A pure or senseless nation?

Oh, the disgust! Oh, the outrage over the barbaric killings of two brothers in Sialkot, my home city!

While police officers watching the incident without any sign of disapproval exposed serious flaws in the working of law-enforcement agencies, public views on crime and punishment cannot be ignored.

It happened a day after the country’s 63rd birthday, a day already mired in misery as hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis roamed the land in search of dry ground. It was exposed to the world when Hafiz Imran, a reporter for the private TV channel Dunya News, recorded a very clear footage of the callous incident.

The footage clearly showed the faces of 18 people who actively took part in the beating. It also showed that the police tied up both brothers. Their dead bodies were then carried around the city in a tractor trolley, escorted by a police car. After the killing, brothers Hafiz Mughees and Hafiz Muneeb were hanged upside down in an open street.

Photo: brothers Hafiz Mughees and Hafiz Muneeb.

The image of the brothers’ bloodied, beaten and bruised bodies is a tragic symbol of the nation’s mutilated conscience. The barbaric killing in broad daylight by the relatives of those four boys, whom the two brothers injured during a cricket match, has left the entire nation in a state of deep shock.

All over the country, people are condemning the barbaric act of those who took part in the killing. One wonders whether the broad distinction between humans and animals has actually vanished. The irony deepens when it is noticed that the police were there as spectators, watching the entire scene as if they were immune to the lynching.

Not only the president, but also the chief justice of Pakistan has taken suo moto action against the culprits. It is worth mentioning that some senior police officials involved in the case have disappeared from the scene.

But the lynching itself is nothing new. Read any report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and you will see that this is a fairly regular occurrence. Christians, Hindus, homosexuals, suspected paedophiles and robbers have been killed at the hands of mob justice.

It’s true that Pakistan is passing through very difficult economical, political and environmental phases. Experts suggest that events like the Sialkot killing are products of the nation’s deep frustration and they could be very harmful; they say that Pakistan badly needs to develop into a mature, civilized and patient nation to get things on the right track.

But I do not completely agree with this. We are, and have always been, a barbaric, degenerate nation which takes pleasure in bloodlust. Our nation was forged during a bloody partition, in which up to one million people were massacred. One just has to read eyewitness accounts of the riots, the train butchery, the brutal rapes and slaughter of that period to get a feel of the heady, almost orgasmic, delight that the perpetrators of these crimes revelled in as the nation was born.

Barbarity and sadism are ever present in our society. We are a state in which some politicians can openly condone the burying of women alive by declaring it part of our culture. Our religious discourse often celebrates the brutality and violence of medieval Arabia. This has always been an ugly reality of Pakistan and always will be.

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan is a misnomer. Pakistan has never been a pure, peaceful Islamic state. And it never will be. Rather than drawing inspiration from the Holy Qur’an, our nation models itself on another book in which children become savages. Pakistan is not the land of the pure. We are Lord of the Flies.

What a shame that politicians have been busy telephoning the parents of the two brothers and assuring them that all those involved will be brought to justice. While I was writing these lines, Hafiz Imran, the whistleblower, was left with broken arms by unidentified motorcyclists outside his residence. Where is the justice? And we are a nation which collectively stands watching, like the mob in Sialkot.

What lies ahead?

The province of Balochistan is one of Pakistan’s god-given areas, rich in natural resources, with six trillion barrels of oil reserves. Pakistan enjoys an ideal geo-strategic location and thanks to this province, it is a strategically important zone of influence for other countries. Yet the Balochi people consider Balochistan to be a separate area of Pakistan and have started a separatist movement because they want their own autonomous government. There are surely some strong reasons for this step.

There have been many mistakes and blunders on the part of the central government that must be admitted. Successive governments have ignored the province; required status and facilities have long been denied – things which other provinces enjoy. There is still a feudal system in Balochistan and its lords have never taken any interest in the area’s development or progress, despite taking control of government. These lords have no concern for the condition of the people; they are too busy storing up money in the name of different governmental projects. Our provincial and federal government must be held responsible for this, because it has a duty to check out the actions of the lords when different projects are started in Balochistan. Not surprisingly, people are developing negative views. It is situations like these which invite other countries such as India and the US to take advantage.

