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The WTF List of 2010

LOL Cat's like, 2010. WTF.

It’s New Years Eve today, and what a year it’s been. 2010 has been littered with many a Pakistan-related WTF moment, and I thought it best to go beyond the “Top Philosophical Things You Should Be Doing With Your Life” type lists (mainly because they make me feel bloody inadequate) and give you a list of the developments, quotes, and fuzziness that really made me go, “What the EFF,” [for the first WTF-related CHUP post, see here]:

WTF #1: Politicians. They iz catty mean girls. Ok. We knew this already. But certain moments made this year seem particularly ridiculous, from MQM’s Waseem Akhtar calling PML-N’s Chaudhry Nisar “Mr. Bean” this week (via @desmukh) to the Facebook comeback kid Pervez Musharraf calling Nawaz Sharifbrainless” (while making a dig at his hair plugs), there were no shortage of name-calling and cattiness. Back in June, there was even a physical cat fight, when two female legislators from the PPP had an all-out brawl before a budget session. Rawr. (That was my cat noise.) Let’s not even get started on the Wikileaks’ release and the comments made by foreign dignitaries about each other. I mean, really. Who needs trashy reality shows when we have this for entertainment?

WTF #2: Corruption. They all haz it. Corruption is not a new phenomenon in Pakistan. God no. But according to Transparency International, perceptions are worse than last year (The CPI ranked Pakistan 143 in the world), arguably meaning that we increasingly view this as a problematic issue. According to a Pew poll released in July, 74% of Pakistanis polled say corrupt political leaders “are a very big problem,” compared to 71% last year, 64% in 2007, and 58% in 2002. However, if you’re PPP’s Abdul Qayyum Khan Jatoi, you’d contend that corruption is every politician’s “political right.” Because that’s what politicians are elected for, apparently. To plunder the country. Just call them political pirates, arrr. WTF, matey. [thanks to Twitter friends for the Jatoi reminder.]

WTF #3: Integrity. Not many haz it. This year, scandal erupted over the shocking number of fake degrees claimed by Pakistani parliamentarians. Over the summer, “Up to 160 elected officials [were] accused of faking their degrees in order to meet a requirement for holding office,” reported Al Jazeera English. Regardless whether the education requirement first put in place caused this onslaught of fake degrees, [another debate entirely] the scandal caused some pretty justifiable WTF outrage, particularly when politicians like Aisam Rabbani told reporters, “a degree is a degree whether it’s authentic or fake,” or when the ever-charming Jamshed Dasti, with a fake Masters in  Islamic Studies, couldn’t even multiply 4 times 2 (let alone name the first 15 suras of the Quran). CHUP contributor Usman Zafar used a choice quote from Aesop in his op-ed on the topic, “We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office.”

WTF #4: Cricketz. They no haz it either. Where to even start with the Pakistan cricket team? In August, The News of the World broke a spot-fixing scandal, implicating seven players on the team, particularly Salman Butt (Captain) Kamran Akmal, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir. The development further highlighted a long history of fixing in Pakistani cricket, but also the inefficiencies of the systematically corrupt Pakistan Cricket Board and the strong presence of the gambling syndicates [see Shaheryar Mirza's contribution here]. Couple that development with ball-biting a la Shahid Afridi, steroids galore, and more than a few disappointing losses, and you get one, giant, WTF. [Also see Five Rupees for this great piece, "Why It's Really Hard to Care About Cricket Right Now."] All I have to say is, thank GOD for tennis player Aisam Qureshi. I hearts him.

 

NOM NOM NOM!

WTF #5: Gary Faulkner iz Jack Bauer iz Chuck Norris. I mean. How could we not dole out a big, jovial, WTF to the Bin Laden Hunter? Faulkner was recently found near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border this summer, claiming he was searching for Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. It was his eighth trip to Pakistan, and the police who found him (who originally thought him “mentally deranged”), said he was carrying a pistol, a dagger, a sword, and night-vision goggles. This man is my hero. Favorite Gary Faulkner joke? Gary Faulkner destroyed the periodic table, because Gary Faulkner only recognizes the element of surprise. Boo yah.

