Islamabad High Court Establishes Important Precedent

Islamabad High Court

The Islamabad High Court (IHC) established an important legal precedent in a recent ruling regarding freedom of speech in Pakistan. The decision involved a petition filed by the Shuhada Foundation, a non-profit organization affiliated with the extreme right-wing Lal Masjid in Islamabad, against TV coverage of music and dancing at recent anti-government protests in Pakistan’s capital. The IHC dismissed the petition and fined the petitioner for wasting the court’s time. In dismissing the petition, Justice Athar Minallah also gave the complainants some important advice: If you don’t like music, change the channel.

change the channelJustice Minallah’s advice has important implications when applied to other cases that involve complaints about offensive content such as those that seek to restrict the broadcast of international programming or allegations of blasphemy. In each of these cases, a court order is not required to remove the offensive content from the individual viewers television. They just need to change the channel.

The precedent established by the IHC also has bearings on another important issue: The now two-year-old blocking of YouTube in Pakistan. As with potentially objectionable content on television, no one is required to view any particular videos on YouTube or other online video sharing sites.

By making the individual responsible for his or her own viewing choices, the IHC’s decision strengthens Pakistan’s constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms of speech and access to information and limits the ability of anti-democratic forces to use legal cases as a weapon against minorities and other marginalized groups.

Pakistan’s Crisis Threatens Millions In Military Aid

Gen Raheel Sharif and PM Nawaz Sharif

Earlier this year, the US announced plans to provide $280 million in military aid to Pakistan, but that may be cut to zero based on the way the country’s political crisis is taking shape.

The Foreign Assistance Act “restricts assistance to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.” Over the past week, a military coup has become a distinct possibility, if not a fait accompli.

The head of Pakistan’s Army, General Raheel Sharif (not relation to the Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif), publicly intervened in Pakistan’s ongoing political crisis late Thursday night. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, “The move follows a backroom political deal that government officials privately said ceded important powers over defense and foreign policy from the government to the military.”

While this may be the first time the Army has entered the public light, reports as far back as ten days ago described the military using the protests as leverage to seize political power.

As tens of thousands of protesters advanced on the Pakistani capital last week to demand his resignation, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif dispatched two emissaries to consult with the army chief.

He wanted to know if the military was quietly engineering the twin protest movements by cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan and activist cleric Tahir ul-Qadri, or if, perhaps, it was preparing to stage a coup.

According to a government insider with a first-hand account of the meeting, Sharif’s envoys returned with good news and bad: there will be no coup, but if he wants his government to survive, from now on it will have to “share space with the army”.

If these reports are accurate, the Army would appear be attempting to carry out a “soft coup” – one that involves a transfer of power without the typical show of military force.

As Gen. Raheel stepped into the public spotlight as a mediator, Pakistan’s press reported that he was doing so at the request of the Prime Minister, a claim the Prime Minister has since publicly denied. Article 245 of Pakistan’s Constitution does permit the federal government to direct the Armed Forces to “act in aid of civil power,” but the real test will be the outcome. Whether or not the military can come to the aid of the federal government, Pakistan’s Constitution makes no provision for any transfer of power from democratically elected offices to the military, nor does it provide for “sharing space.”

Any military intervention in Pakistan’s government will have serious and debilitating consequences. A coup, not matter how “soft,” will set back democratic gains made over the last seven years by decades, severely jeopardizing the likelihood that Pakistan will be a modern, democratic country for the foreseeable future.

The military, too, stands to lose – both in resources and reputation. Gen. Raheel’s predecessor, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, skillfully began rehabilitating the military’s relationship with the United States and its reputation as a threat to democratic order. The new military leadership’s decisions in the next few days could undo all of that progress – as well as cost them $280 million.

Protecting Pakistan’s Journalists

Khyber Union of Journalists and Peshawar Press Club Protest Violence Against Journalists

Pakistan has always been a dangerous place for journalists, but threats to their safety have never been as multifaceted as they are today. Some of these threats arise from the state itself, or its institutions, which try to monopolize the rhetoric and narrative on certain “sensitive issues.” But the most dangerous of them come from extremist groups. These groups have the same interest as the military in controlling the national narrative on certain issues. Unlike the military, these groups have a far more expansive list of journalist no-no’s, which, if breached, warrant an immediate green-light for murder.

The Pakistani government responded to the attack on Hamid Mir by setting up a judicial probe commission. Often, these commissions can keep their findings confidential and inaccessible to the public at large. Other times, if a victim survives an attempt on their life, they can be provided ad hoc and provisional police protection at the discretion of the provincial police service. However, there are no institutionalized mechanisms journalists rely upon to guarantee their long-term safety.

