#CyrilGate: Has ISI Changed Its Tune on Fake News?

Corps CommandersNation’s top military leadership (in other words, the nation’s leadership) met to discuss the latest threat to national security: This news report in English daily DAWN. At the meeting, Army leaders ‘expressed their serious concern over feeding of false and fabricated story’ to the media. The confused and contradictory nature of officials’ response to the story has given it some credibility, and it must be noted that DAWN has defended the report saying it was only published ‘after verification from multiple sources’. However I am not writing to defend or deny the report’s authenticity. Rather, I am writing to ask whether there has been some change within the establishment’s position on fake news stories?

Disinformation and propaganda has been a tool of the establishment for decades or longer. DAWN itself has been a willing participant in such activities as can be seen on the archived pages from 1971 war.

17 December 1971 Dawn front page

One does not need to go back that far to find evidences of fake news stories, though. It was only a few years ago that Pakistan found itself facing international embarrassment after it was discovered that our media were reporting on a fake wikileaks cable in order to embarrass India. At that time, Ahmed Quraishi actually responded by defending the feeding of false and fabricated news stories. Today, without even a drop of shame, he is hosting a TV programme demanding an official commission to investigate the same.

hypocrite Ahmed QuraishiAhmed Quraishi’s shameless U-turn on the cleverness of false and fabricated news stories raises further points. AQ has actually been connected with several fake news operations during recent years along with others. Earlier this year, Umar Cheema exposed the fake news site ‘ABC News Point’ just as Cafe Pyala had exposed a dozen or more fake news sites being run under shadowy circumstances (also connected to Ahmed Quraishi!)

It remains to be seen whether the top brass have the good sense to cut their losses, but one has to wonder whether ISI’s M-Wing, which is headed by a Rear Admiral and staffed by several Brigadiers and other officers, sees the irony in having the Army Chief himself serious concern over feeding of false and fabricated stories.

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.

I.A. Rehman: Jinnah’s New Pakistan Is Possible

Jinnah The following piece is courtesy Dawn and was originally published on 14th August.

The discourse on Pakistan’s political ideal has taken a new turn. Those calling for the establishment of Jinnah’s Pakistan are being challenged with a demand for creating a ‘new Pakistan.’ Essentially, this is a new form of the tussle between secular democrats and advocates of a theocratic dispensation that is as old as the state itself.

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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.

HEC Not Worth Defending

Higher Education Commission

Judging by newspaper headlines and TV talk shows, one might be forgiven for thinking that devolution of the HEC will result in the end of education in the country. What a bunch of non sense. If we take an objective look at the HEC – and the status of education more generally – it is quite clear that the HEC is simply not worth defending.

Attaur Rahman, former chairman of the HEC, writes in The Express Tribune that the central planning by the institution is required to produce graduates needed to build the country’s economy.

The minimum quality requirements and the numbers of engineers, scientists, doctors, economists and social scientists needed for nation-building have to be determined through careful central planning regarding human resource requirements in various sectors. A multiplicity of standards and regulations would be disastrous. That is why the world over, including in India, higher education planning and funding is done centrally, even though universities are located in the provinces.

But the US, which has the world’s highest standard for higher education, does not practice central planning, nor does it set a uniform national curriculum. Actually, quite the opposite. US schools compete with each other by setting their own standards and curricula and, through this competition, raise the quality of education all round.

In fact, an article in The Wall Street Journal looks at the state of higher education in India and concludes that despite praise from Attaur Rahman, the centralized bureaucracy has created graduates ‘unfit’ for good jobs.

Business executives say schools are hampered by overbearing bureaucracy and a focus on rote learning rather than critical thinking and comprehension. Government keeps tuition low, which makes schools accessible to more students, but also keeps teacher salaries and budgets low. What’s more, say educators and business leaders, the curriculum in most places is outdated and disconnected from the real world.

This is not unlike the ‘good work’ done by the HEC. Attaur Rahman lists various awards received by the HEC, but awards only create economic growth for HEC chairmen, not for the rest of the nation. And let us consider what Dawn listed as the successes of the institution last week:

For instance, since its coming into being in 2002, the number of public sector universities and degree awarding institutions almost doubled from 59 to 127 while student enrollment went up from 135,000 to 400,000. Thanks to the HEC`s efforts, the country produced 3,037 new PhDs from 2003 to 2009; compare this to the 3,281 scholars we produced from 1947 to 2002.

What difference does it make if HEC is increasing the number of degree awarding institutions and producing new PhDs when the result is universities and think-tanks producing graduates that are not prepared to compete with graduates from other countries? What good is a national curriculum that parrots a failed establishment ideology instead of teaching critical thinking and complex problem solving?  And, please, let us be honest. HEC has not even been able to impose uniform standards or managed even to implement its own rules in a consistent manner as many defense institutes choose to defy HEC mandates and operate under their own regimes.

What is truly telling, however, is that many of the people most loudly demanding that the HEC continue as is went to school overseas themselves and would never allow their own children to attend schools under HEC supervision.

We deserve better.

Let’s have a real discussion about education in this country, shall we? We currently spend around 2% of GDP on education. This is unacceptable. A report by Ahsan Iqbal published by The Pakistan Education Task Force concludes that,

The truth is that Pakistani policymakers have little handle on what is currently being spent on education. We need urgently to gain greater clarity over the current situation and also to analyse what needs to be spent if governments are to meet their constitutional obligations on education.

Ahsan notes that this cannot be done by provinces alone, but neither has it been done under the authority of the HEC. That he why he insists that answer lies in a new approach, on in which

“Both federal and provincial governments need to work together, assisted, if necessary, by Pakistan’s top economists to discover what we know about financing, and – as importantly – what we don’t know.”

The sad fact is that we are failing our children when it comes to education. And by failing our children, we are failing our own future. No matter how many ‘degree awarding institutions’ are opened, it will mean nothing if we continue to ignore the persistent problems with providing basic education to millions of our own citizens. And, here’s an uncomfortable fact, a real solution to the education emergency will require that you pay your taxes.

Education emergency is a problem that must be addressed honestly, sincerely, and seriously. Not with sensational threats about losing hundreds of millions in USAID and World Bank funding. International donors are not interested in HEC patronage or ideologies of central planning. They will help fund any education program that works.

We need to stop putting politics above our children’s education by defending the ‘status quo’ out of a misplaced sense of political gamesmanship. The HEC may have had some successes, but it had not brought Pakistan’s education system to the world class standard that we deserve. Central planning has not worked in India, and it has not worked in Pakistan. It’s time to try something new.