WTF #6: Blasphemy laws & mob mentality. No LOLz. Since their introduction in the 1980s, the blasphemy laws have been arbitrarily used to legitimize the violence and persecution of Pakistan’s minorities. This year, the case of Aasia Bibi, the Christian woman to be sentenced to death for blasphemy, sparked outrage and media headlines, further illustrating how often our legislators cow tow to the cacaphony of the religiously ignorant. There was increasing violence as well, [see this piece I wrote for the AfPak Channel], when more than 70 people were killed when gunmen launched attacks on two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore. Just last month, police gave credence to intolerance and prejudice over reason and sensitivity, forcing an Ahmadi family to exhume a relative’s body from a graveyard. The Aasia Bibi and the Ahmadi graveyard examples further illustrate not only the ugliness of ignorance, but also how often mob mentality overruns reason. This was also evident when two brothers were brutally tortured and beaten to death in public in Sialkot back in August.

(Bravo to politicians and figures that did stand up against the blasphemy laws, like Asma Jehangir, Sherry Rehman, and Salmaan Taseer, to name a few.)

WTF #7: Mushy likez Facebook. LHC no likez it. Former President Pervez Musharraf announced his return to politics this year with the formation of his political party, the All Pakistan Muslim League (APML) and saying his (nearly 372,000) Facebook fans “wanted him to come back to Pakistan.” Status messages were abound with, “OMGZ. APML Foreva! Lulz” as Mushy played Farmville with fans and “liked” his own link uploads and photos (before APML fans start creating a Facebook application where users throw darts at my face, just remember I’m joking. Musharraf doesn’t even like Farmville). The Lahore High Court, on the other hand, was the Debbie Downer of the Facebook world, when, in response to the South Park controversy (when an episode was censored for featuring the Prophet Muhammad, and sparked an ‘Everybody Draw Muhammad Day!’) and numerous protests, they ordered the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) to block Facebook across Pakistan temporarily. So, Comedy Central censorship ultimately led to more censorship. An ironic WTF.

WTF #8: The floods this summer in Pakistan affected over 20 million people in the country, and rehabilitation and recovery will take years. Many argue that the government was ineffective in its response to the disaster, paying lip service and shedding crocodile tears, rather than truly attending to the millions whose homes and livelihoods were destroyed, [PM Gilani even visited a fake relief camp in August].

I realize that this list could be endless, and I have undoubtedly missed many choice WTF’s of the year, so I invite you, dear readers to add your own in the comment section. [Also check out these great lists by Blue Rickshaw and Huma Imtiaz at Dawn.] Happy New Year all!

For your entertainment, and to end the year with a laugh, here is a brilliant video of our favorite right-wing red beret Zaid Hamid showing off his karate skills in 1985 [via @kaalakawaa]:

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Image from UK Independent: Painting by Amina Janjua on Pakistan's Missing Persons

Guernica Magazine’s October issue has a really powerful piece about Pakistan’s missing persons, people who have disappeared  under the government label of “terrorism suspects” since the 9/11 attacks, (many from Balochistan). Guernica’s J. Malcolm Garcia wrote, “Guilt or innocence is not the issue. To impose terror on suspected terrorists, to maintain a grip on power, ah, now that is a strategy, eh?”

According to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2010, Pakistan’s Interior Ministry has estimated that 1,100 people “disappeared” under the military regime of Pervez Musharraf, a number that “is almost certainly an underestimate.” HRW added in its assessment, “The Zardari administration promised to resolve these cases, but it has made negligible progress. Pakistan has yet to sign the international treaty banning enforced disappearances.”

One man who disappeared in 2005 was Masood Janjua, the husband of Amina Janjua, a housewife-turned-activist, a woman who reportedly “took on” the government and the ISI to find and rescue her husband, subsequently inspiring others whose family members also disappeared under the Musharraf regime. Back in 2007, Frontline/World’s David Montero interviewed Janjua, who said, “When a person is desperate for their loved one, the person most dear to me, the person who I can’t live without…I have to give my life [to find him].” Guernica Magazine, in their piece, wrote,

More days passed [since Masood's disappearance]. The days turned into weeks, months, years. Still no Masood. Now forty-six, Amina alternates between fear, sadness, and puzzlement when she speaks of Masood’s five-year absence…But now instead of despair, a weary, hardened resolve to find him compels her. They had been married sixteen years when he went missing. Twenty-one years now, when she includes the five years he has been gone. She tries not to think what another five years will be like without him.

Montero spoke to former law minister Wasi Zafar in the aforementioned Frontline/World piece, “Pakistan: Disappeared.” Zafar told the PBS journalist, “If he’s a terrorist, he loses his rights…If in developed countries it can be done, then why not here?

