What Mohammad Taqi’s firing means for freedom of press in Pakistan

breaking free

Army’s grip on media has been tightening ever since it was loosened it in 2002, ironically by the military dictator Gen Musharraf. Some of the pressure is to hold Army’s official PR narrative that Zarb-e-Azb is a huge success and Pakistan is a nation on the rise instead of one steeped in extremism and violence. It is why even though hundreds of innocents are killed in terrorist attacks, the mood of the nation is improving. But this is like hypnotising a cancer patient to believe they are healed. They may be happier, but the cancer continues to eat away at their body anyway.

The genius of Army’s censorship of media is that it is  usually indirect and happens behind the scenes. Mostly this has been cleverly accomplished by pressurising media owners and their editors to self-censor, giving the Army its much loved ‘plausible deniability’. Yes, there is the occasional case of someone like Saleem Shahzad or Hamid Mir, but these are extreme cases used to send a message to more…sensible…journalists. But what happens when a journalist lives overseas and refuses to tow the Army’s line. What happens if his weekly column is airing dirty laundry and raising very uncomfortable questions about sensitive issues like Balochistan? Living overseas makes him harder to…persuade…and so maybe his column just goes away. This is what has apparently happened with columnist Mohammad Taqi who has had his column canceled by Daily Times under pressure from Army.

The last straw may have been his last column for Daily Times, which directly contradicted Army’s statements to US officials, and did so with very inconvenient facts.

We should think about what this means. Daily Times is well known as a liberal newspaper. It is published in English. This has usually provided some protection as the audience is seen as too small and liberal to matter. It provides more plausible deniability as officials can point to this and say, “See, we have a robust debate in our media!” As long as everyone knows their place and the acceptable boundaries, things are fine. Remember, Raza Rumi was not attacked until he began giving his analysis in Urdu, not English.

With Mohammad Taqi’s firing means is that these boundaries are shrinking. Now even in Daily Times it is not acceptable to contradict the official line.

Those who want to manage – or hide – the truth have obviously not learned one important lesson from the United States. The more you try to cover up the truth, the more it will spread. From Wikileaks to Edwards Snowden, there are people who are not willing to be silenced. Mohammad Taqi’s column may not appear in Daily TImes, but it will not go away.

In response to Daily Times canceling Mohammad Taqi’s column, New Pakistan will be opening up our site to any journalist who is being pressurised by his editor or his media group. We will publish the truth without fear, and make sure the voices of progressive Pakistan does not go silent.

Stay tuned…

Daily Times: Shaheed Salmaan Taseer: a year later…

Today marks the first death anniversary of late Governor Punjab and founder-publisher of Daily Times Salmaan Taseer. Mr Taseer was gunned down by one of his bodyguards on January 4, 2011. His self-confessed murderer, Mumtaz Qadri, was a fanatic who took it upon himself to silence a voice of reason because some elements in our society cannot tolerate reforms. Mr Taseer was not just a successful businessman or an ordinary politician; he was a man with a vision. He was a strong proponent of a democratic and progressive Pakistan where human rights would be safeguarded and where the minorities would be treated as equal citizens. His vision espoused what the founding fathers of Pakistan envisioned for our country. Today, we have done everything humanly possible in complete opposition to what Mr Jinnah stood for and what he wanted to see in this country.

Salmaan Taseer lost his life because he stood up for the rights of a Christian woman who was charged with alleged blasphemy. His stance was not just about Aasia Bibi — it was about hundreds of others, a majority of them Muslims — who are languishing in Pakistani prisons over frivolous charges due to the much-abused blasphemy laws. It was also about those who have been victims of vigilante (in)justice at the hands of the obscurantist forces. Neither military nor civilian governments have been able to do anything to reverse the changes in the blasphemy laws ever since General Ziaul Haq and his protégés made draconian amendments to the original blasphemy laws introduced by the British in the Indian subcontinent. When a debate on these flawed laws came to the fore during the present Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government, there were only a few who supported any amendment or repeal of the blasphemy laws. With the brutal assassination of Mr Taseer, arguably by a lone fanatic, the debate slowly but surely died. Federal Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti tried to keep the debate alive but his murder on March 2, 2011, was a clear signal that any debate on this issue should end right there and then. It is indeed a tragedy that two politicians lost their lives at the hands of extremists but their mission of a pluralistic Pakistan could not be carried forward despite their sacrifices. It seems as if the Pakistani state and society have abandoned all notions of what is right and wrong.

