Attacking Journalists. Damaging Pakistan.

Cyril AlmeidaIf the state was looking for global attention, it finally found it – but not for the reasons it had hoped. In a shocking mis-step, government officials informed Dawn columnist Cyril Almeida that his name had been placed on the Exit Control List as if he were a wanted criminal.

His crime? Reporting that the civilians had finally shown some backbone and demanded the military do its job and go after militants without fear or favour. Officials denied the story, but as usual they couldn’t let it go. The report has now been officially denied not once…not twice…but THREE times, assuring anyone with half a brain that there was something very true about it. If there was still any doubt, the Pindibot Corps has been carrying out social media surgical strikes that confirmed the reports authenticity.

The irony in this case is that if Cyril’s report is really so damaging, once again it is the response of government officials and their hyper-patriot lackeys that has turned a minor footnote into a global embarrassment.

Unlike Aabpara’s PM’s diplomatic envoys who failed to get any attention during their trip to Washington, their attempts to threaten and intimidate a respected journalist got more attention than they wanted.

Where Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi and Senator Mushahid Hussain have failed to get any attention from the international media, the state’s assault on Cyril Almeida’s rights has earned more coverage than they could have imagined.

At a time when the state claims to be attempting to improve Pakistan’s image in the world, what could have possibly been a stupider move than to attack another well respected journalist. Government denied the story, but couldn’t let it go. If the past weeks have clearly shown anything, it’s that western conspiracies and foreign agents are completely unnecessary to damage Pakistan. The sheer incompetence of our own civil-military leadership is more than enough.

Now, about those billions…

Pakistan Rupees

As is so often the case in politics, the lead up to Senate elections has proved to be much more controversial than the actual elections. Accusations of rigging and horse trading abounded, and even PTI has gotten a taste of what it means to be in the hot seat. At the end of the day, however, the high-pitched wailing about ‘billions’ at play were best summed up in less than 140 characters by Cyril Almeida:

And so, as always, the world continues to turn and politicians prepare for the next battle. Now that we have put this chapter behind us, let us return to a question that remains unanswered…where did all those billions go?

No, not those billions…

Those:

Rs5.5 billion foul play in defence funds

The Auditor General of Pakistan has unearthed financial foul play of billions of rupees in spending of funds in Pakistan’s defence sector. The audit report on the accounts of defence services for the fiscal year 2011-12 finds that Pakistan’s defence organisations misused funds or violated prescribed rules during spending of funds exceeding 5490.961 million rupees.

And those:

Defence ministry fails to recover Rs1.5bn from its 81 officials

A defence ministry representative informed the meeting that the 81 military and civilian officials were investigated and found guilty of having embezzled Rs1.53 billion from the accounts of the Military Engineering Services (MES). This sum was siphoned off thanks to fake purchases, fictitious spending and fraudulent payments.

I look forward to reading Farrukh Saleem‘s detailed report…

The selfish state and the near-sighted voter

I was very interested in Cyril Almeida’s column for Dawn today. In it, Cyril does a great job of expressing what is, I think, a common frustration – especially among the urban intelligentsia. We got our democracy in 2008, and it’s been three years – why doesn’t Islamabad look like London yet? And if everyone is as disappointed as the people in my sitting room, what is going to happen in the next elections?

Cyril says that conventional wisdom’s focus on constituency is undermined by the unpredictability of two factors. The first, demographics.

Conventional wisdom has it that the people want democracy to continue, they don’t want the army back. But the last time that theory was tested, a mere 35 million people turned out to vote in 2008. What did the other 130 million want?

Remove kids aged 14 and below from the scope of political action, and you’re still left with 80-odd million people whose opinion we know little about. Are they just indifferent to democracy, at least Pakistan’s version of it, or are they a combustible mixture waiting for the right catalyst to be poured on?

This is compelling in the long-term, but not for the next elections because Cyril’s overstating the case. “The other 130 million” don’t necessarily have a say in elections. Children, for example, don’t get a vote. Cyril recognises this when he says, ‘remove kids aged 14 and below…’, but why stop there? Imran Khan may be the fashionable choice of a couple million urban teenagers, but the fact remains that no matter how many Imran Khan Facebook pages a 16-year-old likes, he still doesn’t get to vote.

Let’s compare voter turnout in Pakistan to voter turnout in two of the oldest and most prosperous democracies, the UK and US.