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Atlantic Council Report Calls for India and Pakistan to Reinvest in Economic Relations

Atlantic CouncilWASHINGTON – A report released today by the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center argues that heavy military spending in India and Pakistan has in fact been detrimental to the citizens of both countries in terms of security and economic growth, and calls on leaders to reinvest in trade and confidence building.

In India and Pakistan: The Opportunity Cost of Conflict, Atlantic Council South Asia Center Director Shuja Nawaz and Nonresident Senior Fellow Mohan Guruswamy explain how high defense spending and low economic integration into South Asia’s regional economy have come at the expense of those living in poverty. Although many now favor rapprochement, Nawaz and Guruswamy argue that unless both sides begin a dialogue on economic and military relations, these issues will only worsen.

In addition to military spending, a lack of strong bilateral trade relations between India and Pakistan has also exacerbated South Asia’s socioeconomic challenges. From GDP to job losses to investment, the non-fulfillment of trading potential is a cost that “neither of the two countries can afford to ignore.”

Nawaz and Guruswamy provide a set of actions both countries can take to decrease military spending and promote confidence building:

  • Increase the distance between land forces by withdrawing from border areas
  • Engage in direct communications between militaries, including exchange visits
  • Invest jointly in energy, water, and export industries
  • Open borders for trade and eventually tourism

Such measures will have a lasting impact beyond India and Pakistan, as the authors note: “economically intertwined and mutually beneficial economic systems in both countries will create a huge peace constituency that will not only be good for the two nations, but also for the region and the entire world.”

Read the full report here.

Listen to audio from the Report Launch here.

Madiha Afzal: Pakistan Needs To Control the Narrative

Excellent post by Madiha Afzal on the need for Pakistan’s leadership to take control of the national narrative and articulate a vision for the country’s future.

Slowly but surely, independent voices countering the Taliban narrative are being silenced. Last month, the Express Tribune, for which I write a regular column, was attacked for the third time in a few months. Three staff members were killed. After the attack, I was asked by the newspaper’s editors to refrain from writing about terrorism for the time being.

So Mr. Sharif must step up now and articulate his vision of Pakistan’s future. He must stand up for the sanctity of Pakistan’s constitution and its democracy. He must set preconditions for any future talks. Talks have to be held under Pakistan’s constitution—no ifs, no buts. His government must state its unwillingness to compromise on women’s rights, the rights of minorities and Pakistan’s place in the world. Most of all, if he is to win the war of words and ideas with the Taliban, and, along with it, the hearts and minds of Pakistani citizens, Mr. Sharif must start talking to the Pakistani people. Otherwise the TTP wins.

You can read the full article on the Brookings website.

Pakistan’s increasing isolation

Imran Khan leads protest

The Lahore High Court this week tightened restrictions on screening foreign films – a move clearly targeted at India’s prolific Bollywood industry. This follows a campaign by some in Pakistan’s TV industry last year to secure a ban on foreign content. The provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa officially banned a 12-year-old academic book by Suranjan Das, the Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University in India. No rationale for the ban was given, and the Government of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, recently banned the teaching of comparative religion. YouTube remains inaccessible in Pakistan, and earlier this week access to IMDb was temporarily blocked, with a Pakistan Telecommunications Authority describing the site as, “anti-state, anti-religion, and anti-social.”

But cutting itself off from foreign media is not the only isolationism that is gaining popularity in Pakistan. In the wake of a drone strike that killed senior members of the Haqqani Network, a group designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the United States, Pakistan’s Interior Minister publicly questioned how Pakistan could continue to regard the US as a friendly nation. Populist politician Imran Khan took the rhetoric a step further, declaring the strike to be “a declaration of war” between Pakistan and the United States and announced that he would organize a permanent blockade of NATO supply routes beginning today. Protests led by Imran Khan have begun, but it’s unclear whether they will actually be able to sustain an effective blockade of NATO supplies. What is clear is that, while Taliban militants continue to attack Pakistan, Imran Khan and other populist leaders are focused on casting the US as the real enemy, fostering sympathy for terrorists.

While Pakistan may be looking to replace American patronage by more closely aligning with China, it is unlikely that this would relieve Pakistan from pressure to tackle extremism. US and Chinese interests increasingly align in Pakistan, and earlier this year Pakistan was forced to take action against three militant groups due to pressure from China. The legality and efficacy of the US drone program can be debated, but it does not alleviate Pakistan of the responsibility to ensure that it is not becoming a safe haven for terrorists, as desired by al Qaeda.

Pakistan is facing a number of difficult challenges. Closing itself off from the rest of the world is not the solution.