Thursday, July 31, 2014

Crime in the name of religion

Crimes in the name of religion are committed all over the world; Pakistan is no exception. Our rulers tell us that religious minorities are treated equally but the opposite is in fact true. In the ‘Land of the Pure’, threats, attacks, targeted killings of people from minority sects/other religions and different forms of religious hate crimes have risen considerably over the years.

A woman, her two minor granddaughters and an unborn child died earlier this week in Gujranwala, Punjab. Several others were injured. They did not die an accidental death. Their houses were set on fire on purpose by an angry mob. Footage from the scene showed people cheering while the houses were burning. These houses belonged to the minority Ahmadiyya community, a sect that has been persecuted over the decades in Pakistan after they were officially declared ‘non-Muslims’. In 2010, two Ahmadi mosques were attacked in Lahore. Around 100 Ahmadis lost their lives in those violent attacks. Shaheed Salmaan Taseer, the then Governor of Punjab, was one of the few high profile leaders to have condoled with the Ahmadiyya community publicly.

The ‘justification’ given for the recent atrocious act was an allegedly blasphemous Facebook post by a member of their family. An Ahmadiyya community spokesman denied the allegation of blasphemy and said it was “completely false”. The real reason was simply the fact that these people were Ahmadis.

The propaganda against the Ahmadiyya community is so widespread in our country that an attack against the Ahmadis is hardly ever condemned and is instead celebrated. Such is the fear of the Right that no outrage is expressed by our rulers when attacks against the Ahmadis take place. When Mian Nawaz Sharif expressed sadness over those attacks back then and called the Ahmadis his ‘brethren’, he was attacked by the rightwing media and the religious Right for it.

With the exception of some honourable journalists, most of the media in Pakistan has played a negative role when it comes to the minorities, especially the Ahmadis. Before the Gujranwala incident, Maulana Tahir Ashrafi — a religious scholar considered to be a ‘moderate’ mullah by some — made baseless allegations against the Ahmadis on a talk show. Such comments have led to incitement to violence in the past as had happened after Amir Liaquat’s show a few years ago. When a channel can virtually be taken off the air and a media group hounded for criticising the military establishment, why is no action taken against hatemongers spewing venom on our television screens?

It has become quite a norm in Pakistan to accuse someone falsely of committing blasphemy. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), blasphemy cases have risen from one in 2011 to at least 68 last year, and around 100 this year alone. Whenever one thinks that nothing can shock one any more, something terrible happens again and shakes our faith in humanity. The Gujranwala incident has done that and much more. The joy on the faces of the murderers of these innocent people will haunt our memories forever.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Whither humanity?

After nine days of death and destruction in Gaza, a ceasefire deal has finally been reached to end the fighting between Israel and Palestine. On the pretext of attacking Hamas, Israel has slaughtered hundreds of innocent Palestinians, including women and children, in the process. The pictures of those who have lost their loves ones are gut-wrenching while images of those who have died in these attacks leave one speechless.

There are those who try to justify Israeli violence by blaming Hamas and/or past Palestinian leadership. What they conveniently forget is that Israel has one of the best militaries in the world with an abundant supply of modern weapons while the Palestinians are no match for its military might.

They also tend to ignore Israel’s expansionist agenda, which seems to be getting worse every passing year. The suffering of the Palestinians in the last six decades is well-documented. The recent spate of violence has left more than 220 Palestinians dead, with more than 80 per cent of them civilians according to the UN.

Unfortunately, the international community as well as the Arab world has plunged into yet another exhibition of criminal apathy as innocents continue to die in Palestine due to Israeli aggression. In any other situation, this would be called an act of war and an illegal invasion, but Israel’s offensives are always ignored because of its strong US-backing.

It is not surprising that the US has adopted such a nonchalant attitude towards Israeli aggression. The US policy vis-à-vis Israel has always been the same, i.e. let Israel do whatever it wants regardless of the havoc it wreaks. And worse, provide justifications for its actions later.

UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl said something deeply touching after visiting Gaza during the recent crisis: “First, never will even the most impressive television footage properly capture the depth of fear and despair felt in the homes and hearts of Gazans who are yet again facing death, devastation and displacement… Too often in their lives have Gazan civilians been denied their dignity. Anonymity in death or injury is the ultimate denial. It is also too comfortable for the world and the parties engaged in the hostilities. Palestinians are not statistics and we must never allow them to be treated as such. They are human beings like others in the world, with their identity and the same hopes and expectations for an improved future for their children.”