In the UK, voter turnout has been better, but has still never broken the 85 per cent mark, typically hovering closer to 75 per cent. But when you break it down by age, young people don’t vote. Only 44 per cent of Britains under 25 bothered to show up in 2010.

In America, voter turnout over the past half-century has hovered around 55 per cent. In the 2008 elections, voter turnout was over 60 per cent, but in 2010 it dropped to 41 per cent. Young Americans, though, are less likely than older Americans to vote. When the voting turnout reached 61 per cent in 2008, over 50 per cent of young people voted. But two years later, young voter turnout dropped by 60 per cent.

Whatever young people want, it doesn’t matter if they don’t show up to vote. And empirical evidence suggests that, for many reasons beyond being ‘just indifferent to democracy’, they’re probably not going to show up en masse to storm the polls in the next elections, either.

Then there’s the other possible ‘element of surprise’ that Cyril mentions.

Still, the notion that Pakistani politics is about constituency, constituency, constituency is undercut by the results of the last two elections. In ’08, the electorate singled out Musharraf’s men for punishment; in ’02, the American arrival in Afghanistan powered the MMA to wins in Balochistan and then-NWFP.

I would take issue with this reading of electoral history as well. In 2008, the electorate certainly was fed up with Musharraf’s decade of dictatorial misrule, but it’s disingenuous to suggest that the people were simply voting against Mushy and would have voted for anyone just to punish him. 2008 was not that long ago, and I still remember the mood quite well. We wanted not just to get rid of Musharraf’s regime, but to usher in a new era of democracy – which we did, messy though it may be.

Where I think Cyril is really off the mark, though, is how he describes the MMA success in 2002. Though it may be convenient to look at the American arrival in Afghanistan, it’s beyond reductive to leave out the less convenient fact that the MMA’s ‘vote for Quran or vote for America’ campaign still only managed to win 63 seats, and that while PPP and PML-N were being handicapped by LFO. And even this supposed ‘rise to power’ only really took place, as Cyril notes, in parts of Balochistan and NWFP. Without the help of the state and establishment, MMA’s gains were wiped out in 2008, despite the fact that anti-American sentiment was much higher than in 2002.

As for the possibility that “a right-wing ideologue could ride the wave of crazed religiosity that a Mumtaz Qadri-type act can unleash”, I think this is much more likely a scenario in the paranoid halls of Washington than the streets of Jhelum. Not because a disturbing number of people aren’t sympathetic to Salmaan Taseer Shaheed’s killer, but because that sympathy is rooted in complicated socio-cultural issues and not a popular desire to live under a Taliban-style theocratic regime.

The more interesting variable is, as always, the establishment. The ‘deep state’ has a long history of meddling in politics. Supposedly, the political wing of ISI has been disbanded, but even if that were true, it certainly doesn’t rule out the possibility of it being reinstated if certain elements felt it was in ‘national interest’ to do so. There’s been some suggestion that establishment support is responsible for Imran Khan’s uncanny rise from zero to the front page, but it remains to be seen whether Imran Khan’s main constituency will be willing to melt in the hot sun on election day.

Then there’s the really scary scenario that Cyril explores.

As for the rank and filers tucked away in their orderly cantonments, who’s to say what they’re really thinking about and talking over among themselves. Rural and urban Pakistan have not stood still over the last 30 years, so why must the products of those societies be what they have always been, docile and disciplined?

This is what I would call the real ‘Bangladesh Option’, seeing as how it would likely result in a re-play of the early years there with one ‘rank-and-file’ coup after another spinning the nation into even greater chaos and disorder. Still, perhaps I have more faith than Cyril in the discipline and good sense of the rank and file because I just don’t see this happening.

But the biggest point of confusion in Cyril’s piece is in the conclusion.

And what’s the point of a transition to democracy when the choices made by a civilian set-up simply nudge the country a little closer to the edge of a cliff?

When a state exists to tend to its own needs to the almost-total exclusion of the public’s dreams and aspirations, it will eventually become a nightmare for everyone involved.

The point of a transition to democracy is that when the choices made by a civilian set-up simply nudge the country a little closer to the edge of a cliff…you get to change the set up without having to actually push the country off the cliff. Democracy allows the public to demand that the state respond to the public’s dreams and aspirations. It’s the dictatorship, whether of khahkis or clerics, that produces real nightmares.