Zafar’s statement begs the question – if someone is a suspected terrorist, does he (or she) have the right to a lawyer, to call their family? By virtue of still being a suspect, arbitrarily taking away these people’s rights before they have been proven guilty is and should be considered a violation of human rights, a fact that makes these suspects of terror and anti-state activities victims in the eyes of international law.

According to HRW, “In October 2009, the government amended the country’s anti-terrorism laws through presidential ordinance to further curtail the legal rights of terrorism suspects. Under the ordinance, suspects can be placed in ‘preventive detention‘ for a period of 90 days without benefit of judicial review or the right to bail.” The organization added, “Confessions made before the police or military are now deemed admissible as evidence despite the fact that torture by Pakistan’s police and the military’s intelligence services continues to be routine.”

Guernica’s piece is especially thought-provoking because it humanizes the many “persons” who have disappeared in Pakistan, some of whom lawyer Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui believes were “given over to U.S. authorities in exchange for cash and are held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan.” Masood Janjua was a father and a husband, a man who went hiking and skiing “on a whim” with his family. Sheraz Arshad, the son of Mohammad Arshad, was an 18 year old who “smiled easily but shyly,” who wanted to join the army “for the opportunities an army career would present to a young man born in a humble village.”

Garcia noted one particular exchange between Amina, who now runs Defense of Human Rights, and a woman whose son disappeared:

If my son is alive, I want him here, and if he is dead, I want to know about his death, a woman dressed entirely in black tells Amina. Her son has been missing for a year. Amina holds her hand. We won’t complain to anyone if he’s dead, the woman says. We just want someone to tell us.

Though the numbers of people who have disappeared are often depicted as part of a faceless statistic, the testimonies of their families – their pain, their loss, and their struggle – should be a constant reminder of how very human this issue is, and what a gross violation of human rights is committed unabated on a regular basis within our own borders.

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Musharraf: pre-dictatorship. Nawaz: pre-hair plugs.

 

It is October 12 (or at least it still is here). On this day, Christopher Columbus reached the New World in 1492, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was published in 1979. And, on October 12, 1999, Pervez Musharraf staged a coup in Pakistan, overturning the government of former PM Nawaz Sharif.**

It seems we aren’t too far from where we were eleven years ago. Musharraf has made his political re-debut once again, to much fanfare/Facebook poking. But instead of flowers, Nawaz’s “Happy Anniversary Mushy” present was a seven-page charge sheet, calling his “coup-inator” [yes, I just made that up] the “most corrupt, callous, immoral and ruthless ruler,” [via the Express Tribune]. Trés romantic.

According to Dawn,

The charge-sheet contains allegations that Musharraf imposed martial law twice, undertook a Kargil misadventure, misused army to serve his personal interests, declared war against the people of Pakistan, blackmailed people through NAB, murdered Akbar Bugti, abducted people, killed scores of people in Lal Masjid, promoted cronyism, nepotism, corruption and favouritism, attacked the judiciary, promulgated NRO, massacred people on May 12 and Oct 18 in 2007, and got himself elected unconstitutionally as President of Pakistan.

Meanwhile, Punjab’s Provincial Assembly unanimously passed a resolution on Tuesday condemning Musharraf and declaring October 12, 2009, “the worst tragedy of Pakistan’s history.”

Let me see if I got this straight. We are currently tackling the aftermath of one of the worst natural disasters that has faced Pakistan – that has impacted over 20 million people, devastated livelihoods, and destroyed homes and the Punjab Assembly wastes time declaring Musharraf’s coup the worst tragedy in our history?

It’s not that I don’t think the hoopla surrounding Musharraf’s return borders on the absurd. In fact, I’ve been humming the Twilight Zone theme song a lot these days. But I will acknowledge that Musharraf has a right, just like every other corrupt/failed/exiled Pakistani politician, to reenter the political process. If he thinks 324,650 Facebook fans are an electoral ballot make, then that’s his prerogative. And, even though Nawaz Sharif received the highest opinion rating (71%) among those polled in the recent Pew survey, that still doesn’t mean his own record is squeaky clean. Far from it. So if you’re going to accuse a former leader of cronyism, nepotism, corruption and the like, remember that pot called. He’s calling you black.

 

 

**October 12, 2010 is also the day that at least one of the Chilean miners was rescued! Whohoo!

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The Takeover Rumor Mill

NYT: "Ooh, Pretty Vesty..."

The rumor mill is churning again.

