Describing as "utter madness" the assassination of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer by one of his guards who was angered by his opposition to blasphemy law, the Pakistani media on Wednesday said it was a reflection of the growing "cancer of intolerance" in the society.
Taseer was an outspoken critic of the blasphemy law and "paid the ultimate price for his rejection of the cancer of intolerance that has aggressively eaten away at this country for over three decades," the influential Dawn newspaper said in an editorial titled 'The Cancer Within.'
The 66-year-old Governor was shot dead by policeman Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, who was part of his security detail, at a market in the heart of Islamabad yesterday.
The headline on the front page of the Dawn read "Blasphemy law claims another life" while The Express Tribune simply headlined its report: "Paying the price: Silenced."
The Daily Times, which was owned and published by Taseer, described the Governor's killing as "yet another high profile murder of a political figure" from the ruling PPP after former premier Benazir Bhutto. It raised questions in its editorial whether the assassin had acted alone.
Referring to Interior Minister Rehman Malik's statement that the assassin confessed to killing Taseer for criticising the blasphemy law, the editorial said: "However, it would be premature to say that this indeed was the motive behind the assassin's act. This explanation sounds too pat."
"If history is any guide, such minor operatives act as tools in the hands of their cloaked masterminds and are usually killed after the deed is done...
"Only time will tell whether this was an individual act or someone orchestrated it to create political instability in the country at a time when the federal government is already teetering after losing its majority in Parliament...," said the editorial titled A Foul Murder.
The Express Tribune newspaper termed the assassination as "utter madness" and said: "...it was heartening to finally see someone speak with the voice of progressiveness and respect for human rights that the PPP had historically been associated with. And now it is revolting to see the same man done to death, so viciously, and that too by a member of his own police guard..."
Taseer had angered religious groups and Islamic clerics when he openly spoke out for the repeal or amendment of the blasphemy law after a court in Punjab gave the death sentence to Asia Bibi, a 45-year-old Christian woman, for insulting Prophet Mohammed.
Despite criticism from hardliners, Taseer had also backed calls for Asia Bibi to be pardoned.
Noting that Taseer had been targeted by hardliners in recent days, the Dawn's editorial said: "The state stood silently by, ignoring the 'fatwas' and the threats to the Punjab Governor."
Though clerics announced bounties and rewards for the killing of blasphemers, "no one was prosecuted or punished," the editorial said.
"It appears that in Pakistan if anyone decides to preface their arguments with the flag of Islam, however wrongly or cowardly, the state will stand by and advise 'tolerance' and 'understanding'. But there can be no tolerance for intolerance, no understanding for that which is patently criminal," it added.
The Express Tribune said in its editorial: "Also, lest we forget, since we all, especially in this country, tend to have very short memories, the blood of Salmaan Taseer is on all our hands. We, each one of us, are to blame for his assassination.
"And this is because, when he was being targeted by the extremists and the religious elements in our society, when some people came on television and hinted that Mr Taseer was, in effect, 'wajibul qatl' (fit to be killed) we did nothing to stand up and support him."
The News daily wrote in its editorial that Taseer died the way he lived – "controversially."
It said: "While Taseer may have angered or annoyed people, while his sometimes bombastic manner may have been irritable, there can be no doubt that he was a courageous man, willing to speak out on issues that few choose to address due to the growing fear forced on us by religious extremists."
"The shooting is evidence that it is not necessary for extremists to be in the garb of the Taliban, with their beards and turbans. They exist everywhere and come in all forms. And even those in the police may form a part of their ranks.
"The killing of the Governor by a member of his own security team could mean that even fewer will speak out on such issues. Those who have already done so – Sherry Rehman comes to mind – run a risk of falling victim to bullets," it said.
The situation is "awful," the editorial said, adding "Taseer's death highlights just how grim it is, and how difficult it will be to change our country for the better. The challenges are already immense. They grow greater by the day. We have already lost our right to express opinion freely. Extremism holds us in a vice."
"Will we ever be able to break free? That is the question we must ask before more bodies fall on our roads, staining them with blood that will perhaps never be fully washed away," it said.