The noose around our neck and how it got there

This week’s latest episode of Pak-US topi drama is discouraging for a number of reasons. The most obvious being that extremist militants really are a shared enemy of Pakistan and America, and neither side is able to defeat the menace without the other. The worst case for America is that it retreats back to the other side of the world and holds up on its own to lick its wounds. But the worst case for Pakistan is, well, it’s worse.

Cyril Almeida thinks that, even removing the fuel of American troops from Afghanistan will not make the problem of militancy any more manageable. He warns that ‘the narrative may be neat, but its fallout could be anything but’. I fear that he’s right, and it only takes one look at a map to understand why turning a blind eye towards militants – even those we see as ‘assets’ – is a losing strategy.

Our Eastern border hardly needs mention. Whether or not the Indians trust us, we certainly do not trust them. Even with enough nukes to destroy India many times over, we still feel the need to keep building more. And with the issue of Kashmir still unresolved, that is not going to change any time soon. Certain groups in society still romantacise about the Kashmir jihad and openly encourage groups like JuD to give up their facade of ‘charitable’ work and re-focus on attacking Indian positions. And elements in India, too, have their own suicidal tendencies in this regard, making the Eastern border a defensive priority as long as issues remain unresolved and groups like JuD are perceived as operating freely.

On the Northern border with China, we have what is probably the healthiest relationship of all. But China, a friend, shouldn’t be our fantasy. Part of this is the fact that China, too, has no patience with extremism and militancy, and will quickly turn from friend to foe if they believe their own security is at risk. We already made the mistake of looking to the US as being a our saviour no matter what poorly conceived adventurism we found ourselves in. Let us not forget that when Nawaz Sharif went to China for help during the Kargil misadventure, they sent him packing.

To the Northwest, war continues to rage in neighboring Afghanistan. We are told that this is a fight against the Americans who are occupying their country and that once the Americans leave, peace will return. But this is not what was being said by Afghans themselves. Former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani said that the violence is not caused by the Americans, and it will continue long after they leave.

The people are justifying the war they have waged and say that they are fighting the war because of the presence of the foreigners. This is not the case actually. This war was going on prior to the presence of the foreigners here and will continue after the foreigners go from here.

Rabbani’s murder earlier this week has been treated in the media as an American conspiracy, with the usual talking heads quoting Afghans as blaming ‘foreigners’ for problems. This may be true, but perhaps we should ask which ‘foreigners’ the Afghans are blaming for the violence in their country.

“Death to the foreign puppets,” they shouted. “Pakistan is our enemy.”

To our West, Iran has closed the trade gate and is moving security personnel to the Pakistan border because of the threat of militant groups from Pakistan. Sadly, this is not a aberration, but is the third time this year that Iran has shutted its doors to Pakistan. What should we expect from a Shia nation when an anti-Shia militant leader receives payments from Punjab government, is set free by Pakistani courts, and then a few weeks later dozens of innocent Shia are murdered by this same militant group? If sectarian killers are believed to operate with impunity in Pakistan, can we honestly expect our neighbors to treat us as anything but a pariah?

American foreign policy deserves criticism. But there are plenty of Americans who are making these criticisms themselves. Why should America listen to us when we refuse to get our own house in order? We’ll find ourselves with much more influence if we can be honest about our own foreign policy mistakes. More importantly, we can still reverse the disastrous course that we find ourselves on. The concept of ‘strategic depth’ was supposed to keep us from being surrounded by a hostile India. Instead, it threatens to make us surrounded with a hostile India, Afghanistan, Iran, and China. That’s not security, it’s suicide.

What is clear is that we need a strategic re-thinking. The old doctrines left over from Cold War era adventurism are out of date an inapplicable in today’s world. Lashkars and proxies were meant to keep the noose from around our necks, but it turned out they were the very rope that could hang us. We still have time to pull our heads out and claim our proper role as a leader in the region, but only if we’re willing to let the Americans worry about their own problems and make an honest appraisal and reversal of our own strategic mistakes.

Cyril Almeida: Culture Warriors

Cyril AlmeidaTHE culture warriors, of the kinder variety, have struck back. Anchors sacked, mullahs barracked by entertainers, the fight is on, at least on television.

Enjoy it while it lasts. It won’t last very long.

That’s because the cast of characters involved is a bunch of jokers, puppets on strings, twirling and twisting in fervent obeisance before the only god that matters in such affairs: ratings.

