Our addiction to fake news

Over the past year the world’s attention has been drawn to the issue of ‘fake news‘. This has been mostly as a result of the dramatic US election, but as with many issues, in this case it is not a new phenomenon so much as it is a case of once again Americans are late to the party. In Pakistan, fake news is nothing new. Actually, it’s our national addiction.

We have a long history of publishing fake news about military victories. The headlines from 1971 are now legendary17 December 1971 Dawn front pageand every year we celebrate victory in a war we didn’t really win. Over the past few years, our ‘victory‘ over terrorists was reported every few months, only to be followed by another terrorist attack. Fake news websites declaring our intelligence agencies ‘best in the world‘ appear and are reported every year, and who can forget Ahmed Quraishi actually writing a piece defending fake news!

But let’s be fair. While security agencies and their shadowy supporters are most often pointed to for spreading fake news, they are by no means the only guilty party. In recent days we have seen a case where the government news agency reported that BBC was investigating its reporter for planting a fake story against the PM, only to have the BBC immediately deny their report.

This is a particularly fascinating case. Did the government really think they could get away with faking a story about BBC and that BBC would not respond? Aren’t they humiliated? Not likely. Just like with every other case of fake news, the idea was most likely that the original report would be spread far and wide while the denial would be shared among those elites who already questioned the authenticity of APP’s report. Both stories only strengthen the existing views of those who read them.

Even the opposition uses fake news. You have probably seen media reports about PPP chairman Asif Ali Zardari being ‘invited‘ to attend Donald Trump’s swearing in ceremonies.

A senior PPP leader told The Nation, that Zardari had been invited to Trump’s inauguration and he would fly to the US to attend it.

“Bilawal has also been invited but he may not go due to party engagement. Zardari will not be in the US for long,” he said.

This has been followed with social media posts of photos of Zardari along with Sherry Rehman and Rehman Malik attending various functions in Washington DC.

The PPP leaders may be in Washington, but they went on their own, not by any invitation. According to a document from the US Department of State, “foreign delegations will not be invited to Washington for this occasion”.

Trump Swearing In Diplomatic NoteOnce again the question must be asked why a senior PPP leader told the media that Zardari had been ‘invited’ when he clearly had not? The obvious answer is just like the government’s decision to report a fake story about BBC. Even if opponents will read the correction and feel vindicated in their beliefs, supporters will read the fake story and feel pride and spread it to their friends.

So what is the harm in all this fake news if everyone is doing it? At a time when we have finally reached agreement that the need of the hour is national unity, our addiction to fake news is standing in the way of our success. If we cannot even agree on a set of facts, how can we ever agree on a solution?

They can kidnap a blogger, but they can never disappear the truth

bhensaFour missed calls from my sister. I knew why she kept calling, and I didn’t want to talk about it. When the phone rang the fifth time, I put my phone in my bag and went out for a smoke. I finally called her back when I was able to get alone.

“You need to call Baba.” I expected the usual harassment, but this time my sister was calm. She didn’t sound angry, she sounded tired. I asked her was he upset, but she said he was acting strange. He had seen the news report about Salman Haider and this was bad enough, but it was the rumours about others – some say four, some say nine, some are saying the numbers are still growing. And they’re being targeted for their social media accounts. “I know,” I said, “I’m pushing my luck.” My sister laughed. “You were pushing your luck a few years ago. Now? Now I just think you don’t even care about your safety.” I sat and listened to her silently, watching at an ant as it crawled across my shoe. “If you don’t care about yourself, that’s your problem. But think about how you’re affecting the people around you. It’s not fair.” I promised her I would talk to my father and hung up.

I called my father later that night. We talked for a while, but he didn’t say anything so I finally said, “Baba, I don’t want you to be worried. I’ll quit everything. I don’t really know why I do it anyway.” He was silent. He said, “You always told me you were very careful. Are you worried about something?” I told him, no, I’m very careful. Sometimes I think I’m paranoid, even. But I don’t want him to worry. He snapped at me. “Beta, if you make yourself disappear, then what was the point?” I was stunned. “Listen to me,” he sounded angry, “You are a man, no? Will you hide yourself? Will you wear burqa? No! Be a man! I don’t always agree with you. Sometimes I think you are foolish. But it is your right to be foolish! When I was your age we sat around for hours arguing with each other and no one cared because no one heard us. Now, it is the internet and people are hearing you.” I said, no, no one listens to me. This only made him angrier. “And they will listen when you stop talking? Don’t be stupid! Whatever is happening is only because all of you on the internet must be making some difference.”

There was a moment of silence, then my father sighed deeply. “Beta, listen to me. You are my son. I will worry about you for trying to make a difference. It is my right as your father. However, I will worry about you more if you give up.”

Honestly, I do not know what to think of this situation we are in. It’s easy to believe that agencies are involved. History does not give them a clean chit. But the sad truth is it could be anyone that is behind these disappearances. Extremist groups have also tried to silence secular activists. Can we ever forget the words of Sabeen Mahmud’s killer?

