Pakistani journalist Raza Rumi survived an assassination attempt in March that killed his driver. He and other liberals have been targeted for criticizing Islamist militancy and a blasphemy law.
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.
Pakistan’s decision to block access to YouTube was bound to fail. The US is never going to require a publisher to suppress content at the request of a foreign government. Neither will the US reverse course on free speech jurisprudence and enforce a blanket heckler’s veto on behalf of an insulted party. Given this reality, Pakistani policy makers should ask whether censorship is an effectively public policy, or whether such policies threaten to undermine the very democracy they have sacrificed so much to obtain.
Ironically, the infamous YouTube clip that sparked riots across the world itself was virtually unknown until it was pulled from obscurity and heavily publicized by a right-wing Egyptian TV host. After groups like Jamaat-e-Islami and the Difa-e-Pakistan Council organized protests against the film, Prime Minister Ashraf ordered access to the video sharing site blocked in Pakistan.
The government of Pakistan continues to insist that the ban is a temporary measure while a new “firewall” is built to block access to objectionable content not only on YouTube, but across the Internet. This actually makes slightly more sense, from a policy perspective, as restricting access to YouTube doesn’t restrict access to the offensive video which is available on other popular video and file sharing sites not blocked in Pakistan. Nor does the YouTube ban capture the countless other Internet Websites that contain content that could offend someone.
The only way to truly restrict access to objectionable material on the Internet, of course, is to completely disconnect from the Internet. Any society that chooses to connect to the Internet will have to find a way to live with offensive material.
Iran has been working on launching a separate “halal” Internet – one that conforms to “Islamic principles.” Of course, the “Islamic principles” of Iran’s Ayatollahs are not the same “Islamic principles” of Pakistan’s Sunni hardliners, raising the question of who decides what is objectionable.
In Pakistan, this is the real issue – who determines which ideas are and are not objectionable. As democracy replaces authoritarianism in Pakistan, some on the far-right are continuing to advocate for restrictions on access to information in effort to maintain some control over society – and it’s not limited to “blasphemous” content.
Pakistan’s cable operators blocked access to BBC World News in response to a documentary that some felt presented the military in an unfavorable light.
The operators called on the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) “to revoke the landing rights of foreign channels” if they were found to be “propagating” information harmful to the country.
Geo TV’s Ansar Abbasi, who reportedly told US Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Judith McHale that “we hate all Americans,” recently wrote that he is at war with Indian and Western culture, and complained that “vulgarity, obscenity, and the spreading of Indian culture in Pakistan is no big deal” for Pakistan’s liberals and intellectuals. And it was Ansar Abbasi and Geo TV that reminded Pakistanis about the forgotten video just as the government of Pakistan prepared to restore access to YouTube, causing the government to do an about face and reinstitute the ban on YouTube only hours after lifting it.
The Express Tribune, an English-language daily, noted the danger such a policy presents to civil liberties.
The fight against the YouTube ban is important to cause the government to think twice before it embarks on another round of censorship. The proposal to build a firewall like China, where the internet would essentially be controlled by the government, is extremely worrying. We need to make it clear that we do not wish to regress to a dark age when a centralised authority controlled all access to information. Retreating to such an era would essentially mean that we were longer living in a democracy.
As Pakistani officials contemplate how to protect both the right of free speech and public order, they should also consider whether the policies they are pursuing and the precedents they are setting are effectively serving the public interest, or whether anti-democratic forces are using these debates as a means to roll back democratic reforms obtained during the past few years.
Any press might be good press for aging rock stars and actors, but not for politicians. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan is learning that lesson the hard way following a statement earlier this week that seemed to suggest he was opposed to reserved seats for women in Pakistan’s parliament.
Speaking on Sunday at a women’s rights seminar organized by PTI, Khan reportedly told the audience that:
“Legislators in assemblies are representatives of the people. How can some women be representative of women when they haven’t even contested elections? In some areas it is not possible for women to contest elections, but political parties should hold elections within their ranks and promote women into higher leadership positions.”
The immediate and unintended effect of Khan’s remarks was to unite parliamentarians across party lines – against him. Women in parliament were quick to respond, calling Khan’s remarks “highly prejudiced, biased, discriminatory and alarming.”
Khan later clarified his original statement, explaining that what he really meant was that women should compete in special elections for reserved seats, though he did not explain how that would work considering his earlier claim that “in some areas it is not possible for women to contest elections.”
The clarification, however, did not stop the outpouring of responses from women concerned that their current level of representation was under attack.