Sometimes this separatist movement shows similarities with the movement of East Bengal. The East Bengalis demanded separation because their language, culture and their representation in elections were not given any importance. They felt insecure, so separated from West Pakistan. If you look closely, there are many striking similarities between the two situations. Their demands and complaints about the government are the same. Both have rational feelings. Bengal did not sit down to negotiations because they were puppets in the hands of India, and now there is so much foreign interference in Balochistan that the Balochi people are beginning to consider themselves as a people with separate identity.

The US is in favour of creating insurgency in Pakistan and wants to separate Balochistan from Pakistan. This would automatically create political frustration in south Asian countries like Iran and Afghanistan. It would affect US foreign policy positively and Pakistan would lose 50 per cent of its territory. When President Musharraf was in power (2001-08) the US established dominance in Pakistan and began to interfere in Pakistan’s domestic issues. The US deployed their forces in many countries after 9/11 on the pretext of having found signs of ‘terrorism’ in them. If the US were to establish complete dominance in Balochistan it would give it a secure base from which to observe countries like China, Afghanistan and Iran.

When self-proclaimed Balochi leader Akbar Bugti was killed in 2006 in a military operation, the Balochi people began to feel that no one was safe, that anyone could be killed at any time. The murder of Akbar Bugti drew a line between Pakistan and Balochistan.

Foreign powers are trying to influence the Balochistan separatist movement. And there is a youth generation that is full of misconceptions about the reality of the struggle. These misconceptions must be removed before there can be any chance of unity. There are many non-state actors that are the cause of the deprivation and all the offensive acts that are taking place.

There are many difficulties and hurdles ahead if we want to stabilize the situation in Balochistan. Policies need to be changed and youth need guidance. If social, political and economical differences can be resolved then there is hope of a better situation in the future.

The will of the people

‘Kashmiris have been denied their rights to determine their own future.’ Kashmir would prefer the creation of independent Kashmir state; ‘they are neither with India nor with Pakistan.’ (Krishna Pokarel, The Wall Street Journal).

It is good that the Western media has now accepted that the division of the subcontinent was a discriminatory one in which the right of Kashmiri people was denied at the time of partition. This is a positive development which should now mean that the matter can be resolved through a realistic approach and decisions which should be made in accordance with the will of Kashmiri people. 

There are many voices for an independent Kashmir. And there has apparently been some positive change and flexibility in the Indian stance in this regard. But policymakers in Pakistan need to be wary – they will have to wait and see whether the change in stance is genuine or whether it is just another ploy to deceive Pakistan as well as Kashmiris.
Public opinion is of vital important for the states to make a decision. So, being a democratic state, Pakistan has to undergo a debate at a national level before opting for any decision on Kashmir. The slogan of ‘Kashmir Banay Ga Pakistan’ (‘Kashmir will become Pakistan’) that kept the blood of the Pakistani nation warm is now being cooled down, thanks to effective propaganda by the Western and Indian media. 

I would suggest that the media in Pakistan must now play its part and dispel impressions projected by the foreign and Indian media. It can initiate a debate through print and electronic media whether or not independent Kashmir is in the interest of the region. If Pakistan goes for the option of an independent Kashmir, Pakistan will have to face several consequences. The trade route to Central Asia will be affected. India would be able to achieve its objective of dividing Pakistan further by creating ideological rifts within society like Greater Balochistan, Sindhu Desh, Pakhtunistan and Independent Kashmir. Secondly, and most importantly, Independent Kashmir may not favour Kashmiris themselves because they would still end up being dependent on either Pakistan or India.

Five steps to sanity

In the last two decades, thousands are estimated to have died in sectarian fighting in Pakistan. But I am disappointed that the centre and the Punjab government are engaged in wars of words, this time on the issue of ‘Punjabi Taliban’, while they should be busy cracking down on these militants instead.

Two weeks ago, more than 80 people were killed in simultaneous raids on two mosques of the minority Ahmadi Islamic sect in Lehore. Ahmadis were declared non-Muslim by Pakistan in 1973 and have suffered persecution since.
After mourning the death of one of my media colleagues, who was covering these attacks, I took a break to read the ‘Five steps to sanity’ from leading human rights advocate I A Rehman, in which he stresses that today Pakistan’s supreme need is the adoption of a rational response to the menace of extremist elements operating, without due sanction, under the banner of belief. 

