“Why are current and former Washington officials still so credulous about Pakistan?”

Pakistan has always ranked high among countries that suppress media freedom and where the deep state is known to intimidate journalists and media houses. Yet, every time a new individual takes over as Pakistan’s Prime Minister or Army chief there are people in the West who believe that this person will change things and Pakistan will become a more open society.

A November 2019 investigative piece by The Guardian titled ‘‘Extreme fear and self-censorship’: media freedom under threat in Pakistan,’ has on the one hand shown the world what most Pakistanis already know but it has also led to many folks in Washington DC expressing incredulity that under Imran Khan press freedoms have further shrunk.

When Mr Khan came to Washington DC in July 2019, he denied that his government was repressing the media and even claimed that the media was fairer in Pakistan than in the US or the UK! Many in DC refused to challenge him when he said that. Today the same folks who praised his coming to power in 2018 are surprised that things are worse. 

As The Guardian story notes “While Pakistan has a turbulent relationship with media freedom, under Imran Khan, elected as prime minister last year with strong backing from the military, censorship is felt heavier than ever before. Journalists, activists, authors and politicians spoke to the Guardian of a climate of “extreme fear and self-censorship”, and the suppression of opposition political voices, even worse than during the military dictatorship of General Zia, who oppressively ruled Pakistan between 1977 and 1988. Hussain’s account of direct involvement by the military and political authorities in censoring stories critical to the government was repeated by half a dozen journalists. The pressure was reportedly exerted both through direct edicts to editors and producers, to less direct but more costly interventions such as pulling TV stations from transmission, targeting advertising revenue of dissenting media or pulling newspapers from circulation. In many cases, the trend towards heavy censorship pre-dates Khan’s premiership, but he has been criticised for allowing it to continue, if not ramping it up. Dawn, Pakistan’s largest English language newspaper, suffered huge financial losses in June last year when the military restricted its distribution after they published leaks of secret military meetings. The censoring of critical voices is not only restricted to media. Last week, an exhibition at the Karachi Biennale by the artist Adeela Suleman, called The Killing Fields of Karachi, which addressed the extrajudicial deaths of 444 people at the hands of the police chief Rao Anwar, was raided by the authorities and ordered to be shut down. Senior management figures spoke anonymously of a draconian approach of collective punishment which was being inflicted on media organisations. If one reporter or news channel reported a story that threw the government into disrepute, the business interests of the media owners would be targeted or advertising funding withheld. The military’s hostility towards the media was demonstrated in June last year, when Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor, the director general of the ISPR, singled out dozens of journalists for their “anti-Pakistan” activity on social media. He repeated the sentiment on his own Twitter account in July this year, calling out “irresponsible” journalists, which led to the hashtag #ArrestAntiPakjournalists to trend on Twitter in Pakistan, used more than 28,000 times.”

Naya Pakistan erodes Pakistan’s wealth

According to the latest Global Wealth Report issued by Credit Suisse, Pakistan is one of the biggest losers as the country’s wealth declined by $141 billion in 2018-19. The United States is at the top, followed by China, Japan, India and Brazil. Pakistan, along with Turkey, is one of the main losers.

According to the report Pakistan suffered one of the biggest currency depreciations against dollar of -24 percent. “The market capitalization in Pakistan dropped by 42pc, compounding the impact of exchange rate losses.”

The Pakistan army may try to shore up business morale, the Prime Minister’s advisers may talk about a resurgent economy and a better 2020 but as of now Pakistan is in a worse situation on the economic front than it was before Prime Minister Imran Khan took over

Imran Khan loses his nerve as Maulana comes to Islamabad

The ‘Azadi March’ of JUI-F leader Maulana Fazlur Rahman appears to be in full steam. Various convoys from Baluchistan, Sindh, KPK and Punjab are on their way to congregate in Islamabad. The government attempts to prevent this rally from taking place is ironic considering that Imran Khan and his supporters held Islamabad hostage for 126 days during August and December 2014 for his own ‘Azadi March’ (Tsunami March).

Strong government pressure and censorship has ensured that the mainstream media has not covered the march but the JUI-F and its affiliates as well as opposition parties have been using social media to broadcast videos and photographs of the progress of the march.  