For weeks, media outlets have hinted that Pakistan’s military, which historically views itself as the “savior” of the country (I prefer “meddling mother-in-law”), has been “weighing options” for an indirect intervention in Pakistan’s political sphere, as reported by last week’s Friday Times. According to Reuters Now or Never,

Rumors of change in the government were set into motion last month after a coalition partner of Zardari and self-exiled head of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Altaf Hussain, called on “patriotic generals” to take revolutionary steps against corrupt politicians. Nawaz Sharif, former prime minister and main opposition leader [PML-N], strongly opposed Hussain’s suggestion but recently said a “change” could be brought out through constitutional means if the present government did not rectify its wrongdoings.

On Tuesday, the NY Times’ Jane Perlez reported that the Pakistani military is “pushing for a shake-up” of the current government and, “in the longer term, even the removal of President Asif Ali Zardari and his top lieutenants.” The army cannot feasibly take direct control of the country, what with operations against militants and ongoing flood relief efforts, but that doesn’t mean they still wouldn’t be in support of an indirect “reshuffling” of the current regime.

Zardari, PM Gilani and COAS Kayani reportedly met to discuss this issue on Monday. Following the meeting, the president’s office released a statement that the government will complete it’s full five-year term. The Express Tribune quoted the statement as saying, “We will continue our forward march and complete the term no matter what the machinations against us.” According to the NYT,

Having secured an exceptional three-year extension in his post from Mr. Zardari in July, General Kayani appears determined to see to it that the government prevents the economy from entering a tailspin, which would further weaken the health of the nation and also the value of the military’s own vast landholdings and other business enterprises.

If this is true, and it’s in Kayani’s interest to not see the economy spiral increasingly downwards, then keeping the stability of the government in check is also key in this scenario, particularly since economic and political stability are intrinsically linked. But a statement from the president’s office rejoicing the sanctity of the “democratic process” will not be enough in achieving said stability, particularly since people are justifiably angry and dissatisfied with the current regime. This anger is further exacerbated by corruption allegations and a perceived mishandling of the flood disaster, all further propelled by rumors and conspiracy theories.

Former President Musharraf is also leveraging this anger to push for his own return to politics. [A political opportunist! Maybe he was a better politician than we thought.] On Wednesday, in a public interview with a former British ambassador to the U.S., Christopher Meyer, Musharraf stated, “The situation in Pakistan can only be resolved when the military has some role. Pakistan’s army chief ought to be involved in some form, to ensure checks and balances, to ensure good governance. [Just like you did?] We must involve the military men. They should have a place to voice their concerns. [Maybe they can try your Facebook discussion thread! OMGZ.]

I didn’t start this post as a rant. But, I’m tired, and frankly, I’m pissed off – with the corruption, with the fact that the rich doesn’t pay their bloody taxes, with the fact that we’re left to beg for scraps from the rest of the world, with leaders who previously plundered the country coming back to have another go again. And while I’m as critical and caustic about the current civilian regime as anyone else, I also don’t think the answer is a military takeover/reshuffle/sudoku that will create more instability and put us back at square one in the political process. I think we need to stop discussing military takeovers as casually as we would talk about the weather. I think we need to stop thinking about the military as the blanket “good guy” every time they’re not in power. I think we need to think through all our options before jumping to conclusions. I think we need to stop feeding the rumor mill. And I think we need to stop being so self-destructive. Because at this rate, we will not survive.

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The Comeback Kid 2.0

"I have THIIIIIS many Facebook fans. Thiiiiis many." (AFP)

Remember when previously exiled politicians made their grand return to Pakistan with garlands around their neck and victory signs in the air? In the case of the late Benazir Bhutto (PPP) and Nawaz Sharif (PML-N), their advisers/PR teams released op-eds, press releases and statements, allowing party supporters to salivate over their much-anticipated comeback to Pakistani politics.

That was so 2007.

In 2010, former leaders plant the seeds of their comeback using social media platforms, creating Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. They start a mass movement in cyberspace, interacting with their fans at a grassroots level, uploading video messages, and ultimately blindsiding the naysayers who once crowed, “Ding dong, the witch is dead.”

In the world of Populism 2.0, former President Pervez Musharraf has managed to leverage social media rather successfully, boasting 187,649 fans in about seven months, [see my previous post, "Mushy Joins Facebook."]. And, a week after he announced the formation of his new political party, All Pakistan Muslim League (APML), Musharraf revealed that he had 200,000 fans on Facebook, and “they wanted him to come back to Pakistan.”

Um, say what now?

