"Benazir fulfilled the word she gave to her father"
On a hot summer London day in July last year, I made my way to one of the most important interviews of my journalistic career. Sanam Bhutto, the last surviving child of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Bhutto who rarely speaks out, had after months of pursuing, finally agreed to give me an interview. I knew the subject well, and had interviewed her sister, Benazir Bhutto several times before. But nothing had prepared me for this Bhutto. As I entered her small, but tastefully decorated apartment, I realized I will have to carefully word my questions. Sanam Bhutto was still dealing with her sister's tragic assassination. Down to earth and disarmingly honest, she began to tell me the sad saga of the Bhutto family and how their lives were shattered due to their role in Pakistani politics. For many Pakistanis, the story of democracy in Pakistan is best understood through what happened to the Bhutto family.
By Munizae Jahangir
Munizae Jahangir: I know it must be hard for you to recollect memories of your family, but there must have been happier times?
Sanam Bhutto: There were happier times, but as you get older they seem fewer and further away. But I suppose the happiest times for our family was when my father was in government and we lived in Rawalpindi. We were a happy family and it was an innocent time even for the country. And obviously that was an innocent time for us. So those are my happiest memories of those days.
MJ: When Benazir was young did she ever want to become prime minister, did she ever see a role for herself in politics?
SB: My sister did not even want to become a politician when she was young, leave alone prime minister.
MJ: What did she want to become?
SB: I think later on in life she wanted to join diplomatic service but before that it was probably a psychiatrist.
MJ: Do you think your father was grooming her for politics or was he grooming the boys for politics?
SB: I don't think my father really groomed any one of us for politics.
MJ: And then she went away to America, at that time Benazir was a teenager, what was she like then? I know it was the 'in thing' to be leftist at the time, it was the 60's and 70's. What were Benazir's political beliefs at the time?
SB: You are right, it was very fashionable at that time to be a leftist. I think all my brothers and sister, except me, were leftist. And when I was young they would tease me and say that if communism comes in Pakistan you will be cleaning the streets. You would be a sweeper And I would say, why couldn't I be a librarian or something, why do I have to get the lowest paid job. But I think they were all a bit lefty.
MJ: Benazir wrote in her book that she was in jail when you were going to get married. So it must have been very difficult…on one hand you were starting a happy life, on the other hand you had this family who was struggling politically and she was in jail.
SB: I wanted to get out of Pakistan. I thought if I get married, I could get out because I thought I could have another last name and leave. I remember my sister got three days. We asked permission from the martial law administration and she got three days to attend the wedding. But believe me if you had seen her say that that person has just come from Karachi central and just been through all that and is going to go back. She was part of the wedding, she enjoyed those three days and I will never forget when we had to say goodbye to her and it was time for her to leave.
MJ: And how did she deal with this. She was very young, when she was thrown into jail. And as you said she had been abroad, had spent many happy years there, had that kind of exposure and then having to come right back to this very hard reality?
SB: She just dealt with it. What do you do when you are in a situation like that? How did Mandela deal with 29 years of jail, you have to do it. How do I deal that I have no family left? I cannot hang myself. I cannot jump out of that window. If I could, I would. I have to deal with it. I have no choice, do I?
MJ: You know you said there was no time to deal with. And yet it seemed that they could not break Benazir's spirit. Because even in jail, and despite being so young, she continued to fight on, even in her later years. Do you think that her time in jail built up her resilience?
SB: She had a bond with her father, it is as simple as that. It was a father/daughter relationship, there was no question for my sister to say that I want my comfort, that I want to have fun, and I do not want to celebrate every birthday or every New Year in jail or under sub jail or house arrest in Larkana. That does not come into the equation. It was a word that she gave to her father and that was it.
MJ: Your family life really started changing after your father took on the role of the opposition when he was imprisoned by Ayub Khan. What happened after that to you as a family?