Israeli unilateralism and the west’s silence will only lead to more hate and bloodshed while nothing would be left of either the ‘Two State Solution’ or of the ‘Land for Peace’ policy. It has all but been washed away in a flood of violence.

Israel remains a threat to the peace process and would always loom as a treacherous shadow over Palestine. Unless and until the international community flexes its muscles and makes Israel realise it cannot get away with its blatant aggression, nothing in the Middle East will ever change. In fact, things would keep getting worse.

The solution suggested by the Economic and Political Weekly in its editorial a few years ago should be heeded: “Remove the lie of an independent Palestine, which has never been allowed to exist and will perhaps never be and demand the secularisation and democratisation of the state of Israel.”

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

The walking dead

Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently released a heart-rending report titled ‘We are the Walking Dead’ on the plight of the Shia Hazara community in Balochistan. The 62-page report is an indictment of the state’s failure to protect Shias from being massacred by the Laskhar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a banned militant group.

The accounts of Shia Hazaras interviewed by HRW will send shivers down anyone’s spine but the apathy shown by Pakistani authorities towards their plight is downright nauseating, to say the least.

According to the HRW report, “While the LeJ has continued to attack and kill with impunity, Pakistani authorities have responded by suggesting that the Hazara accept ever-increasing curbs on movement and religious observance, and ongoing economic, cultural and social discrimination as the price of security. The persistent failure of the authorities to apprehend attackers or prosecute militant group leaders claiming responsibility for the attacks suggests that the authorities are incompetent, indifferent, or possibly complicit in the attacks.” The Shia Hazaras are considered to be the one of the most peaceful communities in this country and yet they are being targeted mercilessly for their faith.

HRW’s Brad Adams says, “There is no travel route, no shopping trip, no school run, no work commute that is safe for the Hazara. The government’s failure to put an end to these attacks is as shocking as it is unacceptable.” Frankly speaking, hardly anything shocks us anymore. Apart from a handful of progressive and sane elements that raise their voice for the minorities, nobody even bats an eyelid when Shias or other religious minorities are target-killed.

It is the government’s responsibility to nab the murderers of Shia Hazaras but the way the authorities have turned a blind eye to the massacre, one is left with no hope of justice ever being served. Balochistan is a province heavily guarded by the military due to the Baloch insurgency so it is hard to imagine that the LeJ can operate there with immunity without state collusion.
The Shia Hazaras are indeed the walking dead; their murderers waiting to kill at will. Ahmadis, Shias, Christians, Hindus and other religious minorities in Pakistan live in extreme fear. Many of them have had to leave the country because of the state’s unwillingness to protect them.

The state patronage provided to extremist militant groups who target the minorities adds to their woes. Saudi influence is another huge factor when it comes to religious extremism in Pakistan. The Saudis keep pumping money into madrassas to fan sectarianism.

The state of Pakistan descended into chaos many decades ago but more alarming is that its society’s moral fabric is now fast eroding. Shaista Lodhi, a morning show host on Geo TV, had to flee the country after receiving death threats because ARY News host Mubasher Lucman accused that blasphemous content was aired in her show.

What can one expect from a country where a young girl like Malala Yousafzai is accused of being a foreign agent and where conspiracy theories abound regarding her shooting? In a country where a journalist who got shot six times is treated as a criminal rather than a victim, one can hardly expect any sympathy for the religious minorities.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Friday, June 20, 2014

Games of violence in Lahore

Eight innocent lives were lost on Tuesday in Lahore as a result of a police attack on the residence of Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) leader Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri. Apparently, the police was sent there to remove barricades but what ensued was a bloody battle. The scenes on our television screens looked right out of some autocratic state where state brutality is a norm. One could hardly believe they were being beamed live from the middle of Lahore, the capital of Punjab.

According to the the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), “This is not the first incident in which the lack of police training and their capacity for crowd control without violence has been badly exposed. It is not likely to be the last. In fact, Tuesday’s incident makes it abundantly clear that there are no bounds to police brutality in action against political rivals of the parties in power.”