It is not that Musharraf doesn’t have a right to return to Pakistan and contest elections. As I commented on Ahsan’s post at Five Rupees, the political process should always have diversity of choice, and it would be undemocratic to insist otherwise, particularly since other leaders with less than stellar pasts are back in power. My contention is with the Facebook shout-out, as if 200,000 fans on a social media platform somehow legitimize this comeback.

There is no doubt that Facebook is a powerful platform, boasting more than 300 million active users, about 70% of whom are located outside the United States. In Pakistan, it is also one of the most popular social networking websites, with over 2.5 million users, (according to The News’ Shakir Hussain). But 2.5 million is still a small percentage of Pakistan’s population – about 1.5% – and that too is a narrow demographic – namely those who are literate, speak English (to varying degrees) and own/use computers. Within that number, 200,000 Mushy Facebook fans also don’t take into account 1) the Pakistanis who are living in Pakistan (or are citizens) and 2) people who actually vote in elections. This is somewhat comparable to the numerous supporters for cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan not often translating into actual votes at the election polls.

If Mushy can return to Pakistan, survive the Benazir Bhutto and National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) fires, and stage a comeback onto the Pakistani political stage, all the while leveraging his social media platform, then more power to him. But that success certainly won’t come from Facebook alone, and it will most definitely be a long road ahead.

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Telenovela Pakistan

Confrontation. Show-down. Crisis. Judicial coup.

Those were just some of the saucy terms used to describe Pakistan’s recent row last week, when President Asif Ali Zardari named judges to be appointed to Pakistan’s Supreme Court and Lahore High Court without first consulting Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. The Supreme Court called the move unconstitutional and blocked it, sparking conflict and rumors of impending “crisis” and instability. The row was cut short when Pakistan’s very own political magician PM Yousaf Raza Gilani came to the rescue, announcing the government “would go along” with the Supreme Court’s recommendations, assuring all of us, “It is completely over.”

Ha, that’s what you think, Jadoogar.

AP: "Mwahahaha." *Twirl, twirl.*

If there’s one thing about Pakistani politics, it’s that it’s anything but boring. In fact, the machismo-infused, handlebar-twirling scenarios are more comparable to a Mexican soap opera than a democratically elected government. Just when we think stability is restored, we tune into yet another episode of grown men screaming, cackling, switching alliances, and in some cases, crying. Because let’s face it. Zardari and Chaudhry are two burly moustached men who just can’t get along. As Dawn columnist Cyril Almeida noted last week, “The trend that the latest row fit into and the manner of the détente suggest that inevitably there will be another clash. The details of any given eruption or paroxysm aren’t all that important anymore.” The Chief Justice may have been the symbol of Pakistan’s judicial crisis, but his arguably politicized judgments and trump cards make him a far cry from a judiciary’s objective poster child. In fact, he is, according to some accounts, a key ally of Nawaz Sharif, who recently called Zardari “the biggest threat to democracy,” though the PML-N leader did tell reporters after a recent meeting with Gilani that this criticism wasn’t “personal.” Hmmm right.

In in the latest episode of Telenovela Pakistan, Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin resigned from his position “in order to focus on his business.” According to the Wall Street Journal, “Mr. Tarin said he will now work for Silkbank, a private bank in which he’s a major shareholder.” However, despite this statement, the development came on the heels of rumors that it was instead sparked by policy differences with the government. The Financial Times cited a source close to Tarin, who said his resignation “has to do with the government once again dragging its feet on a [tax] clampdown…They just don’t understand. You can’t allow tax dodgers to go free. This is a massive setback for Pakistan’s economy.”

As the drama continues, don’t forget about the figures on the sidelines. Because in every deliciously bad soap opera, exited characters are never gone forever. They are inevitably waiting in the wings, twirling their handlebar moustaches and cackling madly. Cue former President Pervez Musharraf, properly moustached out and undoubtedly smirking at the current state of affairs. In the below interview with CNN, he discusses his increasing Facebook stardom [see this former CHUP post], noting, “It is THE Facebook that provides the connectivity to collectivize all [my] support.” On the current situation and whether he’ll return to Pakistani politics, Mush vaguely responds, “At this moment, Pakistan is not doing well. So if I can contribute anything to the country and if the people want me to contribute, then I’d certainly like to look into that.”

Translation: THE Facebook. Take me home.


