blasphemy law allows anyone to file a complaint alleging their religious feelings have been hurt for any reason.
The ultimate punishment for blasphemy is death.
Rights groups say the law is increasingly being used to settle personal scores. This year has seen a record number of blasphemy cases and increasing violence against the accused.