Rehman writes that Ahmadis are citizens of Pakistan entitled to the protection of their right to life. The assault on their prayer houses is not wholly unexpected: the authorities had been aware of the activities of the professional Ahmadi-bashers and their threats for months.

‘The first step towards reasonable and rational behaviour is that the state must fulfil all three of its legal obligations, namely, a thorough investigation into the obvious failure to ensure security of the prayer houses, a relentless prosecution of the culprits, especially those that are routinely described by the police and the media as ‘masterminds’, and adoption of effective strategies for the protection of communities that are vulnerable because of their belief.’

He explains that the extirpation of the deep-rooted bias against holders of beliefs different from that of the majority’s orthodoxy is the second essential step towards sanity.

‘The moment the custodians of state power start treating some of the people as second-class citizens they push the latter into a high-risk alley. The official explanation for not taking action against hate-preachers, some of whom are allowed privileges as rewards for spewing calls to murder and worse, is the fear of breach of peace. The same excuse is touted to explain failure to remove banners and posters that explicitly call for violence against the Ahmadis or other vulnerable groups.’

One of the main reasons that the masses in Pakistan can freely raise anti-Ahmadi slogans is that Ahmedi are classified as non-Muslims under Pakistani law, for believing that Muhammad was not the final prophet. Over the last year the affluent Ahmedi community in Pakistan has been rocked by a campaign of violence and intimidation, which intensified in recent weeks. 

‘Tolerance of criminal mischief so as to avoid breach of peace has been formalized into a theory that is used to justify the Ahmadi-specific provisions of the penal code arbitrarily inserted into it by Gen Zia. The denial of Ahmadis’ right to hold meetings, especially their annual congregation, also is premised on this theory. 

A critical review of this excuse has long been overdue. No such effort has been made because the victims, Ahmadis especially, are not considered entitled to enjoy their basic rights. But the consequences of overlooking mischief by some elements out of fear for their potential to cause disorder are now evident even to the purblind. Will no action be taken against gangsters who establish a state within the state because they might disrupt peace?

Most criminal acts fall within the definition of breach of peace. Must they go unchallenged? A state loses its title to wield authority if it blinks at criminal acts out of fear of repercussions of its intervention. The demolition of the theory of appeasing disrupters of peace is the third important step towards sanity.

The next step necessary for evolving reasonable and rational behaviour is elimination of discrimination on the basis of belief in practically all walks of life. This is going to be a long haul even after the state has acquired the will and the capacity required for the task, because this will involve not only a review of the 1974 amendment. What should receive immediate attention is the need to end the Ahmadis’ exclusion from political life.'

Ahmadis have been out of the political mainstream. The 2002 election law abolished separate electorates but under a totally illegal and anti-democratic decision the Ahmadis are still denied inclusion in joint/common electoral rolls. This discrimination must end as, among other things, it strengthens discrimination in services, in educational institutions, and even in housing.

‘Finally, the fifth step to sanity demands a critical appraisal of the theoretical foundations of religious extremism. Tomes have been written on tolerance in general, and often perfunctory, terms. Many have devoted time and resources to talks on inter-faith harmony. But very little has been done to protect Islam against its manifestly wrong interpretation by the high priests of militancy.’

I agree with Rehman, that largely tepid plans to regulate the working of madrassas must be tightened up and a commission set up to probe the contents of so-called religious publications, which are believed to account for three-quarters of all publications in Pakistan each year.

The objective should be the confiscation of material used to brainwash young boys and convince them of the urgency of not only killing Ahmadis, Shias, and even Sunnis, for sectarian or political differences, but also of treating attacks on hospitals as a holy mission on the route to paradise.

For a people who have allowed raw emotions to rule their minds for decades the trek back to sanity will be neither easy nor painless. If the government doesn’t work now, the future could be worst than Iraq or Afghanistan, where sectarian wars and divisions are already hitting hard.