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Mushy Joins Facebook

As social media terms increasingly become part of the vernacular (“unfriend,” the act of deleting a person from one’s list of acquaintances on Facebook, was  even named the New Oxford American Dictionary’s ‘Word of the Year’), some of Pakistan’s big names are cashing in. Last month, former President Pervez Musharraf set up his very own Facebook page, so far garnering (by my last login) 33,277 fans. To further affirm the officialdom of his page, Mushy <insert PR team> even uploaded a video, discussing his motivations behind joining said Facebook. He said, “I’ve seen with all my interactions, particularly with the youth…that [they] are extremely concerned and disturbed with what is happening in Pakistan…and what is the future of Pakistan…this got me thinking how I could contribute my bit to quench their thirst.”

I have long been intrigued by the social media phenomenon, and the real versus imagined benefit they bring, [see related piece for Dawn]. Facebook currently boasts more than 300 million active users with about 70% located outside the United States. In Pakistan, it is one of the most popular social networking websites and, as of October 16, 2009, there were approximately 1,094,040 active users. Although this number is relatively high, these users constitute a small percentage of Pakistan’s population – namely those who are literate, speak English (to varying degrees) and own/use computers. Moreover, the transnational nature of these online mediums mean that websites like Facebook can also act as a bridge, bringing Pakistanis (or people of Pakistani origin) living abroad into the same forum as Pakistanis living in the country, fostering an interesting “supranational” dynamic.

This demographic appears to be Musharraf’s target audience on Facebook, who are now part of a far more “democratic” dialogue than many were afforded under his emergency rule. While I laud efforts that allow Pakistanis better access to current and former leaders, I also question their purpose. What is the logic behind initiating this dialogue now and what tangible purpose does it serve, particularly since those who use Facebook are not necessarily the same people who turn up at the polls?

It could be that Musharraf is just trying to remain relevant, and he is attempting to do so by engaging young Pakistanis at home and abroad. While memories of his last year in power are arguably still fresh, the cyclical nature of Pakistan’s politicians does allow for constant rebranding and reinvention.

In fact, RehmanMalik.com could stand to take a few pointers from said PR exercise – especially since “a welcome massage” may not be welcomed by all. No indeed.

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Reuters/Dawn Photo: Cameraman Takes Footage of Blast Site

In the latest Press Freedom Index 2009, compiled on the basis of questionnaires completed by hundreds of journalists and media experts around the world, Pakistan ranked 159 out of 175 countries. Although the country “has scores of privately owned television and radio stations, putting it on the path of an information revolution comparable to that experienced by India about ten years ago,” the media is caught in “a vice between the Taliban which has stepped up its attacks and the security forces who continue in their old ways of harassing journalists,” noted Reporters without Borders. Moreover, Pakistan’s press is “increasingly belligerent in its coverage of political and socio-economic problems, despite the huge risks.”

Given that Pakistan’s media revolution occurred not too long ago, such rankings reflect the increasing need for the media to critique itself and institutionalize responsible reporting. This past Friday, eight of Pakistan’s major electronic news outlets -  KTN, Samaa, Dawn News, Dunya, Express News and Express 24/7, ARY, Geo and Aaj TV – announced that they had reached an agreement on a code of conduct on the media’s coverage of terrorism. According to Dawn,

After a two-week debate on the issue, representatives of these channels agreed upon certain rules in terms of a range of issues, including the broadcast of images in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, the need for time-delays on live broadcasts, guidelines for covering hostage situations, the airing of demands and messages by terrorists, and the training and safety of news crews and reporters.

Hajrah Mumtaz, over at Dawn, further asserted,

…the independence of the media is meaningless unless the media also take upon themselves the grave duty of honest and responsible reportage. While it is by no means possible to defend the arbitrary laying of curbs upon the media by a state or government – for that would amount to censorship – it is up to news organizations to themselves come up with methods that internally regulate the content of what is being broadcast or printed.

In July, Al Jazeera English’s The Listening Post provided an informative backgrounder on the rise of Pakistan’s private news channels. In 2002, former President Pervez Musharraf set up the Pakistani Electronic Media Regulatory Authority [PEMRA] to issue the first licenses for private radio stations and TV channels. For a population just 49.9% literate and where newspaper circulation is around 6 million, such a development was monumental. Moreover, noted Jugnu Mohsin, people who owned newspapers were allowed to own cable television channels, doing away with past laws against cross-ownership. Prior to 2002, Pakistan’s state-owned PTV was the only news channel broadcast on television. Today, there are around 50 private television channels and 100 licensed private FM stations. The proliferation of Pakistan’s electronic media in such a short span of time has meant: 1) the private media is “here to stay, the days of overt suppression are over,” noted journalist Ejaz Haider, and 2) a reflection on the media’s shortcomings must be undertaken by the media itself, not the government.