SB: We were a very united family. I think when you are children you do not realize who your parents are, whether they are famous or not. For us they are just your mother and father. In fact, I still remember when my father left Ayub's government, we went by train to Karachi and the people there, I can see them now. We could not understand why there were thousands of people on the train station or wherever we went throughout that journey. They were on the roof of the train, they were crying. We could not understand why they were crying. For us, we were kids, we could not comprehend this. They were singing 'Akele nah janah,' I still remember that song. I saw the movie much later. It was something unbelievable and for the first time we said hey what is going on, this is for our father.
MJ: And then history repeated itself and people came out again for your sister and so it seems that people never stopped loving or having confidence in your family. But was there ever a realization when you were living away and being hounded that people perhaps had lost their love for your family?
SB: Oh I know that oligarchs and vested interests do not like us. But I do know that a lot of other people do like us, or like them, not me! They represented something, they gave a voice to the people. Was that their biggest crime? Because I have still not figured out why half my family was murdered by Pakistan.
MJ: Do you blame the Pakistan government for your family's murder?
SB: Yes I do. I want to know the answer. I do not know why and who killed my whole family.
MJ: Who do you think killed Benazir?"
SB: The same people who killed my father, who killed my brother Murtaza, both my brothers, they are the same people who killed my sister.
MJ: And you do not know why they exactly did this?"
SB: The only thing I can think, because for me it is a really traumatic thing, especially my sister's death and I've got to in my mind figure it out, the only thing I can think of is that what could be their crime? That they gave a voice to the people? What else did they do that others have not done and are still alive?
MJ: Are you comfortable about Bilawal Bhutto Zardari joining politics?
SB: I am never comfortable about anyone joining politics. I do not like politics. So obviously I am not comfortable about him joining politics. Especially now, I think I want him to finish his education, which is what his mother wanted. He should get a good five years more of education and learn the way of the world. That is what Benazir wanted for all her kids. And if later on in life he wants to sacrifice himself, what can I say?
MJ: And now that their mother is gone, you must have a closer relationship with them? Do you feel a responsibility to guide them?"
SB: Well I was always very close to them, even when their mother was alive. I do not know about responsibility to guide them, but I feel that I want to live and I want to be around for them. If they need me, they should know I am there. Who is going to get them married? Should I not be around to at least see my nieces and nephew married? And if they have children, who is going to teach them what to do? I relied on my mother, my mother taught me how to handle my first-born, I did not know what to do. Who will teach them? I have got to be around for them.
MJ: And you will never join politics?
SB: No I won't enter politics.
MJ: Will you ever go back to Pakistan and live there?
SB: No I never think I will. You know in your day dream you think I wish I could go there, because it is sometimes very hard here to be honest. Especially when my children were small and I was alone and I did not have any support. I used to think wow, if I go back, I could live like a queen there. But I have become too used to being alone.
MJ: What happened between your sister and your brother, Mir Murtaza Bhutto? Because they were very close and suddenly their relationship went sour. What happened?
SB: Nothing happened between them. I guess other people came in the way. I do not know, I really do not want to talk about it right now.
MJ: You have also filed a court case, where you want equal distribution of your assets and at the moment Ms. Ghinwa Bhutto is presently in possession of your house? So what is happening with that court case?
SB: Forget equal distribution. What about Shariah law? If you cannot do equal distribution, then do it by Shariah, right? I have not got a thread from my parents' home. In fact my own jewellery and gold coins that I collected all my life, I did not get those either. I did not even get my mother-in-law's jewellery lying there, which is not mine, it was an amanat to give my son. I got nothing.
MJ: What about the court case, are you going to pursue it?"
SB: I am not bothered. They cannot take it to their grave, nor can I take it to my grave. I like it in this small flat, where am I going to put it? Things are irrelevant really. I do not care, let them have it now.
MJ: How do you respond to their criticism (Ghinwa and Fatima Bhutto) of your sister? It must be very hard on you to see it this way.
SB: It breaks my heart, it burns me, it hurts me. I cannot tell you, how much it hurts not just me, it hurts my children. It hurts me to see how they hurt her (Benazir's) children. They made my sister's last two months a misery. What for? I still have not figured out what for? Are they upset that she was success and my brother was not politically as successful as my sister was? Is that why they are angry? Because she seems very, very angry and I cannot understand why? What did my sister take of theirs? What did she do to them? Did she say even one word against them?