There are grave implications for Pakistan in abandoning the road to a democratic, secular and progressive Pakistan. Regressive forces are not just united in their fight against this notion but also out to silence saner elements by hook or by crook. Unfortunately, our media has played into their hands. The media played a dark role in Mr Taseer’s murder by vilifying him at every possible opportunity. Optimists could be forgiven for thinking the media would have learnt its lesson after Mr Taseer’s death but it seems that some sections of the media are still engaging in defamation and playing a part in incitement to violence and murder of those who talk about reforming the system in defence of the minorities and human rights. This is not just highly irresponsible but criminal. It is time to stop this madness. The government and society at large is not prepared to do what is necessary to put a stop to all this. If we want to move forward in the comity of nations, we will have to stand together and fight extremism.

This editorial appeared in the 4th January 2011 edition of Daily Times. Click here for the original article.

Final Days of Democracy?

The following report on the intricacies of the memogate controversy appeared in Daily Times and provides a fresh look at the facts while raising some important questions that remain unanswered. With breaking news that DG ISI secretly met with Mansoor Ijaz in London, many are starting to worry that we’ve seen this drama before

Memogate, the new scandal to hit the fragile PPP government, is currently being viewed as just another crisis. However, it may turn out to be a turning point in Pakistan’s domestic politics. First, even before the full facts have been brought to public light there are calls within sections of media to try Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US and by implication his boss, President Zardari, for ‘treason’. This is nothing new in the contested civil-military divide of Pakistan. The political class has been continuously termed as ‘security risk’, ‘unpatriotic’ and ‘traitors’. The wine is old, the bottles however are new and involve technological innovations such as the BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) service.

While a big media group has taken the lead to play the national security game and released the contents of BBMs exchanged between a dubious US businessman Mansoor Ijaz and Ambassador Husain Haqqani, they have been silent on a few questions. For instance, the memo, released earlier this week by Foreign Policy magazine and The Washington Post, is unsigned and unattributed to any author. It bears no official seal and was not delivered by any government representative. In his statement to the press, Admiral Mullen’s spokesman John Kirby noted that the American military chief, who receives many pieces of correspondence, “did not find it at all credible and took no note of it then or later” – an unusual reaction if he had any reason to believe the memo came from the highest levels of Pakistan’s government.

In Pakistan, where Mansoor Ijaz is a relatively unknown figure, Mr Ijaz’s credibility is being debated. In the US, where in the past he claimed that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and was a vocal supporter of the Iraq invasion, Ijaz’s cloak-and-dagger stories are given little credence outside neoconservative circles. New revelations highlight that Ijaz held secret meetings with the ISI in Europe to discuss his ‘evidence’ against Ambassador Haqqani have added to suspicions in Pakistan, too, that the ‘coup-master’ is laying a trap for President Zardari ahead of elections.

Another puzzling question about Ijaz’s allegations is why he decided, after almost five months, to reveal what he claims was a top secret mission in a very public opinion column. Mansoor Ijaz claims that he was driven by a desire to defend Admiral Mike Mullen who has been pilloried in the Pakistani media after terming the Haqqani Taliban networks “a veritable arm of the ISI”. But his explanation simply does not make sense.

Admiral Mullen may have been heavily criticised after his sensational allegations, but would that really matter to him? Would he even know? Are we to believe that Mullen is a subscriber of rightwing Pakistani narrative, or that he is tuning in each night to hear the critiques of our celebrity defence analysts? Even if he did, are we to believe that the man who retired from being the leader of the most powerful military in the world is so fragile that the chatter in Pakistan’s mainstream media was enough to bruise him?