Both of these points are fundamentally important. Although Musharraf’s regime liberalized the press, he also attempted to muzzle these outlets following the 2007 state of emergency, when television coverage of demonstrations and criticism of the government were considered “inflammatory.” His censorship [both GEO Television and AAJ were even taken off the air], was met with immediate backlash, proving that the media had become an institution to be reckoned with. Al Jazeera correspondent Kamaal Hyder asserted in July, “Anyone who tries to curtail the power of the media is going to fail.

Last week, the PPP-led government suggested the Pakistani press be more “guarded” in their reporting, leading many to bristle immediately, suspicious that caution would inevitably mean censorship. PPP politician and former information minister Sherry Rehman spoke to Al Jazeera last week, saying she appreciated the media’s concerns and noted, “They need to be made stakeholders in this consultation, because if we don’t do that, then there’s going to be polarization…and that will not profit either the government or the media or society.”

Rehman’s statement emphasizes this second fundamental point – the increasing need for the maturation of the Pakistani media, a process that needs to be endorsed by the media itself. Maria Ahmed of GEO Television told Al Jazeera that the media needs to institute a “self-critiquement mechanism,” which was manifested in last Friday’s resulting code of conduct for terrorism coverage. Such developments are a positive step towards increasing the credibility of the Pakistani media – whether it’s “self-editing” the use of graphic imagery and footage in the aftermath of bombings and violence, or ensuring that information relayed through news channels do not help hostage-takers or endanger the lives of the hostages.

The code of conduct also touches on the need to ensure the safety of reporters, a timely topic given the current conflict in Pakistan and the fact that the media has been barred from covering the military’s offensive from the front lines. The issue was also raised in a media symposium organized by PBS Frontline/World in September 2009. During the conference, Pakistani journalist/filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy [who produced Children of the Taliban] discussed the danger of reporting on the front lines, asserting that increasingly more reporters are “caught between intelligence agencies and the Taliban.” She added, “The Taliban have so many splinter groups – even if you get assurances from one group that you wont get kidnapped that doesn’t stop a second or a third group from kidnapping you.”

In her experience, Obaid-Chinoy learned how necessary it was to create a detailed “security protocol,” which would be sent to the news channel she was working for or a trusted person. In the event that she was kidnapped, the protocol would provide information on all her “fixers,” [people who provide translation, as well as on-the-ground expertise and contacts], so that her contacts could find out very quickly who had taken her away, “since the first few hours [in a kidnapping] are the most critical.” News agencies and journalists, she added, must also ensure the safety of their fixers, “because they bear the brunt of the access they’ve given you.”

In today’s world of 24/7 news coverage and high-speed Internet, we are frequently inundated with information. While the media’s growth in Pakistan is laudable, it also comes with a degree of responsibility and accountability. The recently released code of conduct is only the first step towards this idea of progress.

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On Sunday, Pakistan and India’s foreign ministers reportedly met for 100 minutes on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York City. According to Reuters, it was “a fresh attempt” to improve bilateral ties between the two nations since the Mumbai attacks in November 2008. However, Pakistan’s Shah Mehmood Qureshi and India’s S.M. Krishna told reporters later that they “did not fix a date” for the resumption of full-fledged peace negotiations, otherwise known as composite talks.

Both sides insisted the meeting was “positive, frank and useful,” but Krishna noted that for a meaningful dialogue to continue, “it is essential to ensure an environment free of violence, terrorism and the threat to use violence.” He added to reporters, “We remain concerned about the threat which groups and individuals in Pakistan continue to pose to us.” And, although he acknowledged the legal action undertaken by Pakistan against suspects in the Mumbai attacks, “a crime of the magnitude that was committed in Mumbai could not have been done by seven or eight individuals.”

Dawn quoted Krishna, who also announced that India had rejected Pakistan’s proposal for back channel diplomacy, noting, “When we have front channel, there’s no need for back channel.” Given that Pakistan had already announced that former Foreign Secretary Riaz Mohammed Khan would be appointed as special envoy in the back channel talks, Krishna’s announcement was slightly embarrassing. The development, however, does raise some interesting questions about back channel diplomacy and its advantages for Indo-Pak ties.