Police brutality is not a new phenomenon in Pakistan but firing live bullets on protesters, no matter how unruly they are, is not how democratic governments go about it. The order to remove those barriers reportedly came directly from the Punjab government, but in trying to show Dr Qadri and his supporters who the real ‘boss’ is, the Punjab police went overboard and ended up spilling innocent blood.

Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif was at a loss for words at his press conference. The responsibility now lies with him and his government to actually punish the culprits. The Punjab government and CM Shahbaz Sharif are known for coming down hard on their political rivals but one cannot comprehend how they could have given orders to shoot protesters. Thus, it is very important to find out who ordered that the shots be fired.

There are many who think that moves were afoot to destabilise the Nawaz Sharif regime way before this incident took place. When the likes of the Chaudhry brothers, Sheikh Rasheed and others joined the Qadri bandwagon, it seemed like a conspiracy hatched to either oust the Sharif government or weaken it. Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri is known to be an establishment stooge, who has quite a following in this country despite being a Canadian citizen. There was already tension between the military establishment and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif but the North Waziristan operation and an alleged deal on the Musharraf trial resolved the issue to a certain extent. Just when it seemed that the military and Sharif were on the same page again on these issues, the Lahore incident took place.

While there is no justification whatsoever for the deaths of innocent people, the timing is suspect. The military has certainly gained popularity because of the North Waziristan operation. The entire nation seems to be behind the armed forces in their fight against the Pakistani Taliban. Some analysts believe that the Lahore incident will either be used to cut Mian Nawaz Sharif to size by turning him into a lame-duck prime minister or it will pave the way for a technocratic setup. Unless the Sharif government deals with this issue properly and refrains from violence when Dr Qadri arrives in Pakistan, it will lose the game.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Friday, June 06, 2014

A self-imploding media

The recent media wars in Pakistan have once again exposed the myth of ‘freedom of media’ in the country.

It all began with the attempt on the life of the country’s most famous anchorperson, Hamid Mir. The allegations made by Mir’s family against the ISI chief and the decision by Geo to repeatedly air them for the next few hours led to an unprecedented backlash against the country’s largest media group. One can have a debate on the merits and demerits of Geo’s coverage but since the Jang Group has already apologised for its “excessive, distressful and emotional” coverage, it would be an exercise in futility. The real, and more pertinent, debate should be about the way other media houses have dealt with the issue because the aftermath of Mir’s attack has left the Pakistani media in tatters.

According to Amnesty International, “Up to 80 percent of Jang Media Group’s distribution in print and on the airwaves has been disrupted by media industry bodies, apparently under the orders of the Pakistani military.” It is unfortunate that many people have commended this move instead of condemning it. What is more distressing, nay disgusting, is how other media houses have joined the ‘Ban Geo’ bandwagon instead of realising the potential damage such a move could have on the media itself. In their bid to please the military establishment, several media houses, journalists and analysts have outdone themselves.

The way some news channels and newspapers have ripped Jang/Geo apart is a classic example of hara-kiri. The Jang Media Group is no saint when it comes to following media ethics but no amount of corporate greed can justify the disgraceful behavior by its rival media groups during the recent crisis.

Amnesty International further added that several journalists from the Jang Group have “received daily threats and harassment by unknown individuals by phone and in person. Many dare not enter their offices or identify themselves as belonging to Geo TV or other Jang Media Group outlets for fear of being attacked.” Jang’s resident editor in Multan was brutally attacked last week. At a time like this, the journalist community should have shown some spine and stood up in solidarity with their comrades. Instead, some of them have justified the attacks on their fellow journalists while others remained silent at the plight of those working for the Jang Group. Even more shocking is how some well-respected senior journalists have turned this incident into an issue of Jang/Geo’s monopoly in the Pakistani media. Do they not realise that if the largest media house loses this ‘war’, the media will be the biggest loser in all this because no one would dare cross any ‘red lines’ again.