MJ: Was Benazir always responsible and dependable or were there certain times when you felt that events overtook her and they changed her in some sort of a drastic way? Let's say when she was in prison?
SB: She was always like that. Really she was always like that. I remember that back in the day when she was in prison we would not recognize the martial law authorities, so we could not send a letter to them to request to visit Benazir. People were usually allowed visits, once a month or so, it was almost automatic. But it was not like that for us, of course. So my mother and sister said do not write to the martial law authorities, write to the home secretary. And since the home secretary did not have the authority to allow us a visit, I never got to see my sister. Maybe one day somebody felt sorry and they let me go to Sukkur jail to see my sister. I wanted to sit for one minute longer. There was an open window, the policemen were sitting outside, the women police women were sitting inside listening to our conversation. I asked them, "Can I have just one more minute."
They said, "No, hum bohat waqt ke paband hain.You have to get up." I said "Zia is not watching, he does not know. Can't I have just one more minute?" And my sister said, "Do not ask them for half a second. Get up and go." When I went to whisper something to her, the policewomen came and separated us and said you cannot whisper. People had given me food to give her, because she was rotting in Sukkur jail. People are mean and nasty now, but let me tell you that not one person who has talked against my sister can live and go through what my sister went through. Not one. Let me see Fatima being dragged out of a plane and shoved in a Cessna, because they did not want my sister to go and see my father and she had to be sent to Lahore to jail. They made me taste the food. This is how they used to treat us. "Taste the food, we want to know," pretending in a sarcastic, mean way. Why would I want to poison my own sister? But it was just to make you small and humiliate you. I used to have short hair and they used to check my short hair to see that I was not hiding anything. I brought money, they took it away, because they did not want me to give it to my sister."
MJ: And yet she went on. Was there ever a time when you told her, forget about this, why do this?
SB: I never told my sister to forget about it, because I knew I would just get a shouting from her. But people did tell her in front of me and she would get upset with them. Because she knew what she had to do, no matter how hard a task it was, that was beside the point. Not just my sister, but also my poor mother. The two of them went through hell. Everything is hunky dory in Pakistan, everything is fine. All they can find is to bitch about us, can't they find anyone else, to point their jealousy and hatred?
MJ: You know I interviewed her in 2006 and I spoke to Benazir about her children. She told me that she wanted her children to become doctors or lawyers, but if they really wanted to join politics, only then she will support them. Did she want her children to join politics?
SB: I really think about it, I do not think so. Maybe in the way my father had wanted my sister to join politics where you use our Member of Parliament seat to do good for others. Maybe later on in that way. Why would she want her children to be in politics, let's be honest?
MJ: After her assassination, what were your first concerns? Because a lot of people were disappointed by way she was buried. People wanted to have a state funeral for her. Did you have any say in her last rites?
SB: I did not know anyone who wanted to have a state funeral. And I doubt that Musharraf would want to have a state funeral. How was she buried fast? I came a day later, she was buried that day. What did they want to do? Tear my sister's body more, do autopsy, for what? To find out what? The killer's name is not going to be inside her body. She is not going to wake up if we did an autopsy. What is there to find out? She is gone, finito, that's it.
MJ: They carried out a post-mortem that you had confidence in?
SB: I did not want them to touch my sister's body or to it apart than they already did for no rhyme or reason. My sister was dead. Why did they open her heart to massage the heart? I still cannot understand that. They say my sister was blown up. How come she was blown up with her fingernails, her eyelashes, and her smile still on the side of her face? How can they say that my sister was blown up? My sister was shot dead, she bled to death through that bullet wound. What was there to find out?
MJ: Do you think…
SB: I just want my sister to be in peace. I do not want her to have autopsies, post mortems. She is gone, let her rest in peace. When she was around they treated her like ___. All these supposed macho men, these little Napoleons, roaming around, smoking their cigarettes and twirling their moustaches. Let them have what they want now. I want my sister, I am happy I thank God every night, that my sister is in peace and with her father. For me that matters and nothing else matters.
