The government of Pakistan has reportedly blocked a satirical news site inspired by Jon Stewart and The Onion, the same day the site published a joke article mocking the nation’s harsh blasphemy laws.
The Khabaristan Times published a notice on its Facebook page that they had received a report that their website was no longer available in the Islamic nation. “Khabaristan Times’ website has been blocked in Pakistan since Wednesday January 25, 2017,” the notice read. “There hasn’t been any official notification from any regulatory authority regarding the website being banned, but it can’t be accessed anywhere in Pakistan.”
The national newspaper Dawn reported this week that “sources in the telecommunication regulatory authority” had confirmed the ban to their reporters. The sources cited “objectionable content” as the reason for the ban, though they did not elaborate on what content on the website had triggered the censorship. Dawn notes that the Khabaristan Times grew to significant popularity, with over 12,000 fans on Facebook.
While the site remains online and accessible from the United States, it appears not to be featuring any articles published after January 25, suggesting the site administrators have not been able to access it from within Pakistan. The articles published on that day include several that may have caused alarm in Islamabad. The lead article, “Heavy snowfall in northern areas PTI’s conspiracy against CPEC: PM,” mocks Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, suggesting that he would blame even weather patterns on a national opposition party.
Possibly of more concern to Pakistani censors is the article “Blasphemy Laws Experiencing Early Midlife Crisis.” The Pakistani legal code contained numerous laws against “blasphemy,” typically only imposed on those who speak critically of Islam. Crimes, like insulting Muhammad or defacing a Quran, can result in the imposition of the death penalty.
The Times article mocks the laws themselves, presenting itself as an “interview” with the law, which laments the way it has been used to persecute religious minorities. “In an exclusive interview with Khabaristan Times the 35-year-old Blasphemy Law… shared what it feels to experience the midlife crisis earlier than one might have expected.” The “law” goes on to protest:
“At first I thought it was just an identity crisis,” began the blasphemy law. “I’d spent most of my life bullying religious minorities and liberal, progressive, secular Muslims. All of a sudden I was being bullied into going after believing, practicing Muslims,” it added.
The blasphemy law admitted that while conventional Muslims have occasionally been its victims as well, it had never been used so systematically against so many people in the past.
“The sheer volume got me,” it continued. “All of a sudden I started questioning my existence, my purpose, I would ask myself regularly, ‘who the hell are you?’ – all symptoms of an early midlife crisis.”
The article concludes with the law saying it felt “healthier than ever” given the number of legal cases being brought to Pakistani courts in its name.
The blasphemy law has become an increasingly common revenge mechanism in villages against religious minorities, particularly Christians. The Legal Aid Society noted in 2016 that Pakistani courts fielded 434 blasphemy cases between 1953 and 2012. In 2014, over 1,400 such cases were filed. Among these cases are the famous death sentence for Asia Bibi, a Christian accused by a coworker of drinking out of a cup for Muslims only; the arrest of Christian Naseem James over a blasphemous poem sent on WhatsApp, which his family say was a fabrication by a business rival; and the recent arrest of a Christian pastor for allegedly writing his name on a Quran, despite being illiterate.
The Khabaristan Times is Muslim owned and run, though founder Kunwar Khuldune Shahid has said in interviews he believes in criticizing Islamic communities and greater Pakistan as a mode of self-improvement. “You want to change something you have to criticise yourself, your own country, your own leaders,” Shahid told the Agence France-Presse in 2015.
He has noted with some lament that Pakistanis, unused to a robust satirical culture, have believed some of his website’s parody articles — though he has added this phenomenon is far from being unique to Pakistan. While working within Pakistan’s legal framework, he has argued that his site “stretch[es legal] limits as much as possible to even include criticism of Islamic scriptures for instance.”