And if Mansoor Ijaz really was motivated by a desire to defend Admiral Mullen from unfair attacks in the Pakistani media, why did he choose to submit his piece to an elite British financial paper? The opinion page of the Financial Times is certainly a way to deliver a message, but not to anyone who was critical of the American military chief.

The saga continues, as Ambassador Haqqani is due to arrive in Pakistan; and will present his point of view. The opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, has probably sensed the gravity of the issue and has clarified that there is no party decision to resign from the assemblies en masse. Sharif has also called for an independent commission to verify the facts of the case; and this is the correct way to move forward. Surely, toppling the government at this juncture will hurt the entire political class.

Several closed door meetings between the military leadership and the president and prime minister have already taken place. Analysts such as Tarek Fatah have warned of another ‘palace coup’ in the making. Most importantly, Imran Khan in his October 30 rally in Lahore had raised the issue of Ambassador Haqqani’s citizenship and also the op-ed written by Ijaz. The million dollar question is whether he was ‘briefed’ on the events to come. Sections of the media are hell-bent to build Khan’s stature as a national politician though he has yet to demonstrate his popularity at the ballot box. The media-fuelled growing tide of anti-Americanism helps the situation. NATO pullout from Afghanistan may necessitate installing of a pro-Taliban puppet regime in Pakistan. However, it remains to be seen how the politicians, especially President Zardari, handle this major challenge to their legitimacy.

Our sources inform that the security agencies are briefing journalists of all variety across the country to apprise them of the situation and how they have certain conversations that implicate Zardari. According to these sources, President Zardari may just ditch Ambassador Haqqani. But this development will not be the final act of this play. The next in line will be Mr Zardari himself. And that raises huge concerns for the future of democracy. Any extra-constitutional step will only harm Pakistan’s interests; but the future scenario appears to be grim. As one analyst in Islamabad put it, “We may be heading towards another bout of quasi-military rule.”

Why Can’t We Keep Terrorists In Jail?

Get out of jail free

A new report in a British newspaper terms Pakistan ‘incapable’ of prosecuting terrorists. The report makes this claim based on a new US State Department report, so it is sure to be dismissed as evidence of American anti-Pakistan propaganda. But we should take this claim seriously, not because the Americans are saying it, but because of who else is.

I wrote last year about our topsy-turvy justice system in which terrorists have more rights than honest citizens. I wrote this piece after a report in Daily Times found that 75 per cent of anti-terrorism cases were acquitted.

Whenever there’s an acquittal, like the revolving door that Hafiz Saeed uses to get in and out of jail, militant sympathisers say, ‘if there was evidence, they would have convicted so he must be innocent’. In a properly functioning judiciary, this would be true. But anyone who believes that Pakistan has a properly functioning judiciary probably lives in UK or Dubai and has never actually had to deal with Pakistani courts.

Just to play the ‘devils advocate’, let’s assume they are right. The fact that there are 75 per cent acquittals means that one of two institutions is failing badly – either the courts or the police. If the courts are properly functioning and all these innocents are being brought up on terrorism charges with no evidence, why are the police arresting the wrong people? And what can we do to improve the police competencies so that they start arresting the right ones?

But let’s also consider the possibility that the police are arresting the right people, and that revolving doors for terrorists are built into the courts. I suggest that we consider this not because the US State Department says it’s a problem, but because China does. As I noted before, Chinese media reports that militants are getting acquittals by threatening witnesses, the police and courts themselves.

Militants groups in Pakistan are being proven so strong that they manage the acquittal of their colleagues from cases and proceedings against them in courts by threatening the families of judges, witnesses and police officers, local media reported on Tuesday.

and

“This is a common practice in Pakistan, not only Taliban even small criminal groups use these tricks to get their friends free from the courts, when there is no proof or witness, the court will have to free them,” said Khalid Mahmood, a former police office in Punjab Province.