MJ: But you know there are many who miss her. And there was always this expectation of her that she was going to 'save Pakistan' that she would turn around Pakistan. Do you think that when she returned this time round it would be different. That she would not be ousted in three years that she would be more successful and would be able to handle the military better.
SB: How can you handle the military? The military handled us, normal folk, you do not handle the military. Every time my sister was in government, her government had its hands tied behind their back with a gun to their head. That is how the PPP government was as far as I am concerned. When did they ever give her a free hand? Don't they openly come on TV now, the head of ISI and all say, "We decided to give her X amount of seats and we did that…." That is not government. I have lived here too long and to me it does not make sense.
MJ: But did you see light at the end of the tunnel, when she returned and got the kind of welcome that she got? That there was a super power behind her encouraging her to return?
SB: They think they are a super power, the British. I think it was their plan, they encouraged her, they convinced the…..I do not know. I do not want to get into all of this, these are my own theories, for another date, another time.
The interview was aired on Geo TV on 27th Dec, 2008
Fiddling with time!
By Shoaib Hashmi
So it has come and gone. 2008 is over and on the last day, at the stroke of midnight we were all required to add one second to the year as stipulated by whoever stipulates such things. If you were not aware of it and didn't add the second you are out of sync with the rest of us and living in a fool's paradise.
Actually I have absolutely no idea how one goes about adding a second to the year. I suppose one waits until the stroke of midnight and then waits a further second before starting the new year; but that would not add one second to the old year, it would shorten 2009 by one second and I don't know if that would be fair.
It's nobody's fault, its all because the year can't be divided into an even number of days, it comes to 365 plus six or seven hours and that has caused trouble through the ages. The Romans were the first to try to deal with it by assuming the year was 360 days and divided it up into an even ten months. Then along came Julius Caesar and said that the month of July be added named after him and it have thirty-one days.
He was followed by Augustus who added the month of August and also insisted it have thirty-one days, and that is why we landed up with September, the seventh month being the ninth and tying ourselves into knots trying to remember which month has how many days.
It really messed things up because the year was 365 days and by the eleventh century the calendar was eleven days out of date, which was when Pope Gregory took over and decided to institute a new calendar, named after him, to put things in order -- he decreed that the date after the third of November would be the fifteenth to incorporate the eleven days.
There were riots all over Europe because people thought they had been diddled out of eleven days and they went about in processions shouting, "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman!" I have never really understood what they meant by the slogan. I suppose they meant it was all these fancy gentlemen who were causing this trouble by adjusting the calendar where our forefathers had got along with the old system!
I must admit I agree with the sentiment. Our measurement of time is very recent and fiddling with it is even more recent. After all the earth in its journey had continued for millennia before we started trying to pin it down and will doubtless continue much after we stop. In the meantime there is not much point in causing riots trying to show off!
Historians may have conclusive evidence about Wazir Mansion as Jinnah's birthplace but residents of Jhirik insist it was "their" village where the Quaid was born
By Sabeen Jamil
When the Government of Pakistan declared Wazir Mansion in Karachi as the official birthplace of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah in 1953, children at the only primary school in Jhirik, a small village situated 150 km from Karachi, simultaneously learnt from their textbooks that it was instead 'their' village where Jinnah was born.
"Right next to the school building was the house where he was born," teachers at the school proudly told their students of the ruins of a house adjacent the school's building as additional information apart from their textbooks. The ruins that are now nothing but dust were back then and till now believed by the locals as the property of Jinnah's maternal grandfather Moosa Wali Bhai.
With an estimated population of 5,000 people, Jhirik, a small village on a hill in Thatta district is named after a saint and his followers who were called Jhiriki (bird with a sweet voice) for speaking sweetly. This village of fishermen, besides hosting saints, has as well the honour of sheltering the first leader of Aga Khan Community, Aga Hassan, who came from Iran to Jhirik in 1870 and remained here for almost a year.
