Sufi clerics victim of our paranoid conspiracy culture

Syed Asif Nizami and Nazim Nizami

The story is as predictable as it is embarrassing. Two Sufi clerics visiting Pakistan from across the border go missing. Indian media immediately jumps to the conclusion that the two were picked up by ISI. Pakistani media immediately reported that the reports were just the latest example of anti-Pakistan Indian propaganda and that the two clerics had simply entered into an area where mobile phone signal was not available. Now that the clerics have returned home, though, the truth is coming out, and it is not quite as neat and clean as we wished.

Actually, the two elderly clerics Syed Asif Nizami and Nazim Nizami were picked up by our intelligence agencies and interrogated about their supposed ‘anti-Pakistan’ activities. And where did our brilliant agencies get their intelligence about these two? Apparently Urdu daily Ummat had published some fake stories accusing them of being secret RAW agents.

Now our media is scrambling to create the narrative that the entire affair was a big misunderstanding from an inaccurate report in Ummat. In the most hilarious example, Express Tribune has even tried to frame work the story as agencies providing ‘VIP treatment‘ to visiting clerics!

Let us review the facts of this case:

  1. Two Muslim clerics visited Pakistan.
  2. An Urdu newspaper falsely accused them as RAW agents.
  3. Our intelligence agencies read the report and picked up the Muslim clerics, holding them ‘incommunicado’.
  4. After realising the mistake, the clerics were allowed to return home and our media is spinning their being picked up and interrogated by agencies as ‘VIP treatment’.

It has been noted that daily Ummat is also the ‘news’ paper that first accused missing bloggers of blasphemy.

The entire affair is an indictment not only of our senseless media, but raises serious questions about intelligence agencies. If they were fooled by fake news in this case, how many other fake reports have they been fooled by? And why are intelligence agencies taking their cues from what they read in media reports anyway? It is a recipe for a national security disaster. Do not expect anyone to demand Parliamentary Commission to investigate this humiliating episode, though.

“Standard Operating Procedure: Deny, then deny the denial”

Foreign Office Spokesman Nafees Zakaria

Nawaz Sharif claimed another victory yesterday, as Kuwait has decided to lift six-years old visa ban for Pakistanis after the PM discussed the matter with his counterpart Sheikh Jaber al Mubarak al Hamad al Sabah. However, this victory has been somewhat overshadowed by scandal because by announcing the good news, the government has also exposed itself as making false attacks against those who tell inconvenient truths.

The issue of Kuwait’s visa ban surfaced during debate about American President Donald Trump’s order to ban visas for several Muslim countries known as a ‘Muslim Ban’. During this discussion it was noted by former Ambassador Husain Haqqani that actually Kuwait also had also banned visas for Pakistani citizens since six years ago. Haqqani was immediately attacked by the Foreign Office in an official statement.

Meanwhile, as “fake news” against Pakistan was doing the rounds, the spokesman came down heavily on Pakistan’s former US ambassador Hussain Haqqani who was caught while retweeting five years old news, claiming that Kuwait had put a ban on Pakistani visas.

“It is highly regrettable and deplorable that a person who was honoured to represent Pakistan has been indulging in activities that would hurt Pakistan’s national interests. Unfortunately, he is doing all this at a time when the world is increasingly acknowledging Pakistan’s growing economic potential in the wake of tremendous improvement in the security situation, investor friendly policies and strengthening of democratic institutions”, responded the spokesman.

He added that the more Mr. Haqqani does such malicious and unethical acts, more he exposes his character. “He has not only lost respect among Pakistanis but also among those who attach importance to values”, said the spokesman.

By announcing the reversal of the ban, though, the government has shown that the ‘Fake News’ was coming from none other than spokesman for the Foreign Office Nafees Zakaria!

Haqqani responded to the situation with his famous wit before quickly moving on to more pressing matters:

Whatever one thinks about Husain Haqqani, he has hit the nail on the head this time. “Standard Operating Procedure: Deny, then deny the denial”. We have seen this over and over again, especially with attacks against anyone and everyone who dares to point out inconvenient facts that don’t fit a particular ‘narrative’ of how we wish reality was.

Will the FO apologise for attacking Haqqani’s character when he obviously did nothing but tell the truth? Or was the FO really unaware of Kuwait’s visa ban? If this is the case, then they not only owe Haqqani an apology, but a sincere ‘thank you’ for alerting them to the situation. Either way, the conclusion is clear: Officials need to do more listening, and less attacking, if they want to solve national problems. That is undeniable.

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?