Bina Shah, a Pakistani author and journalist warned that “forcing an already tiny pool of qualified women to compete against one another for a small number of seats will damage the gains that women are making in our fragile democracy,” and Dr. Farzana Bari, Director of the Department of Gender Studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad noted that Khan’s remedy, while possibly well meaning, overlooked the historical context of women in Pakistan’s political history.
Imran Khan must understand that women’s formal involvement in politics does not automatically lead to their substantive representation. Rather, their ability to effectively perform and represent women’s interests depends on the larger context of democracy; how they enter the political arena and to whom they are accountable. The PTI is absolutely correct in suggesting that political parties should hold elections within their ranks and promote women into higher leadership positions. However, he should not forget that political parties in this patriarchal socio-economic set-up and as gatekeepers have deprived women in general, and female party workers in particular, for the last 65 years from attaining decision-making positions.
This is not the first time that Imran Khan’s remarks about women’s rights have raised eyebrows. Speaking to reporters last year, Khan offered confusing and seemingly contradictory statements about whether he believed women should be required to follow a strict dress code in public. And in 2006, Imran Khan campaigned against a Protection of Women’s Rights Bill which he claimed was intended “to introduce a made-in-Washington Islamic system in the country.” The bill amended the infamous Hudood Ordinance promulgated by Gen. Zia-ul-Haq which criminalized adultery and made rape victims liable to prosecution for adultery if they could not produce four male witnesses.
The charismatic cricket hero has made an expansive media campaign central to his party’s election strategy. With national elections anticipated in just a few months, Imran Khan would like to keep his name in the press. But the PTI chief is learning a hard lesson this week: When the cameras are on, anything you say can, and will, be used against you in an election.
Pakistan’s military would be far better served in its public relations efforts by ignoring the instinct to be defensive, and instead accentuating its positive efforts at achieving peace in the region.
The News International, an English-language daily in Pakistan, reported this week that the country’s Military Intelligence (MI) has been collecting detailed information about journalists in a door-to-door canvassing operation raising troubling questions about media freedom.
Pakistan’s media has a reputation for being confrontational. After being freed by Gen. Musharraf in 2002, Pakistan’s media grew exponentially and is often credited with playing a role in the dictator’s eventual downfall. Following the 2008 elections, Pakistan’s media has continued in its unrelenting criticism of government officials – an activism defended by Geo TV president Imran Aslam earlier this year as “talking truth to power.” But in Pakistan,it appears that the media is more interested in holding some powers accountable than others.
Acting Chief of Mission of the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Richard Hoagland, recently sat down with ARY News Foreign Affairs correspondent, Beenish Javed, to discuss key issues in US-Pakistan relations including shared counter-terrorism operations, drones, and how American economic assistance can be better used to improve Pakistani sentiments towards the US in the future.
During discussions with Pakistani friends and acquaintances on Twitter and Facebook, a few subjects invariably arise. The most common is the CIA’s use of drones, but another regular topic is the way Pakistan is represented in the US media. There seems to be a common misperception that CNN is an official government media channel, and that American media more generally is a dominated by anti-Pakistan propaganda. As many of the Pakistanis that I engage with online seem to share these misunderstandings about American media, I wanted to offer some insights into American news media and how Pakistan is portrayed.
First, we should do away with the misperception that CNN is an official government channel like PTV, or that CNN is representative of American media more broadly. Just because something is reported by CNN, it doesn’t mean that it is the position of the US government. It doesn’t even mean that it’s true. Recently, CNN found itself in a rather embarrassing situation after it reported that the US Supreme Court had struck down President Obama’s health care law. This was certainly not the position of the US government, and neither was it true. CNN is a private cable channel like Geo TV, only with lower ratings. In fact, CNN’s ratings have been declining for decades, and it currently rates third below both FOX News and MSNBC.
There are about 27 news channels in the US. Much more prominent are entertainment channels, of which there are hundreds. News channels including broadcasts produced overseas such as RT, which is funded by the Russian government, and, yes, even Al Jazeera. While it’s true that Al Jazeera is only broadcast in a few media markets, one of those is Washington, DC. If you’re looking to get a message in the halls of power, that’s the media market you want to be in. Several other news channels serve specific communities such as Spanish language Mundovision, or report on specific issues such as the weather.
As in many countries, different news channels are often perceived to provide a slightly different political perspective on the issues they are reporting. FOX News is widely considered a conservative news network, and MNBC is widely viewed as more liberal. Each channel reports on a wide variety of topics, from local human interest stories, to sports, to international news and events and everything in between. Reports on international stories cover every corner of the globe, and though Pakistan is an important US ally, it only makes up a portion of the reporting on international issues. It is not unusual for the media to go for days without reporting a single story about Pakistan.