A practical civil war has started within the media — something even those who started this campaign against Jang/Geo could not have envisaged themselves. Some say it was bound to happen; the media thought it was too powerful and could not be taken to task for anything. Well, the military establishment and its cronies have shown us how the media can be cut to size. Delusions of grandeur and race for ratings have finally set the Pakistani media on the path to self-implosion. Let’s hope better sense prevails before it is too late.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Monday, June 02, 2014

Chance to reboot ties

Nawaz Sharif's first meeting with Narendra Modi sparked censure in Pakistan but dialogue shouldn't remain hostage to old rhetoric

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif did not ruin Narendra Modi's swearing-in ceremony by unpleasant or embarrassing statements about UN resolutions or jugular veins. But India's Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh was not so polite. She focused squarely on the Mumbai terror attack and demanded a swift trial of the seven Pakistanis accused of orchestrating it. Sharif was risking brutal censure back home for not mentioning the 'K' word even as Singh was playing to the gallery. Should Nawaz have accepted the invitation in the first place if the outcome was going to be so one-sided?

The perennial naysayers are already shaking their heads in disgust: Nawaz foolishly went the extra mile and Modi brutally stopped him in his tracks. Nawaz expressed a desire to move forward unconditionally and stressed the importance of trade and people-to-people contacts but Modi trotted out the usual mantra of terrorism-related conditionalities. A leap from Nawaz and not even a forward step from Modi.

But is this the real picture? What happened behind the scenes? How is the public posture of each different from their perception of the ground realities articulated in their hour-long talk? Surely, the official press release of South Block is not the full picture.

Nawaz was clear from day one that he would accept the invitation to attend the swearing-in of India's newly elected Prime Minister. He deliberately left the announcement to be made a little late in order to avoid controversy. According to veteran journalist Najam Sethi, Nawaz did not seek the military's permission; he only informed them. He got a brief from the Foreign Office but not from the ISI. National Security Adviser Sartaj Aziz and the Foreign Office advised him to attend the swearing-in and banquet and return the same day without a bilateral meeting. Nawaz knew the brief included input from the military. The brass was okay as long as he did not commit himself unequivocally to anything concrete in the bilateral meeting. They want him to do it in a structured way later. When he saw the brief, he knew exactly what it was.

Army chief General Raheel Sharif met Chief Minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, on Sunday to discuss these issues. The general told the prime minister's brother that since Mian Sahib did not take brief from us, we are briefing you instead. The chief minister was told that on the India front, the military wants the PM to go slow. Despite a clear message from the establishment, Nawaz Sharif decided to do things on his own terms. "He has put his neck on the line by stressing unconditional talks and if the Indians keep on harping about pre-conditions, then the potential magic of this moment will be lost," says Sethi.

Journalist Ejaz Haider thinks Modi has played a smart hand, luring Nawaz in and extending hospitality before moving in and delivering a jab. "Sharif fell for it and was felled by it because he genuinely sought this opportunity to make some headway. But this was a miscalculation. Notice the contrast: While Modi presented his demands and nearly threw the dialogue process back to the pre-Thimphu period, Sharif avoided a meeting with the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, thinking that would vitiate the atmosphere," says Haider. None of this would have happened, Haider believes, if Nawaz had sent the speaker of the National Assembly instead of going himself to make some kind of history.

Others feel that by not talking about Kashmir in his press conference and not meeting Kashmiri separatists, Nawaz has sent a strong signal to the military establishment and Pakistan-based Kashmiri jihadi groups. Meeting Kashmiri separatists right after a Modi win would have been a political faux pas. "Mian Sahib perhaps realises that Pakistan is operating on a thin goodwill margin with India and the rest of the world thanks to the shenanigans of his country's security establishment and, therefore, didn't want to squander an opportunity to at least seek a breakthrough," says Daily Times columnist Mohammad Taqi. All things considered, the meeting is a baby step and not a giant diplomatic leap forward.

According to insiders, Nawaz told his Indian counterpart in their bilateral meeting that there was no point in putting pre-conditions to a dialogue or raking up the past or indulging in a blame game, and that both should look to the future and how to smoothen out the bumps on the highway. He told Modi that he did not give Non-Discriminatory Market Access (NDMA) - new name for MFN status - to the Congress so that it would not be exploited by it in the elections against BJP. Nawaz also talked of demilitarising Siachen, opening up the visa regime and playing cricket. Most important, he asked for a vigorous back-channel on Kashmir.