Kicking the habit

Corruption in Pakistan, a famous phenomenon that the media regularly reports on, is not only evident in the obvious cases, where government officials pinch money. It is also happening in cases where systems are dysfunctional, compelling ordinary people to give bribes and money in order to obtain the amenities that are most essential for human existence.

Unfortunately, corruption of every sort is found at all levels.

At the public level almost every individual is involved: public office is used for private gain at the expense of taxpayers. But even on the private level the average Pakistani is being further oppressed thanks to the business mafia, which is busy increasing the price of goods and exhorting money from already empty pockets.

With the passing of time and through social evolution certain traits and norms are shunned by societies, which adopts improved standards. It shatters me to see our society adopting a backward path as the menace of corruption – which was previously condemned (at least verbally) – is now not only being blatantly exercised by our neo-élite and so-called respectable leaders, but also flaunted not as a vice but a virtue to be appreciated and admired by all. Labels of respectability are awarded only to those who possess the maximum ability and access to plunder.    

The worst kind of corruption, however, is at the administrative level, at which the implementation of policies can be altered. The recent multiplicity of crises that has gained momentum has been a result of severe mismanagement or, should I say, the disinterest and unconcerned attitude of officials. So the nation has been pushed towards bankruptcy, despite its plentiful resources, for personal gain. State apparatus is being neglected, properties and natural resources are left to either be wasted or handed over to other countries without even considering the short- or long-term implications and despite the country’s precarious condition. The massive power shortage is an example that could have easily been avoided and rectified, yet still the nation is suffering power failures. Major cities remain shrouded in utter darkness while the administration remains calm and busy doing what it does best: nothing.  

Similarly, political corruption negatively influences laws and policies, as political leaders twist and alter them according to individual requirements. Even if individuals are not directly involved in such activities, they still have to bear the consequences: the amount of money the government has to spend in the development sector is reduced, thus compromising the quality of the average person’s life.

The many cases of fraud, nepotism and embezzlement – be they at a petty or much grander level – have damaged and continue to damage the nation. There is now an urgent need to curb this national habit at all levels upon which it is practised. The penetration of this vice into education, health and even religious affairs is highly alarming. Lack of positive vision by our political leaders and dictators has given rise to a whole race of religious extremists who follow a twisted ideology. Poor folks often have no choice but to send their innocent children into the hands of these vicious ministers who, by claiming to be the guardians of a pure and unadulterated Islamic faith, damage perceptions and create a negative image of Islam in the global community.

Take the recent case at the University of the Punjab, where one professor was beaten almost to death and another disgraced when members of a politically backed organization (who cannot be called students) acted out of blatant and unashamed callousness towards these members of a group that is revered and honoured in every society and every religion. This unpardonable act of brutality by those who call themselves ‘Islami’ disgraces our religion, which was given to us by the last prophet to propagate, not to adulterate. We don’t need any foreign power to malign our religion: our people are doing a pretty good job of it themselves. The irony of the situation is that while everyone condemns this horrific episode, like many others that have occurred in the past, no change is seen. These organizations keep on being funded and aided and their crimes protected behind political veils.

A most alarming situation has also arisen within the health system. Medicines – which are often substandard or even fake – fail to give the desired effects and even prolong the patients’ agony. Such issues are a stark example of the corruption that has seeped into our genetic makeup and that cannot easily be removed.   

We have to rethink and reconstruct our beliefs, which have been diluted by monetary greed and avarice. Is this what we wanted for a nation acquired through infinite sacrifices by our ancestors – the blood of whom is a primary constituent of our soil? Does the fear of God mean nothing to us? Or have our hearts been sealed – the eternal fate promised by the Lord for who transgress?

But there is still a window of opportunity which we have to grab before it’s too late. The true teachings of Islam preach not only simplicity, moderation and perseverance but also tolerance, allowing us to live a full and healthy life.
The difference between corruption in other countries and Pakistan is not just the atrocities and injustice inflicted by the élite, but the simultaneous inclusion of every individual at every rank in this unholy activity. Take the case of Kyrgyzstan, where people recently compelled their leader to flee as they united together against the menace of corruption. But how can anyone fight against something that one is involved in? Many are hinting at a possible revolution, but even that requires an organized and united lower and middle class, something which remains a Utopian dream. Our basic aim these days seems to be to prove ourselves superior to everyone around us. We have to stop this mad race, a race that generates only greed, avarice and a mammoth hunger for money, power, supremacy and belongings, and try to understand our actual needs – both corporal and spiritual. Humans are a mix of both these components, and the neglect of either one may be eternally detrimental for humanity.

