The age in which we live: Readers seeking Asia Bibi news may need to look in op-ed pages

It was nearly 16 years ago that GetReligion.org opened its cyber doors (with our next birthday just ahead on Feb. 2).

That is an eternity in Internet years.

Anyway, one of the things that co-founder Doug LeBlanc and I decided right up front is that — with very few exceptions — we would focus on hard-news coverage of religion in the mainstream press. Even then, there was all kinds of interesting stuff running on op-ed pages and in magazines that offered a mix of news and editorial comment. The World Wide Web was already a pretty wild place.

Over time, we started pushing “think pieces” to the weekend — pointing readers to commentary pieces that directly addressed issues relevant to religion-beat pros and news consumers who focused on religion news, broadly defined. Eventually, we sought out veteran reporters — think Richard Ostling and Ira Rifkin — to write memo-style essays addressing where they thought trends in the news were heading.

But something else was happening at the same time. To be blunt, opinion pieces cost way less than news coverage. In recent years, it has become common to see major stories “broken” in commentary pieces. Sometimes, if you want updates on actual news stories, you need to look in the editorial columns.

Lately, I have had some readers send me emails wondering what has happened with the case of Asia Bibi, the Catholic mother in rural Pakistan who was accused of blasphemy. It made headlines when she was found not guilty. Then she went into hiding, as mobs threatened to kill her. Attempts to find asylum in other lands have been futile.

So what’s going on? Where’s the news coverage?

Well, click here for this week’s “think piece” — which actually contains background on the news. The headline, in tis recent opinion piece at The Washington Post: “My client’s death sentence for blasphemy was overturned. She still cannot leave Pakistan.”

My client? The author is Saif ul Malook and here is the description of the editorial process:

Saif ul Malook, a lawyer, represented Asia Bibi in the successful appeal of her blasphemy conviction. Mehreen Zahra-Malik, a former Reuters correspondent based in Islamabad, assisted in the preparation of this op-ed.

If you want an actual summary of recent events, this is not a bad place to start — even though this is not, of course, a news piece. Here is a sample:

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government appears determined to ensure the safety of Asia and her husband, Ashiq Masih, and the couple’s two daughters, until another country agrees to take them in. Canada is their most likely destination.

Asia was still in prison, not in the courtroom, when the decision was handed down on Oct. 31. Enraged protesters poured into the streets in several Pakistani cities. Police escorted me from the courthouse, and I spent three days in hiding, aided by friends in the diplomatic community, before I boarded a flight for the Netherlands still wearing my Pakistani lawyer’s uniform of a black suit and white shirt. I had insisted I wouldn’t leave without Asia, but my friends swore they would take good care of her. It was my life they feared for at that moment.

My last meeting with Asia had taken place on Oct. 10 at the women’s prison in Multan, about 250 miles from my home in the eastern city of Lahore, where she had been incarcerated for the past five years. Contrary to reports of her terrible treatment in prison, Asia seemed to have found a quiet life of sisterhood with her guards, who allowed her a television set and more time outside her cell than usually granted to death-row inmates. The relatively benign treatment might have resulted from pressure by Western governments, but I sensed it was because the guards recognized Asia’s bravery and human spirit.

Most of the piece, in fact, is a summary of the Bibi case — past and present.

Many American news consumers may not know details such as the following:

Asia was sentenced to death by a district court in 2010. She had legal representation in name only, because competent lawyers often fear to take on blasphemy cases. At least 70 people , including defendants, lawyers and judges, have been killed by vigilantes or lynch mobs since blasphemy laws were strengthened in the 1980s under the military dictator Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq. A lawyers group that offers free legal advice to complainants is known to pack courtrooms with clerics and raucous supporters who try to bully judges into handing out convictions.

In 2011, Salman Taseer, the prominent governor of Punjab and a critic of the blasphemy laws who had visited Asia in prison and promised to lobby for her pardon, was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards. A few months later, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian and a cabinet minister for minorities who had also spoken up for Asia, was murdered.

By all means, read it all. I am glad — as someone who prays daily for the persecuted church in Pakistan and elsewhere — to get information any way that I can, no matter where it appears in a newspaper or on a website.

I understand that we live in an age in which newsroom managers face waves of red ink. I understand that, yes, opinion is cheaper than news.

But you have to wonder: Who will step forward to fund the creation of independently reported, accurate, balanced news about news events like this one? Hard news still matters, right?

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