Mian sahib's diplomatic instinct seems right. Bringing up old baggage at an ice-breaking event could have entailed turbulence on Nawaz's maiden peace flight. The prime minister will, indeed, come under pressure from religious and political groups that shriek in chorus with the Pakistan Army because keeping the conflict with India alive is their, not Pakistan's, raison d'etre. "Mian sahib would be well advised to look over his shoulder as another Kargil, Mumbai or even October 11, 1999 is not beyond those who are ratcheting up jingoism in Pakistan by the minute. He has his work cut out for him at home, not in Delhi," says Taqi.

Secretary General of the South Asian Free Media Association Imtiaz Alam hailed Nawaz's decision to visit India. "It was a goodwill visit. Sharif is trying to pick up the thread from 1999 by referring again and again to the Lahore Declaration and his understanding with Vajpayee," says Alam. In February 1999, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Pakistan aboard the maiden bus service between the two countries. The visit was seen as an important breakthrough following nuclear tests by both India and Pakistan in 1998. Sharif and Vajpayee signed the Lahore Declaration, a bilateral agreement, which was ratified by Indian and Pakistani parliaments. The military establishment was not happy with the pro-peace moves of the Nawaz government and tried to sabotage it through the Kargil war. Tensions between Nawaz and then army chief General Pervez Musharraf escalated following the misadventure; not only did it jeopardise the peace process, it also paved the way for the ouster of the Nawaz government through a military coup in October 1999.

By visiting Vajpayee during his recent Delhi visit, Nawaz has once again reiterated his commitment to peace with India. He feels that the BJP and Modi will subscribe to the Vajpayee legacy. Imtiaz Alam thinks it was a good time to start the composite dialogue but it appears Delhi will still wait for Pakistan to address its concerns on terrorism. By inviting all SAARC leaders to his swearing-in ceremony, Modi has shown keenness about the region; the same vision is shared by Nawaz. "The situation demands that talks should not be held hostage to the core issues of either side. It remains to be seen whether Modi will outgrow his hawkish image or get bogged down in a proxy war in Afghanistan," says Alam. Many in Pakistan are apprehensive that Modi may be more aggressive in Afghanistan.

Political commentator Umair Javed feels there is a shared understanding of domestic compulsions that each leader faces. By accepting the invitation along with other SAARC leaders, Nawaz recognised the Indians' somewhat superior role as a regional authority and the need to mend fences even if it is for purely selfish reasons, that is economic growth and civilian supremacy. Javed thinks it is encouraging that Nawaz and his party heads have charted an independent course by ignoring the antagonism of both the military and the hard right-wing forces such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba. "The idea of trade would be central to their understanding of growth and Indian states with an advantage in manufacturing, such as Gujarat, would gain considerably, as would Punjab in Pakistan as a market full of consumers," says Javed. He says both Nawaz and Modi have similar core support bases-the aspirational middle class and the businesses -and hence recognise the need to enhance economic growth of a particular nature. On trade, there is already an agreement and action plan, which the Pakistanis were about to announce, but kept pending, to signal a good start with Modi. Both Nawaz and Modi are powerful prime ministers but it remains to be seen whether they can deliver on their promises.

(Originally published in India Today)

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Shining

Narendra Modi won the Indian elections with a landslide victory. It was certainly quite a disappointment for many around the world to see a man accused of being complicit in a communal pogrom all set to become prime minister of the world’s largest democracy. Some Pakistanis tweeted critically about Modi’s win but were told to mind their own business and look at the mess Pakistan is in.

When Sherry Rehman and some other Pakistanis raised a question about the number of Muslim MPs in the newly elected Lok Sabha, they received flak for it. A lot of Indian Muslims felt offended that Pakistanis were showing ‘concern’ about them while many others ‘reminded’ Pakistanis of the treatment meted out to the minorities in our country. Those tweets were not condescending but were in fact coming from people who keep an eye on international politics and comment on it.

If you look at the tweets from the Indian Twitterati, many of them consider it their birthright to comment on anything and everything related to Pakistan. Many of those tweets are in fact condescending, mocking, patronising and sometimes downright offensive and/or abusive. Liberal and progressive Pakistanis have never stopped Indians from commenting on Pakistan even if it is on internal matters that should not be India’s concern at all. So when Pakistanis commented on Modi’s win — something being discussed all over the world — and were critical, many Indians just could not take what they dish out on a regular basis.