Lights out

The recent blackouts in Pakistan have plagued cities and the countryside for up to 20 hours a day in some places, bringing industry and even farming to a halt. Riots have sparked across the country over the electricity crisis – a situation that will take months to quell. In the 21st century, when the rest of the world is pushing forward, this country is going backwards rapidly and there is no relief in sight as the bunch of élites rules the masses with their visionless and directionless attitudes.

It is worst in Sialkot, Pakistan’s industrial hub, where hundreds of factories have been forced to close down, and protesters take to the streets almost daily to raise their voices against the situation, but to no avail. Imagine coming home in the blazing heat to realize there’s no respite from the sun: the house is as hot as an oven, you can’t work, finish household chores, watch TV or, for that matter, even get a glass of cold water. 

With a shortfall of 4,700 megawatts, the government of Pakistan is trying to figure out how to pull the plug on Pakistan’s energy crisis. Unfortunately for them, it will take more than a bit of effort. Pakistan’s daily requirement of electricity ranges between 13,000 and 13,200 MW and falling water levels in the dams has considerably impacted on power generation.

Power and Water Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf has increased his promises up a notch and all the officials from Wapda, the water and power development authority, are playing to his tunes. Asharf spends more time representing his party co-chair in TV debates, participating in political negotiations, renaming roads and doing everything else that is not related to his portfolio. The public simply don’t believe him anymore. They believe that as long as these thugs and thieves are controlling our power system, it will remain in limbo; we won’t get any relief and ‘load shedding’ will remain an integral and over-whelming part of our wretched lives.

The protests right now are dispersed and not well co-ordinated. But this is just the start of the summer and of these protests. Rest assured, as the summer temperatures get more scorching, the load shedding will increase and it could very soon become a 24/7 situation: the protests will become violent and then eventually out of control. Already the Wapda has started securing its installations and converting its offices into fortresses. But that won’t help them much if the people become utterly fed up of their situation. 

Pakistan is among a few countries moving aggressively towards energy saver products. But the major problem with Pakistan’s energy crisis is bad planning. Electricity consumption has increased over the years, but successive governments failed to plan for the future. As a result, Pakistan now needs a huge supply of electricity, and has very few power generation plants that can cope up with the demand. A scheme was put into motion by the government for the creation of temporary power plants, but this has been plagued by allegations of corruption. The government, led by President Asif Zardari, says that its predecessor, the military regime of Pervez Musharraf, is at fault, as it failed to add any generation capacity and allowed inter-governmental debt to pile up. The trickle-down effect of inefficiency and mismanagement of the last nine years is in full flow now and the nation is now reaping what was sown by Musharraf’s regime. Unfortunately, the elected parliament and government are as dysfunctional as their predecessors.

In the midst of the outages, provinces and cities have been trading allegations on the distribution of power resources. Power companies (both state-run and private) accuse each other of not paying bills, or blame consumers for stealing electricity and not paying bills. Government institutions rack up millions in unpaid bills. Recently, in Karachi, Pakistan’s financial hub, electric supply was cut off to The Jinnah Hospital, one of the largest public hospitals, that caters to thousands of patients daily. Karachi Electric Supply Corporation (KESC) said it disconnected the electricity because the hospital owed millions of rupees in unpaid bills. Meanwhile, the hospital’s administration said the government was unable to pay the bills on time. It is a miracle that no one died at the hospital. 

The government recently finalized a proposal that includes reducing the working week to five days from six, and having weddings end by midnight. But it seems impossible in a country where élites rule. A prime example was Shoaib Malik, a former Pakistani cricket captain, who allegedly violated the government’s rules by using excessive power during his wedding reception, in spite of the energy crisis in the country.

The government must implement not just the power-saving proposals but also look towards building power plants and tapping into alternative energy resources. If politicians do not take heed, the government will soon be forced to realize that more than the Taliban, more than suicide bombings, more than insurgencies, it is really the power crisis – the product of years of bad planning at all levels of government – that most threatens Pakistan’s present and future.

