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…

Express Tribune Report Perpetuates Islamophobia

Express Tribune Screen Grab

Every media group picks up stories from other media groups. Today, Express Tribune picked up a report from Australia about a group of Muslim students who did not participate in singing the Australian national anthem during a school fair. The headline of the article says the students “walked out” during their country’s national anthem. However, the reality is that the school invited Shia students to leave the room before the singing began out of respect for Murrham. The school principal explained this perfectly.

“During the month of Muharram, Shias do not take part in joyous events, such as listening to music or singing, as it was a period of mourning. Muharram is a Shia cultural observation marking the death of Imam Hussain. This year it falls between Tuesday October 13 and Thursday November 12,” Principal Irving said.

“Prior to last week’s years 2-6 assembly, in respect of this religious observance, students were given the opportunity to leave the hall before music was played. The students then rejoined the assembly at the conclusion of the music,” the principal added.

Despite the reality, Express Tribune published a sensational headline along with a photo of school children with their backs turned which gives the impression that Muslim students showed disrespect for their country rather than the reality which is that the school was showing respect for the Muslim students.

It is clear from the report that some non-Muslims are very upset because they incorrectly believe that the students were turning their backs on their country and saying that the national anthem is against their culture. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth and the entire incident is due to ignorance of the facts. As a respected media group in a Muslim country, Express Tribune should know better than to feed Islamophobic ignorance and  by repeating the incorrect view that the students “walked out” and “turned their backs” on their country. Instead, Express Tribune could have used the story to report about how a secular country like Australia is showing respect for Muslims. This would not only correct the false impressions that are being spread but it would also serve as a model for our own schools about respect for religious minorities does not mean disrespect for the nation.

Truth exists in the world…whether we like it or not

Abdullah posterAs a blogger, there are two categories that one finds oneself placed into: Are you #PakPositive or will you be labeled as “anti-Pakistan”? Being PakPositive is easy. You simply re-Tweet certain accounts, post nice articles about youngest Microsoft certification or some obscure economic news or ready made photos of Gen Raheel and move on to the next thing. It requires no thought. Thinking will get you in trouble. Thinking is the fastest path to being labeled ‘anti-Pakistan’. This is because thinking requires facing difficult and uncomfortable truths. Truths that we wish didn’t exist, and don’t give a good image to the nation.

Every nation suffers from uncomfortable truths. I could fill an endless timeline of tragedies taking place in India and I would be labeled as pro-Pakistan. How is it pro-Pakistan to talk about India’s troubles, though? If I blog about rapes in India, does it make women safer here? Will blogging about Hindu extremists prevent another Taliban attack in KP? If I write an expose on oppression of Dalits, will Ahmadis be treated better? Complaining about the stench coming from your neighbors house will not put out the fire raging in your own. That requires first pointing out that there is a fire and second figuring out how to put it out.

But what if you are not allowed to point out that there is a fire? This is becoming the case increasingly, where not only do you run the risk of being labeled as anti-Pakistan but if you have a loud enough voice you may never be allowed to speak. This is the case of Hashim Nadeem’s latest film Abdullah which was blocked by censors for being anti-Pakistan. What was anti-Pakistan about it?

The film is about the Kharotabad incident of May 2011 that claimed the lives of five foreigners, including two women, one of whom was pregnant. Frontier Constabulary personnel deputed at the Kharotabad checkpost in Quetta claimed the foreigners were suicide bombers and gunned them down brutally.

The incident was caught on camera by a local journalist and aired on news channels, which then reported the five were innocent. Later, a police surgeon who had conducted autopsies on the five victims was shot dead. The surgeon had contradicted claims made by the police and FC personnel that the five were armed and were suicide bombers.

This is actually a very important story. Who is right? Could there have been a mistake? How can such mistakes happen? Unfortunately, even as adults we are treated like small children who are too simple and naive to understand such complexities. These uncomfortable truths are hidden away. However hiding them does not erase them. Censoring news or films about the surge in encounter killings does not mean that no innocent people are killed unjustly. Hiding the details of over 8,000 missing Baloch does not make them all terrorists.

If we are going to solve the problems that the nation faces, we first must be willing to admit that the problems exist. Then we must have an open dialogue about how to solve them. There is nothing to be gained by hiding uncomfortable truths. That is what has brought us to the sad state we are in now. As the poster for Abdullah notes: Truth exists in the world…whether we like it or not.

Truth really is the first casualty of war

Badaber Attackers Were Pakistani

It is well known that the first casualty of war is the truth. In our war against anti-Pakistan terrorists, this also appears to be the case. Soon after Badaber attack, it became widely reported that several of the terrorists were identified as Pakistanis. This has caused severe anxiety within the corridors of power, where it is revealed that officials intended to hide the fact that Pakistanis were involved in the attack.

Minister for Interior Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has expressed anger over making public the profiles of identified terrorists involved in the Badaber Camp attack.

According to the Interior Ministry spokesperson, an investigation has been ordered to find out who leaked the profiles, adding that the leak could negatively impact the ongoing investigation, a private television channel reported on Sunday.

The Interior Ministry spokesperson stated that terrorists were identified the day the incident took place but this information was withheld on purpose due to the sensitivity of matter.

The spokesperson said it appears sharing of information between institutions caused the premature revelation of this information which, the statement said, should never have happened.

 

This is not the only fact that officials have tried to hide. Actually, there appears to be a growing pattern of misleading information coming from up high. In January, Secretary of Defense reported that Chief of Army Staff Gen. Raheel “presented evidence to the United States (US) which shows India’s involvement in the various terrorist incidents that have occurred in Pakistan”. However when asked by reporters about this evidence, the US appeared puzzled and said they were unaware of any delivery. Reports of an extensive dossier on India’s involvement in terrorism feature regularly on our media, even including statements from the highest levels. Yet no one has ever seen any of this evidence. Are the reports only meant to stoke anti-Indian sentiments?