Students at Jhirik until the early 1960s continued learning that Quaid-e-Azam was born at Jhirik. It was a fact not only written in textbooks and taught by teachers, but also believed by the elders who confirmed that Mitthi Bai (Jinnah's mother) had come from Karachi to Jhirik to deliver Jinnah, as it was a custom for girls at that time to give birth at their father's house.
The said elders were either people who claimed they had lived at the time or that they were children of those labourers who had worked at a small leather factory of Poonja Bhai, father of Mr. Jinnah. These elders also told children about the day when Poonja Bhai had distributed sweets in Jhirik celebrating the birth of his son who would later to be called Quaid-e-Azam (Father of the Nation).
It is also claimed that Jinnah studied at the same school till first grade. "Jinnah's name was enrolled in the school's register," a retired teacher of the school told TNS. The teacher, who himself read and taught from textbooks for years that Jinnah was born in Jhirik which was a part of Karachi district in 1876, said the register went missing after it was taken by the Government of Pakistan during the 1960s to resolve the issue of the date of birth of Jinnah.
Nevertheless, this propagation of Jhirik as Jinnah's birthplace continued till the early 1960s when the textbooks of the Government of Pakistan started contradicting that Jinnah was born at Jhirik. "Some textbooks did read Jhirik as Quaid-e-Azam's birthplace which were afterwards corrected by the Government of Pakistan," said Qazi Fayaz Hussain, Incharge Senior Publication Officer, at Sindh Text Book which designs textbooks for students in Sindh province with the approval of the Curriculum Wing of the Federal Ministry of Education. Hussain said a proper scholarly research was not carried by the government before correction. "Yet, we have forgotten the chapter now as the government declared Wazir Mansion as the official birthplace of Jinnah."
The textbook board might have forgotten it, but the majority in Jhirik still remember the chapter in their textbooks that read, "Jinnah was born at Jhirik." As "it was written by Dr. Umar Bin Muhammad Daudpota (1897-1958) the then director education," said Mushtaq Mallah, General Secretary of Quaid-e-Azam Yadgaar Committee, which was formed by the locals to get Jhirik acknowledged as Jinnah's actual birthplace.
Mallah believes that the claim made by Dr. Daudpota in textbooks must have some substance in it, which should have been investigated by the government instead of changing it to Wazir Mansion without any research. According to Mallah, the change might have been made by the government for the reason that Karachi was a big city and "sounds prestigious as a birthplace of a great leader," as compared to Jhirik which is a small and underdeveloped village.
Qazi Fayaz Hussain though doesn't acknowledge the assumption of Mallah but sources in the Sindh Text Book Board, on condition of anonymity, do admit that it might be possible as textbooks content in Pakistan changes in accordance to the 'will and policies' of different governments.
Dr. Mubarak Ali, an eminent historian, said that it was difficult to ascertain if 'facts were distorted' since no objection was raised by historians or even Fatima Jinnah when Wazir Mansion was declared as Jinnah's birthplace. Ali added that apparently this act didn't even serve any political interest of the then government.
"To ascertain the truth," said Ali "we need evidence which may be available after proper research." Ali, however, said a majority of historians have identified Karachi as a birthplace of Jinnah.
Quaid-e-Azam Academy, an institute under the auspices of the federal government for research on Jinnah and the Pakistan movement in Karachi, claims that Jinnah was born at Wazir Mansion. The director of the academy, Manzoor Ali Khan, said the academy had not come across any authentic research claiming that Jinnah was born anywhere but Wazir Mansion. "Jinnah in his speech made on August 25 1947, in Karachi stated that he was born in Karachi. Further, in her book My Brother, Fatima Jinnah wrote on page 50 that Jinnah was born at the hands of a midwife in Kharadar, Karachi."
While the issue seems less controversial after all these accounts, the fact remains that Jinnah had a family home in Jhirik which is not being properly looked after. "The ancestral house and factory of Jinnah's forefathers are nothing but dust and heaps of garbage now," said Mallah pointing to the heaps of garbage on the plot believed to be the leather factory of Poonja Bhai. " It is only because of government's negligence and non-acceptance of Jhirik as Jinnah's ancestral village that we lost the sites of national heritage in Jhirik," said Mallah adding that other sites of historical value in Jhirik are otherwise well kept.