Look carefully, though, and you’ll see the real heavyweights — the ideologues, the big-picture-small-mind guys, the sophisticated manipulators — are quiet.

They’ve figured out that further sparring isn’t such a good idea right now. Which is why they are off talking about PPP-PML-N confabs and musing about corruption and governance and other ‘safe’ stuff.

The funny thing about ugliness is that it doesn’t like to look ugly.

Since Taseer’s assassination, Pakistan has looked pretty ugly. And it’s looked ugly in full view of a horrified global audience.

That’s the kind of backlash that will scythe through the naïve.

But keep your head down, hold your tongue, avoid talking about what you really feel, no sudden or silly moves that give the other side an opening, and you’ll live to fight another day.

Which is what the real big boys are doing at the moment.

The reticence is rooted in certain realities of the media here.

In the quest to shape public opinion, there are two basic lines of attack. One is the day-to-day fare. Pandering to populist lines and downplaying certain perspectives, by unobtrusively tweaking the balance of the images, sounds and words the audience is presented with, a particular kind of worldview is projected.

It’s done in the name of the target audience, the ‘awam’, but it’s really about shaping the public rather than informing it.

The other line of attack is the black-swan event. Musharraf’s sacking of the chief justice, Lal Masjid, BB’s assassination and now Taseer’s killing — these are your unexpected, high-impact, high-possibility events. These can be tricky if not handled properly.

Lal Masjid was the ultimate godsend for the right wing in the media.

A ‘liberal’ dictator in bed with the Americans had ordered an assault on a place of worship full of people trying to rid Pakistan of bad moral and social influences.

And the bungled military operation and scores of civilians killed made it utterly indefensible, even at the level of idea.

The right-wing media went to town over Lal Masjid because they thoroughly understood its potential for sowing certain perceptions. And they could do it with impunity because of the military’s epic cock-up. Dead bodies are hard to argue against.

Taseer’s killing, though, was different. The ‘awam’, led by the mullahs, immediately showed what it thought of the murder and the wider issue.

No indoctrination necessary here, because the message had already been absorbed.As the saying goes, Pakistan ka matlab kya?

Since the days of Zia, everyone knows the answer to that.

In fact, the Taseer slaying opened a door for the other side. The crime and the aftermath had rightly stirred up passions, and anyone in the media naïve enough to flirt with or engage the hate on the right would become vulnerable to a ritual sacrifice.

Here’s another little-known truth about the media: it isn’t entirely as crazy or right-wing as the loudest voices and most obnoxious opinions in prime-time slots and op-ed pages suggest.

There’s actually some introspection, common sense and commitment to certain ideas, however vague. Of course much of that tends to be ex post — after the event — and therefore is reactionary in nature.

X writes Y during a black-swan event or P says Q, something particularly egregious, during regular fare, which then creates an opening to push back, reprimand, censure or even fire for a catalogue of previous outrageous sins that have been mentally bookmarked and indexed for future action.

Timing is everything.

And much of it tends to come from powerful figures inside the media establishment. People the viewer or the reader has probably never heard of. Channel bosses, news directors, editors, bureau chiefs, people who understand the nature of the beast they are straddling and seek to restrain its worst impulses.

Of course, the majority of the time the advantage lies with the right. Which is why silence is useful sometimes.

Wait out the awkward moments and resume your ideological war when the threat has abated. The paroxysms of the ‘liberals’ are only rarely threatening and subside quickly enough.

What comes next isn’t hard to fathom. Soon enough, it will be business as usual.

A combination of a population raised on a diet of hate, mistrust and distorted beliefs; a state system that is invested in perpetuating certain kinds of mindsets; a political class that is too self-absorbed to think about overhauling state and society; and the imperatives of ratings, subscriptions and ad revenue — all these
factors combine to ensure a certain kind of media output, the dominance of a particular kind of worldview.

Therein lies the problem: part cheerleader, part follower of societal trends, the media is both hostage to, and trying to shape, society here.

Extracting the poison from one without extracting it from the other is a non-starter.

But there are no real culture warriors on the other, good, side ready to take up that fight.

The ones who do speak up are irrelevant; the ones who could be relevant are quiet.

The heavy hitters on the right in the media know this. Which is why they are quiet right now. The future is theirs.

Cyril Almeida is a staff writer for Dawn. This column was published on January 28, 2011.