“Now in some cases, judges’ names are kept secret and they hear the case proceeding in jail with covered faces to avoid any recognition by the accused,” Khalid told Xinhua.

Xinhua is China’s official state media which represents the official line of the Chinese government.

I said last year that for honest citizens who only want to get some small amount of justice in their lives, the wait can be forever. For militants, though, it is always a speedy trial and ‘get out of jail free’. What kind of a topsy-turvy legal system is it that gives more rights to terrorists than to honest citizens?

It’s time to stop the revolving doors that spin terrorists in and out of the courts. Not because America says so or China says so, but because our inability or unwillingness to prosecute terrorists results in the deaths of innocent people. Seal the revolving door. No more excuses.

Escaping from the crushing domination of US imperialism

Pieces of the global puzzleI was a bit stunned when I read a few days ago an American scholar suggesting that if Pakistan and US government cut links, “a cooling-off period could even lead to renewed ties”. Has PTI opened an office in Washington, DC? Thankfully, the answer to that question is no. Then I noticed that the writer is from the same think tank that recently hosted Gen sahib’s historical amnesia speech. Unfortunately, the case may be that this is writer is listening to the various ‘analysts’ who peddle this belief that isolating Pakistan is the path to progress.

International Secretary of Pakistan Trade Union Defence Campaign wrote in Daily Times over the weekend that “In an epoch where there is a world economy and a world market, the chances of escaping from the crushing domination of US imperialism are bleak”.

Things don’t have to be so bleak.

While it is true that the US is the world’s largest power in terms of economy, it is not an isolated and self-contained. American politicians are presently dead locked on how to manage the country’s $14 trillion national debt. A record number of Americans want US troops pulled out of Afghanistan. No matter how much money certain people are making from telling that the hidden hand of US hegemony is knocking on the door, the facts say that the US has its own problems and is not interested in taking on responsibility for a new colony of 180 million Pakistani Muslims.

But what about those countries that are already making agreements and cultivating relationships with the US? Aren’t they being pounded under Washington’s iron fist? Hardly so.

The obvious example to mention is China which is seen by many as a rising global power that could even replace the US on the top of the rankings someday. China and the US are closely intertwined and work together on mutual interests approaching disagreements through dialogue and compromise. Both countries see the future as one of close relations between the two nations. Yet even these two play spy games with one another, and no one would dare say that China is bowing under US pressure.

Turkey, which I wrote about last week, is also integrated into the world community without suffering any ‘crushing domination of US imperialism’. Actually, the US has openly welcomed Turkey as a rising leader. And in case you think that Turkey has paid for this honour by becoming a puppet of some US-Zionist hegemony, please to recall that Turkey is taking a hard stance on Israel

Even Cuba which has been a symbol of resistance to Western capitalist hegemony is looking at ‘upgrading’ the national system. This is because after decades of isolation, the revolutionaries there are realising that they can bring their country into the new era without leaving their principles behind.

Changing for the better doesn’t imply betraying principles. By maintaining distances and differences within the core of the revolution, we have also changed – some more than others. Certainly, we will only be able to achieve reconciliation through all of the camps changing more. But it will always be important to define the direction of the change.

The feeling of love for Cuba, for the Cuba that Marti dreamt (free, democratic, with distributed ownership) could be the key to success of the dialogue.

Change ‘Pakistan’ for ‘Cuba’ and ‘Jinnah’ for ‘Marti’ and the same holds true does it not? Being true to nationalist principles does not mean refusing to change. There is only one thing that does not change, and that is death. Life changes and adapts, and so must nations.

Sadiq Saleem wrote that all this anti-Americanism misses the point that realism and pragmatism have always moved Pakistan ahead, while ignoring these principles has set us back every timeMunir Attaullah who is a successful businessman sees a bright future for Pakistan, but only if we “re-integrate with the international community rather than thumb our noses at it”.

China, Turkey, and many other nations are fully engaged and integrated into the world community and doing rather well for themselves without suffering ‘the crushing domination of US imperialism’. There’s no reason Pakistan can’t do the same.