This includes the 400 years old graveyard of Lakho Pir and palaces of First Aga Kha, Aga Hassan which are regularly visited and renovated by devotees on their own. "If government had maintained the ancestral properties of Quaid-e-Azam the same way," said Mallah, "Jhirik would have been a tourist place, offering jobs for the now jobless hundreds of fishermen in Jhirik."
The palace and houses of Khoja community are still visited by a great number of people throughout the year. "Moosa Wali Bhai's plot adjacent to it however lays unnoticed," said Mallah.
Things are going from bad to worse in Swat where the militants are running a parallel government
By Behroz Khan
A parallel system of governance is strengthening roots under the command of the Taliban in the Swat Valley, as the writ of the state is on the decline.
Unexpectedly, the government which is fighting to establish its writ through security forces is losing ground to the advancing fighters of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) led by Maulana Fazlullah. Through the use of intelligence, latest communication networking and spreading propaganda through an uninterrupted FM radio channel, TTP is getting extremely strong. An autonomous state is emerging with its information ministry represented by TTP Swat's spokesman, Haji Muslim Khan. Journalists have, of late, been contacting Haji Muslim Khan for confirmation and verification of bomb blasts, suicide bombings, and attacks on the security forces check posts and convoys instead of a government functionary.
Trials, executions and whippings in criminal cases and quick decisions in cases of civil nature by the militants have replaced the existing setup of courts on more than two-thirds territory of the valley.
Helpless people with small landholdings and concerned about the education of their children, and those having affiliations with political parties, particularly Awami National Party, have either shifted their families to other parts of the province and elsewhere or are waiting for the opportunity to get out of their native Swat.
No elected parliamentarians can dare enter Swat since they were elected with the votes of the local people on Feb 18, 2008. Family members of Waqar Khan and Wajid Ali Khan, ANP's elected members of the NWFP Assembly, even stayed away from attending the funeral of their near and dear ones killed at the hands of militants. Decapitation is on the rise and all those considered even a slightest threat to the militants have either been killed and made examples of or are on the hit list.
Like the rest of the picturesque valley, Mingora city too has become a ghost city, of late. Few people are seen on the streets these days in the city, which were bursting with visiting tourists throughout the year. Since the launch of the military operation in October last year, the situation has gone from bad to worse.
The famous Green Chowk in Mingora has got a new name 'khuni chowk'. Every morning, people wake up to the reality that beheaded or bullet- riddled bodies of personnel of the security forces or opponents of Taliban are either hanged or thrown in Green Chowk.
TTP has been emboldened by its successes against the government to the extent that the Jan 15 deadline given to people regarding ban on girls' education has been extended to Malakand Agency sharing boundaries with Buner in the east, Dir Lower in the north and Mardan district in the south. More than 150 schools have been bombed and burnt in Swat alone with about 100 of them being girl schools. About 190 schools are closed in the upper Swat valley, leaving more than 90,000 students without education. Parents are in quandary as schools and colleges have remained closed in most of Swat for more than a year now.
Maulana Fazlullah's men have also set up their own system of tax collection. In parts of the valley, Ushr, (Islamic tax), which is one-tenth of the crop and fruit produce was collected this fall and almost 90 percent of hides collected from the sacrificial animals on Eid-ul-Azha went to the Bait-ul-Maal of Maulana Fazlullah. Kidnapping for ransom, looting banks and items taken from captured households of opponents are other means of raising funds for the Bait-ul-Maal.
TTP's fighters are paid regular salaries and provided with latest weapons and sufficient ammunition. They get a share of the war booty as well. They have set up an effective network of paid informers giving the impression as if it is run by a state. Their main target is the police force, which in comparison is poorly equipped and low in morale. A sizeable number of the police force, according to local and police sources have resigned or are unwilling to report to duty. Those performing duty, mostly remain indoor and away from public places to avoid being exposed.