Back channel diplomacy refers to negotiations that take place in secret between parties in dispute or with a neutral third party present. In Pakistan, such talks occurred back in 2003, when a ceasefire pertaining to the Line of Control was negotiated, as well as during Musharraf‘s presidency in 2007. In the March 2, 2009 issue of The New Yorker, Steve Coll delved into the talks during Musharraf’s era, noting the top diplomats involved – Tariq Aziz from Pakistan and Satinder Lambah from India – were tasked with developing a “non paper” on Kashmir, “a text without names or signatures which can serve as a deniable but detailed basis for a deal.” Khurshid Kasuri, the then-foreign minister, noted the back channel talks were so advanced by 2007 that they’d “come to semicolons.” An Indian official told Coll, “It was huge – I think it would have changed the basic nature of the problem…You would have then had the freedom to remake Indo-Pakistani relations.”

The agreement, which was close to being signed [Coll noted that one quarrel over the Sir Creek waterway would be formally settled during a visit by PM Manmohan Singh to Pakistan] was shelved due to political turmoil in Pakistan, i.e. Musharraf’s firing of the Supreme Court justices and the subsequent declaration of the state of emergency. Coll wrote, “In New Delhi, the word in national security circles had been that ‘any day now we’re going to have an agreement on Kashmir…But Musharraf lost his constituencies.”

Since Zardari’s PPP government came to power, there has been talk of reviving the back channel talks of the past and concluding work on this reported “non paper.”  From a U.S. standpoint, a breakthrough in Indo-Pak talks would be conducive to shifting Pakistan’s attention to its western border, not to mention that progress could potentially reduce rivalry between the two countries in Afghanistan, [see Myra MacDonald's Reuters blog: Now or Never? for more]. Such an approach has been embraced by the current Pakistani administration, who advocate for front and back channels to “work in tandem.”

There are many advantages of back channel diplomacy. Shuja Nawaz, author of Crossed Swords and director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, told me that back channel talks are “essential to get rid of the undergrowth and to build up vested interest groups of non-official actors.  Track I  [diplomacy] tends to be stuck in history and detail as the mandarins fight old battles over and over again.” Ultimately, in atmospheres that are as charged as India and Pakistan, this type of back channel diplomacy bypasses the need to toe party lines and spout rhetoric. Coll, in his New Yorker piece, even noted the aforementioned “non paper” was a factor in tempering India’s response after the Mumbai attacks.

Despite these advantages, back channel talks can only be successful if trust exists between the two nations, and if both sides want to come to the table. Given the environment in India following the Mumbai attacks, there is a deep mistrust in New Delhi of Pakistan’s ability to control militancy within and outside its borders. And, despite Islamabad’s eagerness to enter into negotiations, the issue of Balochistan and India’s alleged involvement in the restive province also hinders the potential for successful peace talks. Moreover, Pakistan’s very publicized call for back channel diplomacy seems almost counter-intuitive, since the benefit of such talks is that they bypass constituency pressures.

Should Indo-Pak back channel talks resume? Given the current status quo in Indo-Pak relations, this alternate form of diplomacy could be instrumental in jump starting the peace process. But due to the above mentioned factors, the nature of the talks would be different from the ones that took place in 2007.  A neutral third party would change the previous dynamic, but could help broker negotiations, acting as a bridge in bringing the two state actors to an even table.

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Mushy Booked by the Feds

Stop being mean to me! Bah!

Stop being mean to me! Bah!

According to news agencies today, police registered a case against former President Pervez Musharraf for putting Pakistan’s top judges under illegal house arrest after a state of emergency was declared on November 3, 2007. Upon receiving a petition by lawyer Aslam Ghuman, Islamabad’s District and Sessions Judge Mohammad Akmal Khan Monday ordered police to issue the case against the former leader. According to The News,

The FIR [case] (131) stated that former president Pervez Musharraf and others had detained judges of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and their family at their houses and their children were neither allowed to attend their school nor permitted to appear in examinations.

Today’s case means that Musharraf could face up to three years in prison if it is carried out. Moreover, noted the BBC’s Haroon Rashid, “the possibility of prosecution means that the chances of the former president returning to Pakistan in the short term look slim.” The development is the latest in a series of efforts to hold Musharraf accountable for the state of emergency. On July 31, Pakistan’s Supreme Court also ruled that his declaration of emergency rule was “unconstitutional.”

So, will Musharraf spend time in prison for his actions in 2007? Given the choice between prison and living in self-exile, I think he may choose the latter. At least then he could pursue a potential singing career [see below]:

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