“There wasn’t one particular reason to target her: she was generally promoting liberal, secular values. There were those campaigns of hers, the demonstration outside Lal Masjid [in Islamabad], Pyaar ho jaane do (let there be love) on Valentine’s Day and so on.”

There are forces that are out to silence anyone who challenges their ideology. They are well armed with guns and bombs, but is truth and ideas that will defeat them. They lurk in the shadows, trying to make us silence ourselves. If not, they will reach out from the shadows and silence one of us to send a message. But theirs is an impossible mission. The truth is not a fragile flower than bruises and wilts so easily. It is a hearty plant, deeply rooted and native to this soil. And it has grown into a forest that provides shelter to those who embrace it. They can kidnap a blogger. They can shut down a social media account. But they can never disappear the truth. In the end, we will win.

Tayyaba is ‘make or break’ case for justice system

TayyabaThe Tayyaba case is a disturbing mirror turned on the face of our society. In it we are forced to face the realities of child labour, child abuse, and abuse of power by state authorities. Privately, we know that this is not the first case of its type. But maybe it could move us away from this reality. Because it has received global attention through social media, there may be a possibility to turn the tide toward reforming one part of our broken justice system.

The most shocking part of the Tayyaba case is, sadly, not the child abuse which is known as a rampant problem in our society. It is the fact that the torture and abuse was allegedly done by Sessions Judge, Islamabad, Raja Khurram Ali Khan, who sought to escape justice himself by getting ‘forgiveness‘ from the father of the victim. This brought outrage among the public who saw a clear abuse of power and attempt to escape justice by the judge. Thankfully, the Supreme Court has declared that it is taking suo moto notice of the case, which gave some hope for justice. Then, almost predictably, a new twist was introduced when young Tayyaba disappeared.

Last month, we learned that no less than former Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry was openly defying the Court and refusing to return a taxpayer owned bulletproof car that had been loaned to him while he was serving his country. Now we are witnessing a case where a Sessions Judge is trying to escape justice by turning to legal loopholes and other tricks.

The Supreme Court should take a lesson from former COAS Gen Raheel who dismissed 6 officers over corruption. By holding his own men to account, he strengthened the integrity of his institution in the eyes of the people. If the Court is unable to hold its own people to account, faith in the justice system will continue to erode, which is a disaster we cannot afford.

APS Massacre: What we remember, and what we forget

Mother of APS MartyrA public holiday has been announced and all schools will be closed in Peshawar to observe second anniversary of APS attack. There are some who say that the better observation would be for all children to attend school, which would be a greater defiance of the terrorist threat, but the most important is that we take the time to think about how to prevent another massacre from taking place. The only way to do this is to directly take on extremism completely and without any exceptions.

Operation Zarb-e-Azb has made important progress in reducing the ability of anti-state militants to carry out attacks, but it has not come near the claimed success of ‘breaking the back’ of militants. They may be less common, but major terrorist attacks continue, including those targeting students such as the attack on Bacha Khan University and the deadly attack on Balochistan police college in Quetta earlier this year.

However it is not only these attacks that show the threat of terrorism continues. ASWJ backed candidate Maulana Masroor Nawaz Jhangvi, son of Sipah-e-Sahaba founder Haq Nawaz Jhangnvi, was elected to Punjab Assembly just a few weeks ago. Only a few days ago, a mob of thousands attacked an Ahmadi masjid in Lahore. Today, while we are memorialising those innocent students who were killed by extremist militants, there religious extremists are literally marching through the streets of Lahore.

Today we remember the lives of those innocent children martyred by extremist militants, but have we forgotten the promise of zero-tolerance for extremism and tackling militant groups without exception?

What does our obsession with change of Army Chief say about our democracy?

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2016 has been a historic year of global change. First there was Brexit, then the surprise election of Donald Trump. There are now expectations that the far-right Marine Le Pen could win national elections in France as well. However, for the next few weeks, all attention in Pakistan will be on the changing of leadership at GHQ.

Quiz: Without using Google or doing any other research, for how many countries can you name their Army Chief?

Maybe you knew Dalbir Singh? Anyone else? Now ask yourself how many of those countries are successful democracies?

Here is the point: For almost every major power in the world, close attention is paid to elections for who will be the next person to lead the country. In Pakistan, we treat elections like a TV drama. Serious attention and commentary is only given every three years when we await the appointment of a new Chief of Army Staff.

Discussions about extensions dominate newspaper headlines and TV talk shows, then predictions about leading candidates and who would make the best Army chief. This year we have even seen campaign-style posters and billboards lining the streets! Does this happen in any other democracy?

In the world’s successful democracies, Army chief is an important position, but it is a hired position to serve under the elected leadership. Outgoing Army chiefs do not go on victory tours, and not taking an extension is not considered as an example of extraordinary leadership, it is expected behaviour.

Issues of Foreign Policy and National Security have always belonged to the military. During the last few years, Law and Order has been handed over as Rangers have taken increasing role in policing and military courts have taken over from judiciary. With CPEC, military is taking an even greater role in managing the economy (nevermind that they are also taking an increasing role in the economy through their various business interests). Our obsession with changing Army Chiefs exposes the truth about our democracy: It is, for the most part, a facade that hides the fact that we live in a military state.