Statistics are repeated ad nauseum pointing to a decline in terrorist attacks, and such points must be appreciated. But there are also growing questions about the extent of the success of military operations that everyone is in full agreement about.

There is further evidence that in the city of Karachi, militants remain well embedded. On Sunday, a suicide bomber detonated his jacket in the Malir area after police conducted a raid there in search of terrorists. He was apparently one of the persons being sought. Before blowing up his vest, he shot at the police team, injuring two policemen. Police fired back and the weapons used by the wanted man who is believed to be an Al-Qaeda operative have been taken into custody for forensic analysis. This was not the only violent incident of the day. In a separate attack, unknown persons on motorcycles fired at an empty DSNG van belonging to Samaa television channel. No one was injured in the attack, but the message sent out was frightening. Just days before, there had been an attack on a Geo TV DSNG and a senior journalist had been killed in the city at the same time.

The same is true for questions about how Badaber attack came to happen.

The government and army have responded by air strikes in the Tirah Valley which killed around 16 suspected terrorists. The trouble with these attacks once again is that if the claim is true that the attack on the PAF Badaber base was coordinated from bases in Afghanistan, what intelligence is the basis for the air strikes in the Tirah Valley?

Actually, the questions about the official response to Badaber attack bring us back to questions about evidence against India.

In this context, it is worth thinking about the DG ISPR’s statement that the assault had been planned in Afghanistan and that terrorists were being controlled from there. Advisor to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz has said that Pakistan possesses enough intelligence on cross-border attacks to be shared with Afghanistan, with the government ready to demand concrete action. The issue is that if we had such concrete intelligence already at the start of September, then why was it not shared with Afghan authorities then?

Here is the pattern: Officials from government and armed forces announce that Army has broken the terrorists backbone and destroyed their ability to carry out attacks. Then an attack happens. After the attack, foreign countries are blamed and it is claimed that we have fool proof evidence, but this evidence is never shown. At the same time, all evidence about the involvement of Pakistanis is hidden under a rug.

Truth may be the first casualty, but it is not the last. Innocent lives are lost, and ultimately no nation can hope to prevail if it misleads its own people. Peddling conspiracy theories and hiding the reality only breed confusion and doubt which plays into the hands of the anti-state elements. It is a self-defeating strategy in a war where the stakes are too high to accept.

PAF Badaber: Questions of Accountability

Another morning darkened by outpouring of grief and mourning for martyred innocents. Another brazen terrorist attack, this time targeting PAF Badaber. Sixteen of the dead were offering their prayers in a mosque at the moment terrorists killed them. Seven others were performing ablution. Inna Lillahi wa inna ilayhi Raaji’oon.

The attack leaves us with more questions than answers. How could this happen? ISPR says the attack was planned in Afghanistan, but such an attack had to have some local support. At least some attackers or sympathiser had to do surveillance prior to carrying out the attack. Did they come and go freely from Afghanistan? How could our security agencies have no idea that this was being planned? The courageous response of our soldiers has been widely appreciated and it has been correctly noted that their acts saved countless other lives. But why were any lives lost? Were our agencies once again caught sleeping?

These question will probably remain unanswered, just like the question why US is still doing drone strikes in South Waziristan? This is not a question of American imperialism, though. Our own military has proven capability of using drones against militants. So why were these militants killed by an American drone? Did our own agencies not know they were there? These are questions that we will never even hear asked, much less answered openly and honestly. All we can do is hope that behind closed doors someone, somewhere is being held accountable for these deadly intelligence failures.

Speaking of accountability, Ansar Abbasi has condemned the lack of accountability

However the truth is it is exactly those like Ansar Abbasi himself who are responsible for pushing Pakistan to this situation. Ansar Abbasi and those like him who project extremist ideology and Taliban sympathies are the ones who create confusion in the people’s minds by parroting Taliban propaganda.

Everyone here knew that the re-opening of Nato Supply Line would resurrect the horror of terrorist and suicide attacks in Pakistan. Still, the supply line was re-opened merely because it was crucial for American’s interest in Afghanistan and the region. While serving the American interest, we chose to forget how each and every peace deal of Pakistani authorities with local Taliban was sabotaged by the Americans; how extremism and talibanisation is fuelled through US drone attacks; who protects and feeds the anti-Pakistan Taliban in Kunar, Afghanistan; who and for what purpose has established a net-work of Raymond Davis like agents within Pakistan; who is behind Balochistan’s unrest; why is Pakistan pressed to target “good Taliban”. While we are made to believe that all Taliban and al-Qaeda are the enemies of Pakistan, but the bin Laden documents, released by the US military recently, suggest otherwise.

  Read that again. If you did not know who wrote it, would you guess our media or TTP spokesman? What about this Tweet?

When Osama bin Laden was killed, Ansar Abbasi appeared on TV praising the terrorist leader and announcing that Taliban and al Qaeda have never been enemies of Pakistan. Do we expect people to listen to these statements day in and day out and not absorb at least some of it?

If we cannot hold those in military agencies accountable for failing to detect these outrageous schemes before they are allowed to take innocent lives, surely we have the power to hold accountable those who fertilise the soil with hatred and conspiracy theories so that Taliban sympathies can grow and spread. Ansar Abbasi is not the only one, but he is a good example. We desperately need accountability. First, though, we need to look in the mirror and hold ourselves accountable for having brought the country to this point.