Posted on January 14, 2015

In South Asia, Say ‘Je Suis Charlie’ at Your Own Risk

Karl Kaltenthaler, Nikkei Asian Review, January 14, 2015


Most of the world watched the events in Paris unfold in horror. In South Asia, however, the news was greeted with relative indifference, or even outright support for the attackers. Why did reactions in South Asia differ to those in much of the rest of the world?

Sadly, attacks on journalists in South Asia, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, are frequent and deadly. Pakistan often ranks as the most dangerous country in the world to practice journalism; Afghanistan is not far behind. Being a journalist in Bangladesh is also dangerous, though lethal attacks are less frequent.

Journalists die in these three countries every year for reporting news taken for granted in other parts of the world.

Reasons to be fearful

Why is practicing journalism so dangerous in South Asia? One reason is that Islamic militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan are numerous and powerful. They very frequently target journalists for reporting negative news about their actions, justifying attacks by arguing reporters oppose their “sacred mission” to bring Sharia law to their countries.

They also frequently target commentators for alleged “blasphemy” against Islam. The militants frequently stage attacks because they know that violent action against left-wing or secular commentators often boosts their popularity among the masses.

Public opinion does not, in general, support freedom of speech over the protection of a “correct” portrayal of Islam in South Asia. Pakistan has a blasphemy law that prescribes the death penalty for anyone who is convicted of denigrating the Prophet Muhammad. The law is quite vague in its definition of denigration, and thresholds for accusation and indictment are low. The law has widespread support in the country.

If the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo worked in Pakistan, they could have been put to death for their work by the Pakistani state. That is, if militants or mobs did not kill them first.

“Je suis…?” Hardly

In Afghanistan, the situation is worse. The liberal and secular element in Afghan society is extremely small: Most Afghans support the death penalty for those who stray from Islam or insult the prophet. Public demonstrations in support of the Paris attacks took place in the country.