Yes, Pakistan is in a mess but many of us keep raising our voice against the military establishment’s flawed policies, against terrorist outfits like the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), etc. We speak out against our own state’s backing of jihadi terrorist outfits. We speak up for the rights of the Baloch, Shias, Ahmadis, Hindus, Christians, etc. We do not condone the way our minorities are being treated and call out our state for its failure to protect its own citizens. We stick out our necks when we highlight atrocities committed by state and non-state actors. We can be killed for doing so but at least we do not sweep such issues under the rug.

Shaheed Salmaan Taseer did not back down on the issue of Aasia Bibi and the blasphemy laws till his last breath even though he knew it could get him killed, which it eventually did. Sherry Rehman has never shied away from raising the issue of misuse of the blasphemy laws and the plight of minorities even though her life is under threat. My friend Raza Rumi was almost killed by the LeJ because he spoke up for the Shias and against terrorism. Secretary General SAFMA Imtiaz Alam was attacked by ISI goons because he spoke the truth about 26/11 on national TV. Many of us are called traitors and Indian agents because we are pro-peace and question our state’s policies.

As a Pakistani who has admired Indian secularism and its strong democratic traditions, Modi’s win is an abomination and everyone has the right to comment on it.

It is a well-established fact that Modi’s politics is of communal exclusion and discrimination. There can be no denying that the Indian polity’s swing to Modi is a cataclysmic indictment of ‘Secular India’. For every progressive Indian, it should have been a day of reckoning when Modi was elected but it was disturbing to see that most of them were not even willing to admit that something did go wrong. The harsh reality is that both India and Pakistan can be equally exploitative, oppressive and bigoted societies. A progressive society is not just built on high economic growth but on values of secularism, rights of minorities, inclusiveness and a truly pluralistic social fabric.

This column is not meant to be a rant to vilify India but a call to ask for introspection and an honest conversation with the progressive people of India.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Friday, May 09, 2014

Patriotism under threat

The top journalists and rights activists of Pakistan are accused of treason in a petition before the Supreme Court of Pakistan for allegedly undermining the message of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Allama Iqbal, the Two-Nation Theory, the ideology of Pakistan and Islam ‘at the behest of India’.

The petition was filed by notorious conspiracy theorist Zaid Hamid. Those accused are Hamid Mir, Najam Sethi, Imtiaz Alam, Asma Jahangir, Nusrat Javeed, Sirmed Manzoor, Marvi Sirmed, Beena Sarwar and Hassan Nisar, among others. While no one needs a certificate of patriotism, it is important to know why these people are considered ‘dangerous’ by zealots, bigots and self-proclaimed ‘patriots’.

Hamid Mir recently survived an assassination attempt. He had received threats from the ISI. Najam Sethi has been under threat from both state and non-state actors for his brave and rational political analysis. Asma Jahangir has been at the forefront of human rights advocacy and has consequently received threats from various quarters over the decades. Beena Sarwar has come under fire for her association with ‘Aman ki Asha’, a peace-with-India initiative by the Jang Group. Imtiaz Alam has been attacked in the past for raising his voice against 26/11 Mumbai attacks. Alam, Nusrat Javeed and Sirmed Manzoor are office-bearers of South Asia Free Media Association and are hence labelled ‘traitors’ because of SAFMA’s advocacy for regional peace. Marvi Sirmed, a human rights activist and peacenik, is vocal against both state and non-state actors.

Such a preposterous petition should have been mocked out of court. Instead, the Supreme Court has decided to hear the ridiculous charges made by a man of dubious credentials by actually admitting the petition. Zaid Hamid was accused by his former assistant, Emaad Khalid, of instigating mutiny in the lower ranks of the military despite being on the payroll of the ISI. Khalid provided detailed evidence to this effect, yet no action was taken against Hamid.

It seems that being a peacenik in Pakistan is highly treasonous. SAFMA as an organisation and other individuals propagating peace with India are being accused of ‘treason’ by the likes of Zaid Hamid precisely because of this reason. Labelling someone as an ‘Indian agent’ is nothing new but in a country where journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers and other progressive people can be killed in the name of religion and/or national security, is highly dangerous.