While it’s true that security issues are the subject of many news reports about Pakistan, they are by no means one-sided. Prominent Pakistani figures are often invited to present to the American audience different Pakistani perspectives. These include Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States, Sherry Rehman:
As well as opposition politicians like Imran Khan:
And even private individuals like former Director General of the ISI, Gen. Hamid Gul:
But issues of national security are not the only frame through which American media consumers see Pakistan. Cable news channels, including CNN, have and continue to produce positive stories about the people and culture of Pakistan. These include programs that describe Pakistan not as the leading exporter of terror, but of footballs.
And not just footballs, but bagpipes!
And not just footballs, and bagpipes, but fashion!
And not just footballs, bagpipes, and fasion…but beer!
Pakistan’s military is also shown in a positive light, such as this report on Pakistan Air Force fighter pilots:
Even the lighter side of Pakistani politics is shown in America, such as this report on a popular Pakistani political satire show:
American media also seeks to better understand Pakistan through exploring Pakistani film and journalism.
And the beauty of traditional Pakistani art is also reported by American media.
American media reports also look at more domestic issues in foreign countries, such as efforts to improve access to education for the poorest children in Pakistan
As you can see, American media is not a mouthpiece for anti-Pakistan propaganda. Though far from perfect, American new channels do try to find a balanced and representative view of international issues, including reaching out to a variety of voices to represent the diversity of opinions both in the US and in the countries on which they are reporting. Likewise, Americans have access to different channels, including those produced abroad. On the whole, Americans probably know very little about Pakistan. Some of the positive things they do know may come from friendships with the more than 700,000 Pakistani-Americans who live in the US, and some, believe it or not, may come from the media.
In the last few weeks, news reports have appeared in the US which mischaracterize the history of allegations against Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari. The publication “KGS Nightwatch,” a nightly national security newsletter, reported that Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari “was disqualified from the start to ever serve in any public office because of his prior graft convictions and ongoing criminal investigations in Switzerland.” An NPR story reported that “the government of Switzerland opened an investigation into Zardari’s financial dealings, but the case was closed with no action taken.” These reports are factually incorrect.
Here are the facts: Asif Zardari was first convicted in 1999 by the Lahore High Court on corruption charges. In 2001, Pakistani intelligence documents including recording of phone conversations leaked to The Sunday Times (UK) showed that the presiding judge, Justice Malik Muhammad Qayyum, had been secretly colluding on the case with PML-N officials including then Chief Minister of Punjab Shahbaz Sharif. Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 2001.
In 1998, then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also initiated a case on the same allegations against Asif Zardari in Switzerland (not the Swiss authorities themselves). A Swiss magistrate convicted Zardari in absentia in 2003, but later that same year, a Swiss tribunal overturned the conviction on appeal. While it is true that opposition politicians continued to press the cases in Switzerland, they had not been able to secure a conviction by the time the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) was promulgated four years later. Daniel Zappelli, Geneva’s chief prosecutor, told Reuters in 2008 that “In the SGS/Cotecna case, no funds belonging to Benazir Bhutto were found,” and that he did not have sufficient evidence to bring Zardari to trial.
In short, neither conviction was able to withstand scrutiny.
Both convictions must be viewed in the historical and political contexts in which they were carried out. The Lahore High Court was proven to be pursuing the original case against in collaboration with government officials. Additionally, during the 1990s, the ISI was carrying out a secret program to defeat PPP candidates. Nawaz Sharif has also reported admitted that the Ehtesab (Accountability) Bureau initiated political cases against PPP leaders.
Nowhere does Pakistan’s constitution prohibit the subject of ongoing investigations or the victim of political attacks from holding public office. In contrast to recent news reports, Asif Zardari was and is eligible to serve as President of Pakistan. Reports that suggest otherwise erroneously and unhelpfully undermine the credibility Pakistan’s burgeoning democratic system.
Ambassador Cameron Munter spoke to Hamid Mir on Capital Talk on Monday, July 23 in his last major interview before leaving Pakistan to return to his academic career in the US. During the interview, Ambassador Munter left the program with the following message:
Pakistan, I believe, needs to have confidence in itself – and by that it has to believe that it can solve its own problems, that it can elect the right people, that it can repair its democratic system; that these things are possible; that it’s not waiting for other people to do it for them; that Pakistan has the brains and Pakistan has the guts to solve these kinds of issues. When Pakistan does that, the true friends of Pakistan around the world – and America is among them, but we’re not the only ones – Pakistan’s friends around the world are there to support Pakistani leadership.
Ambassador Munter concluded by saying that he is optimistic about the future of Pakistan, noting that “Pakistanis are great people – they simply have to achieve their potential.”