Over 100,000 JUI-F workers and madrassa students are expected to participate in the march, in addition to any opposition workers and volunteers.

According to news stories, “JUI-F Baluchistan’s central convoy from Quetta left for Islamabad to participate in the Azadi march as party workers traveled on buses, vans and private vehicles, while the provincial leaders, including Balochistan’s Amir Maulana Abdul Wassay left in a caravan equipped with modern facilities.”

Similarly, “The Azadi March caravans have entered Punjab. A JUI-F member told SAMAA TV that the agenda was to stay at Multan, but the plan has now changed. It has still not been decided where we will stay, he said, adding that there will be no more speeches for the day. The marchers reached Daharki after Sukkur Monday evening. The were preparing to gather at the Fatima Jinnah Town Housing Scheme.”

At a speech addressing the marchers, Rahman said, “The war has been announced and now [the party] cannot retreat. We are moving forward with full confidence. We have to protect the Constitution, democracy and Pakistan because the incumbent government has put the survival of the country at risk. The Constitution has been made a joke in this country. He [Prime Minister Imran] has ruined the economy, and a country with a devastated economy can’t survive. We approached the masses against him and took out 15 million marches and now we are able to help the people get rid of the government.”

While many Pakistanis disagree with Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s anti liberal, misogynist and retrograde social views it is important to recognize that the issue on which he is doing this — the people’s stolen mandate— has got him wider support than just his politico-religious base.

How weak or paranoid can a state be, if it is threatened by art?

The Pakistani state has always felt threatened by intellectuals and artists demonstrated in latest incident on Sunday October 27 in Karachi when an art exhibit taking place in a public park was shut down forcefully by plains clothes men belonging to the V Corps of Pakistan’s army.

The installation, “The Killing Fields of Karachi,” by artist Adeela Suleman illustrates the story of Naqeebullah Mehsud, a 27-year-old aspiring model from Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, who was killed in a police encounter in January 2018. The exhibit features symbolic gravestones representing the 444 people allegedly targeted in extrajudicial killings under the supervision of senior police official Rao Anwar.

When the artist and human rights activists like Jibran Nasir, held a press conference to condemn the closure, Afaq Mirza Director General of parks, Karachi, barged in, asserted that “the installation was not what the city administration signed up for” and removed all the microphones from various media outlets.

When pressed by journalists on who ordered the closure of the exhibition Afaq Mirza, asserted that it was not the city administration but rather the Fifth (V) corps. Ironically, the fifth corps of Pakistan’s military is responsible for defending Karachi and most of Sindh province in case of war, but it appears that even art exhibits are now considered the same as fighting a war.

HRCP: State must respect teachers’ right to livelihood

A state that fails to respect teachers’ right to a decent livelihood will end up failing its people. This is the key finding of the fact-finding mission of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) condemned the use of force by the police to disperse a peaceful protest by teachers at D Chowk, Islamabad, on 23 October.

According to the HRCP’s fact-finding team “a large police contingent raided the protest camp and arrested over 200 protestors, including women and, allegedly, their accompanying children. The protestors, most of whom teach at remote schools under the Basic Education Community System, say that they cannot subsist on the salary they receive – a paltry Rs8,000 a month. Many have received no increments in the last two years; still others are waiting to be paid ten months’ back-salary. Their services have not been regularised, which means they constantly face job insecurity. After staging a sit-in in 2018, they were assured by the interior minister, federal ministry of education and joint secretary for education that their employment would be regularised within a year. This has not happened. Yet some 700,000 students are taught under this scheme, which spans 137 districts and employs almost 12,000 teachers.”

HRCP noted, “The state’s response has been shockingly disproportionate. Protestors have accused the police of locking women inside containers on the pretext of safety while using water cannons and batons to disperse other protestors outside. While those arrested have been granted bail, many protestors say that their belongings were seized by the police and that they do not have the funds to secure bail. The police have said that the protestors attempted to enter the Red Zone, necessitating force. HRCP urges the government to respect people’s right to peaceful assembly and to meet their demand for a living wage and regular employment without further delay.”