Change in the air

Woman with goats - A Farz Foundation project

There I was, sitting in Punjab province’s historical Governor House, listening to a talk about ‘the poor’ in Pakistan. The event was organized to welcome the efforts of Pakistan’s Lahore-based Farz Foundation, a microfinance organization which was formed on an ideological basis of ‘partnership with the poor and profit-and-loss sharing’ as its primary investment methodology.

Pakistan, where banking has always been for the élite and the rich, is now seeing a change in the air, and it is good for the poor. For the first time microfinance is being customized according to both cultural and religious circumstances. As the first Islamic microfinance organization of Pakistan, with a fully fledged Islamic vision of trade and business, the Farz Foundation has provided an Islamic solution to the non-productivity of micro-loans, which can not only cater to a huge Muslim market but also to a general clientele.

‘The asset-based Islamic microfinance integrated approach is the basic tool of the foundation to get long-term sustainability, because the Farz Foundation has a strong belief that the sustainability of the client is the sustainability of the organization,’ said Farhat Abbas Shah, the CEO and a famous Urdu poet.

In Pakistan, commercial banking is very well developed, courtesy of the large number of national and international banks. However, commercial banks only have four million borrowers, in a population of 170 million. At the same time, there is a significant segment of the population that has welcomed Islamic microfinance.

Busy at work on a Farz Foundation project

One good thing about Islamic finance is that it offers partnerships without any regard to caste, colour or religion. And the minorities, for their part, are happy to be helped by whoever takes on this noble job. The Farz Methodology has knitted together different communities, while creating a relationship of trust with the primary lender. The Foundation has on its board people from very diverse backgrounds, and its first-ever branch was opened in an area inhabited mostly by non-Muslims, making them among the first beneficiaries. 

Pakistan is going through difficult times, fighting the so-called ‘war on terror’. Poor countries are also being hit hard by the shrinking world economy. A recent report from Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP) shows that the recent microfinance crisis in Pakistan can partly be attributed to high growth. An uncertain political and economic environment, high inflation, rising poverty and overindebtedness are some of the contributing factors.

Some experts believe that the crisis was due to a combination of factors, including high growth. Undeniably, microfinance loans increased rapidly in the last few years and in some urban areas this resulted in overindebtedness.  Loan officers were good at lending but not so good at recoveries, especially when the whole community ganged together and refused to pay.

Shah explains that crises do come, and when they come, the best strategy is always to identify the factors contributing to it so that past mistakes are not repeated, and the best remedies can be offered: 

‘While not denying the contributions made by microfinance, we must begin stocktaking and reevaluating our methods so that the best possible results can be had. We have learnt our lesson from the experience of the microfinance loan repayment crisis. We found it far more imperative to adopt an asset-based methodology, instead of cashed-based strategy.’

Another important fact regarding the crisis was that politicians only stepped in when it had already reached an unsustainable level. The very fact that finally a couple of local politicians had to get involved in an individual capacity indicates unrest among the borrowers. Senior politicians at both federal and provincial level even came to the rescue of lenders, yet nothing substantial was done to ease the plight of the minorities. The Farz Foundation has embarked on its project to prove the usefulness of the microfinance sector in fighting the curse of poverty. The poor want to change their lives, and I hope the Farz Foundation will initiate the process with commitment, honesty and flawless method.   

By way of conclusion, it is worth noting that the Farz Foundation recently completed its two-year pilot project. The organization compared results of money-based microfinance loans and their own asset-based loans. The Farz Methodology (asset-based microfinance) showed 80 per cent positive and productive results, while traditional microfinance, which is based on credit in the shape of currency, showed 80 per cent negative and non-productive results. The study confirms reports already being published in the international media about the weakness of traditional microfinance deals in terms of pulling people out of poverty. Although the efforts made by the CGAP and other agencies at the international level, and Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund at the national level, cannot be ignored, poverty alleviation – given the speed of inflation and the current increase in poverty – demands more sincere and creative efforts.

A Farz Foundation project

All photos courtesy of the Farz Foundation.