On Wednesday — the same day this petition was admitted — human rights defender and lawyer Rashid Rehman was gunned down in Multan. He was defending a blasphemy accused. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), Rehman was “openly threatened by prosecution lawyers in the Multan District Prison in the presence of a judge ... The judge, it was reported, did not take any notice of threats issued to Rashid in his presence”.

By admitting Mr Hamid’s petition, has the honourable Supreme Court seemingly legitimised incitement to violence? Or is the court seeking an opportunity to scold and mock the petitioner before throwing the petition out? The journalists in the line of fire are not amused. But they are certainly itching to use the SC platform to enlarge the debate on what constitutes national interest, what is the ideology of Pakistan and who is a traitor and who a patriot. About time these issues were openly debated.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Write at your own peril

Pakistani journalists are no strangers to danger. In the old days, they faced threats from the government, military establishment, political parties, goons, mafia and odd militant groups but now things have changed for the worse. From their phones being tapped by state agencies to their movements being monitored both by state and non-state actors, not only are their lives devoid of any privacy but also those who have received threats from either state or non-state actors, have to constantly look over their shoulder. When journalists become news themselves, it shows how precarious the situation really is.

We have known for a long time now that non-state actors have become as powerful as state actors. The Express Media Group was targeted by the Taliban twice in the span of a few months. The state was not willing to guarantee its security so the group's liberal English daily, Express Tribune, had to change its policy. It stopped criticising the Taliban.

March 28 further proved the power and outreach of militant groups. Journalist Raza Rumi was attacked in the city of Lahore. For many of us, it was an attack that was too close to home. Raza's survival was a miracle. His 25-year-old driver lost his life while his guard was injured. Punjab Police recently arrested six suspects belonging to the banned terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) who confessed to their involvement in Raza's assassination attempt. Raza is not sure if they will be prosecuted and sentenced.

On the heels of Raza's attack, Secretary General, South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA) and TV anchor Imtiaz Alam received a death threat. The briefing he got from intelligence and police sources was that he was among the top few whose life is under threat from extremists. Alam has been incarcerated under both military and civilian regimes in the past. His role in SAFMA, and his pursuit of peace between Pakistan and India and regional cooperation, has not been seen in good light by the establishment, nor is he liked by Pakistani militant groups. "I've been attacked several times in the past but I did not let these threats come in the way of my profession. Being vocal and straightforward has become troublesome these days," says Alam.

On April 19, Hamid Mir was shot six times in the heart of Karachi. He survived, and is recovering in a hospital. Hamid Mir works for Jang Group, the largest media group in the country, and hosts a top-rated talk show 'Capital Talk' on Geo, Pakistan's largest private TV channel. According to his family, friends and colleagues, he was under threat from the ISI. His brother, Amir Mir, made this public on Geo the day his brother was attacked. Following these allegations against the ISI, Geo and Jang Group have come under fire from the military and rival media houses. In any other country, the security of journalists would never have been a divisive issue, but in Pakistan, rival media groups - including Express - started a vicious campaign against him.

Some people believe that the recent attacks on journalists will pave the way for more censorship. Renowned journalist Najam Sethi thinks it is not necessarily true. He feels the media in every country has always exercised a degree of self-censorship in matters relating to their respective intelligence agencies but in Pakistan, a small section of the English media has often crossed such 'red lines'.

Alam recently resigned from Express News after he was asked to do a pre-recorded show instead of a live one, with guests who are known to be at the forefront of a campaign against Hamid Mir and Geo. "Either I stood with Hamid Mir, a victim of press freedom, raised the banner of freedom of expression and followed my conscience, or became subject of infighting between two media houses. I chose to resign in favour of the security of journalists and freedom of expression," says Alam. He believes that every media house and journalist should unite in the face of such adversity, because sooner or later, they too will come under attack from those who want the media to follow diktats of hardliners.

The choice for Pakistani journalists is limited: Silence, leave the media industry in the country, toe the line of the powers-that-be or do your work honestly, but at a very heavy price-the risk of losing your life. The truth is that unless the state itself does not come out in full support of the media, journalists can only do so much.

(Originally published in India Today)