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Archive for March 9th, 2009

As if the recent political turmoil and last week’s attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team weren’t enough, media outlets on Monday cited Interior Ministry Chief Rehman Malik, who threatened PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif with charges of “sedition for inciting people to rebellion” after the Supreme Court’s controversial decisions last week, [which nullified Shahbaz’s election and declined to rule on a challenge to Nawaz’s electoral ban, see related post]. According to GEO News, Malik “said the statement being issued by the Sharif brothers qualify to fall within the definition of mutiny. He said anyone inciting provocation against the government can be awarded three year punishment under Pakistan Penal Code while anyone waging mutiny may be sentenced for life.” [Image, AP]

Media outlets framed the statements in light of Pakistan’s Long March, a cross-country lawyers’ protest slated to begin Thursday and reach Islamabad by next Monday. Reuters quoted Malik, who told reporters, “If in this long march, any death takes place or anyone’s property is damaged … then those who are bearing the flag of sedition or have borne it, then a police compliant [FIR] will be registered.” Dawn, in its coverage, noted, “The government on Monday stuck to its previous stance that it will not allow participants of the lawyers’ Long March from proceeding to the parliament house.” The news agency added, “Analysts believed that the prevailing political turmoil in the country will be further aggravated when the Long March reaches Islamabad on March 16, and it will not be allowed to enter into the federal capital. They foresee clashes between the security forces and the protesters, which may turn violent.”

In today’s news conference, Malik reportedly “cited the relevant sections of Pakistan penal code,” noted the AFP, “saying that expressing hatred or contempt against the federal or provincial government was punishable by life imprisonment.” The news agency reported, “He [Malik] read out phrases from speeches he said Nawaz Sharif has made since the Supreme Court disqualified him and his brother from contesting elections and holding public office. Sharif has made speeches calling on the police not to obey government orders and attacked judges who disqualified him saying he does not recognize the rulings of the Supreme Court — the highest in the country.”

Today’s statements are likely to exacerbate tensions further, which will hold negative ramifications for other arenas in Pakistan, including the economy. According to Reuters, “Pakistani stocks ended 1.5 percent lower on Monday as cautious investors sold shares on worry about political instability, dealers said.” Moreover, noted the news agency, “The main Karachi index has lost 3.5 percent this year after a 58.3 percent fall in 2008.” Given our burgeoning economic crisis, further political instability will be problematic, to say the least.

As for me, I feel like I am watching a comedy of errors, a car accident in slow motion. That sensation is both endlessly tragic and infinitely frustrating. Malik’s statements will only garner a stronger response from the already-fiery opposition, who are riding the wave of the country’s judiciary movement and upcoming Long March. The cycle of tensions and instability will undoubtedly continue until one or both sides are left toppled. Regardless of what the government’s intentions were with today’s announcement, watching the state wielding an iron fist with words like “life imprisonment” and “mutiny” will only incite further indignation and anger among segments of the populace. Moreover, it will likely add further fuel to the comparison of the PPP to the last years of the Musharraf regime.

Did the Sharifs cross the line with their fiery statements? Probably. Would that qualify as sedition or mutiny? The government will certainly argue so for its own preservation, and the law is ambiguous enough to leave that open to interpretation. At the end of the day, though, the real tragedy is that this entire situation has made a travesty of Pakistan’s attempt at democracy.

As William Shakespeare wrote in The Comedy of Errors: For slander lives upon succession/For ever hous’d where it gets possession.

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[Image credit, Uks website]

March 8th was International Women’s Day, a day designated to celebrate the economic, social, and political achievements of women throughout the world. Although Pakistan still has a long way to progress in terms of women’s rights and development, there are many figures and organizations that are making a marked difference. Uks, [meaning “Reflection” in Urdu] is one of these organizations. Run by Tasneem Ahmar, the not-for-profit is dedicated to the cause of gender equality and women’s development in Pakistan by “empowering women in the media through the media.” According to the center’s official website,

At Uks, our team of professional media persons and research staff aims to promote the reflection of a neutral, balanced and unbiased approach to women and women’s issues within and through the media…Since its inception in 1997, Uks has monitored media, conducted research on emerging trends, particularly regarding gender and women development, and undertaken trainings and workshops to raise awareness about crucial issues amongst media.

I had the opportunity to meet and sit down with Ms. Ahmar not long ago and learn more about Uks and its groundbreaking Radio Project. In 2003, the NGO became the first civil society organization in Pakistan to set up an independent radio production house, staffed by an all-female team of broadcasters and journalists.  Uks producers will often travel to remote areas of the country to cover their stories. Although the project began with the support of Internews, the center eventually began to independently produce their programs in 2005, delving into issues like violence against women, honor crimes, and HIV/AIDS. Given that HIV/AIDS is still a fairly taboo topic in Pakistan, Uks’ attempt to raise awareness on the issue through its radio programming is especially significant. The organization also produced a series on the 2005 earthquake, and features reports on poverty, women’s reproductive health, prostitution, human trafficking and internally displaced persons [IDPs]. However, noted Ms. Ahmar, the NGO didn’t want to just show the negative side of Pakistan. It also works to highlight women’s positive achievements in the country.

When asked what surprised her most in launching the Radio Project, Ms. Ahmar said it was “the willingness of people to share their stories,” particularly women living in these remote areas. She added, “Also, the kind of trust the people have in our organization,” noting that an Uks producer was once even invited to attend a jirga [tribal council] meeting.

The use of radio in raising awareness on these social issues is very significant given its reach to a wide audience in Pakistan. Uks has broadcast its segments on numerous FM stations throughout the country, including Power 99 Islamabad, FM 100 Lahore, FM 107 Karachi, as well as stations in Peshawar, Bhawalpur, Abbotabad, Muzzafarabad, and Sargodha. However, while this medium has been effective, Ms. Ahmar says she hopes Uks can soon also move into television, since “many of the stories and voices might be more powerful” on TV.

There are many serious issues impeding women’s development and empowerment in Pakistan. However, the work of groups like Uks proves that progress can still be made in the face of adversity. In a country of countless victims, Uks is one of many organizations working to empower the voiceless. For that, I commend them, and applaud the numerous efforts undertaken by others in Pakistan. Happy International Women’s Day everyone.

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