A dangerous profession

I have witnessed many dangerous episodes working as a journalist in Pakistan, but I have never seen journalists more committed than they are in this era. Pakistan was declared the world’s most dangerous country for media work last year, and journalists there are confronted with serious challenges.

I would say most of it goes to former President General, Pervez Musharraf, who took power during the 1999 military coup. He introduced the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) Ordinance in 2002, putting new restrictions on the media. These restrictions caused many of my fellow journalists to either give up their profession, or to leave their jobs and go into exile. The number of journalists escaping from Pakistan has been alarming.

Since the working conditions for journalists have worsened, journalists in Peshawar and Pakistan’s tribal areas are being targeted, threatened, kidnapped and denied access to the field. About 14 journalists have been killed in the region since the ‘war on terrorism’ began.

During my recent trip to the tribal areas, I discovered that the biggest story of this time is not being told the way it should be. The world is watching but unable to get the complete truth out of the war zone, where militants have been planning bomb attacks that have plunged a nuclear nation into chaos by rocking its cities with deadly attacks that have killed hundreds, injured thousands and displaced millions.

I was sitting in a local Hujra with my best friend Shaheen Boneri, a Peshawar-based journalist who was covering the war for BBC World Service.

Frustrated with covering chaos on a daily basis, Boneri explained that when society was passing through a transitional period, and centuries-old social and cultural institutions were razed to the ground, journalists were left with no option but to cover misery, death and destruction.

‘The country is in the grip of unprecedented violence and journalists carry the heavy burden of reporting each and every incident in great detail. The tragedy is that the majority of the journalists reporting from the conflict zones are not trained in the techniques of conflict reporting and safety measures,’ he added, sipping Peshawari Qahva, the traditional green tea and one of the favourite drinks of Pashtuns.

I was able to read clearly in Boneri’s expression a detailed account of the psychological problems faced by journalists. No doubt, every profession needs commitment, but I must say journalists are more committed in the sense that currently they are the most vulnerable group of people directly linked to dangerous zones. Nowadays every Pakistani journalist’s life is at risk. The prevailing uncertainty and fear puts their families at risk of militant attacks or harassment by the security agencies. Even in such hard times, they still stick to their duty instead of switching to other, safer jobs.

There is no denying the fact that Pakistani journalists are brave enough to face all the dangers and perform their duties and we should not only appreciate their work but also provide opportunities for them to polish their skills and to minimize threats to their lives.

Journalists in small towns and rural areas are sick of working without pay for the local dailies. It is criminal that bosses are obsessed with the idea of breaking news; most TV channels with correspondents in the conflict zones don’t take threats to their reporters’ lives very seriously. A few journalists have lost their lives while looking for breaking news. We always get the tragic news that the bullet-riddled body of one of our fellow journalists was recovered from a roadside. But it is never confirmed who killed him.

This observation takes on new urgency in light of the indifference of many media bosses. This is the lesson I draw from reporting in Pakistan’s dangerous conflict zones.

Most of the local and rural journalists are not trained for conflict reporting. Most often they work independently and their editors, sitting in big and relatively safe cities, don’t tell them that their safety is more important than breaking a story. The journalists are suffering from acute post-traumatic disorder due to witnessing such gory incidents of violence and they need care, treatment and psychiatric healing.

Those who begin as district or rural correspondents or who are forced by circumstances to join the profession, also need training and education in journalism ethics. Some of them are compelled to develop personal relationships with either the militant commanders or security agencies. This affects the quality of their journalism and sometimes results in confusion and uncertainty in society as they report issues according to the wishes of an individual or a group.

The TV channels have recruited people but never bothered to train them. Most of the budding journalists are interested in testing their mettle in online journalism but they lack the required skills. Plus they don’t know how to write for online media and how to protect their privacy if there is any threat/risk from any side.This is a sort of irresponsible journalism that creates more problems than delivering any positive results.

Hayat-Ullah Khan

Five orphans of slain tribal journalist Hayat-Ullah Khan are still looking for answers about the killer of their father, mother, and teenage uncle. All three were killed after Hayat published some pictures, which provoked angry protests in Pakistan at the infringement of Pakistani territory by US forces. While both the authorities and local militant groups denied any involvement in his killing, allegations persisted that Pakistan intelligence agencies were involved.

Last window of opportunity

The US and Pakistan will hold their first strategic dialogue at the ministerial level in Washington DC on 24 March. The process of strategic dialogue between Pakistan and the US was launched in 2006, when US President George W Bush visited Pakistan. It was decided that under the ‘strategic partnership’ regular dialogue would be held – co-chaired by the US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs and Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary – to review issues of mutual interest. Commitments were made to move forward in the areas of economic growth and prosperity, energy, peace and security, social sector development, science and technology, democracy and non-proliferation. The significance of this meeting can be assessed from the fact that apart from the Prime Minister, the foreign minister and government officials, Pakistan’s Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), General Kayani, will also be part of the delegation.

The main focus will be the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The US State Department’s Mark Toner said: ‘Obviously, we’re talking about Afghanistan, the situation there, the spillover into the FATA and how to really better engage. And in fact, we’ve seen some successes on that front in recent weeks.’

However, no representative from the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) or FATA areas is included in this critical strategic dialogue on FATA, terrorism and economic development. Even the Chairman of the standing committee on Foreign Affairs, Asfandyar Wali Khan, has been excluded. I suspect this may be because Wali represents Pushtuns, who have a somewhat different approach towards relations with India and Afghanistan.
The last round of talks was held in December 2007 between Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and Pakistani foreign secretary Riaz Muhammad. With General Musharaf in charge and handling matters personally, no substantial progress could be made on any agenda point except for routine discussions. 

Now, with the change of administration in US and establishment of political (rather than military) governments in Pakistan, the scene has changed. The latest review of US Afghan policy and the outcome of the London conference on Afghanistan hon ave made this round of talks much more important. Consequently, the delegations on both sides are bigger and of higher stature than before. It is important to note that the recent US policy shift in Afghanistan towards reconciliation and mediation with the Taliban has opened a new window of opportunity for Pakistan. It is now up to Pakistan as to how it can maximize its gains and make good the losses which it has suffered so far. 

But what are the two sides expecting from the dialogue? Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Halbrooke clearly explained the purpose of strategic dialogue during his briefing last Friday. He sees three core objectives: destroying al Qaeda, helping Afghans become self-reliant so that they can take care of their security, and strengthening Pakistan’s ability to deal with its own security and development by strengthening democratic institutions. On the Pakistani side Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, while talking to the US ambassador, highlighted his conerns: power generation; water conservation; education; strengthening the law enforcement agencies’ capacity through training and provision of equipment; fast-tracking the economic assistance committed through the Kerry Lugar Bill and under the Competitiveness Support Fund; and foreign military funding. Foreign minister Qureshi has further pointed out that economic and development issues must not be relegated to the back burner, thus hinting at Pakistan’s core concerns. 

The US is obviously going to focus on security issues, while Pakistan will try to draw maximum economic advantage out of the partnership. The potential danger is that Pakistan’s desire for economic aid, while on the agenda, will be overshadowed by the security talks. 

But there are security issues where the US needs Pakistani support. Destroying al Qaeda is not an easy task – it is an international organization with worldwide membership and influence. Can it be done by invading countries, changing regimes, killing or capturing top leadership, or imprisoning and torturing non-combatants in distant CIA prisons and bases? The strategy so far adopted has at best minimized al Qaeda’s influence and activities but has failed to destroy them. What is now needed is to go beyond the norm and accept reality, piercing through prejudices and self-interest. We all know that the mission and demands of al Qaeda are neither political nor economic, but are rather merged with popular and legitimate demands which have great acceptability in the Muslim world. The best way to defeat the organization is to defeat their sense of purpose by resolving the issues which are being used to attract recruitment. These are genuine Muslim concerns which must be resolved. Visible progress, with clear road maps, not mere rhetoric, can help reduce the influence of extremist organizations and ultimately defeat them. 

UN peacekeeping forces, which are acceptable to all the warring factions, should be involved. Muslim countries within the Organization of the Islamic Conference can contribute to bring peace to the region. Pakistan can also help in this regard and has already shown interest in training the Afghan National Army. 

The Kerry Luger Bill has been criticized extensively within Pakistan so should not be the prime focus. Moreover, the Government is not likely to get any benefit out of it.  

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