The influence and scope of activities of TTP has not only extended to lower Swat valley, but to other areas like Buner and Malakand Agency as well. A polling station was bombed in Buner during the by-elections on Dec 28 when a suicide bomber drove a car into a school building in Shalbandai village, killing 44 people including children. The shooting of a Chinese engineer working on Malakand III hydro project is another example that militancy is spreading in the region.
The provincial coalition government headed by ANP has expressed dissatisfaction over the ongoing military operation in Swat and the NWFP Assembly has passed a resolution asking the authorities to make it "more effective." On the other hand, the provincial government which has two separate agreements with both Maulana Fazlullah and his father-in-law, Maulana Sufi Muhammad, is hard pressed in getting approval from the president on the implementation of the Shariah draft for Malakand division.
However, provincial information minister and ANP's leader, Mian Iftikhar Hussain is hopeful. "We are targets because we want peace. We are not fighting against Taliban. The term Taliban is respectable for us due to religious reasons. Our fight is against those having no religion and no Pashtunwali." Hussain said these forces are bent upon sabotaging peace and a time will come when these faces will be exposed to the whole world. He said that ANP is not the only target because a national level leader like Benazir Bhutto also fell prey to the conspiracies of these terrorist forces. "We are following in the foot steps of Bacha Khan and he taught us nothing but non-violence. If he could succeed against the might of the British Empire with empty hands, we are of the firm belief that we will win this time as well."
Stories buried under the carpet
By Omar R. Quraishi
One wishes that something along these lines was also done for the Pakistani press but whatever one says about the American press -- and it's more applicable for the mainstream media there -- its alternative segment does a fair job of trying to uncover the truth.
It is in this context one needs to acknowledge the effort of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, an alternative weekly newspaper published in San Francisco -- with a circulation of over 145,000. One of its writers, Amanda Witherell (Amanda@sgbg.com) works on what is called 'Project Censored' and did a story dated Oct 1, 2008, pointing out, according to a survey carried out by Sonoma State University, the 'top 10 stories that the US media had missed' in the past year.
Most of these stories had to do with the Bush administration's obsession with the war on terror and the corresponding abridgement of the rights of US citizens that came as a result of this so-called 'war'. The survey, carried out by researchers of the university combing the mainstream and the alternative media, in electronic, Internet and print mediums, found that a lot of what the US government passes on to the media is presented as accurate news -- by that one means that such information is presented to readers and/or viewers as verifiable fact.
In doing so, the media fails to carry out its very duty as a watchdog in society, and especially of actions and policies of the government of the day. Of course, the US mainstream media was particularly guilty of this.
Some of the 10 stories -- and they have international ramifications -- were:
a. The death of habeas corpus in America -- the authority vested in a court to demand that an individual detained by the government be produced before it. Very much a bed-rock of Anglo-Saxon law, habeas corpus is a cherished legal principle even in a country like Pakistan, which has its own problems with things legal and constitutional. The US
Congress passed in Sept 2006, the Military Commissions Act which allow the president to designate any person as an "alien unlawful enemy combatant". Once this is done, the individual can be taken out of the US legal system, which also means that the writ of habeas corpus no longer applies and his or her right to a fair trial is taken away as well. The person who undergoes trial before a US military commission does not have to be present in court when the evidence is presented -- implying that refusal to attend such a hearing would not stop the prosecution from going ahead and presenting the case before the military court.
Amy Witherell writes that most mainstream US publications, led by the New York Times, have categorically said that the new law does not apply to US citizens -- signalling that it is perhaps all right if US constitutional guarantees applicable to American citizens are not extended to foreign nationals. Project Censored points out that in fact one well-known investigative journalist --Robert Parry, who has worked with Newsweek, Associated Press and Bloomberg -- uncovered Col Oliver North's involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal while Newsweek disagrees because in the text of the act, the difference between 'alien unlawful enemy combatant' is blurred with the much more vague and extra-national 'any person subject to this chapter' proviso. The legalese in the act also goes on to refer to people acting "in breach of allegiance or duty to the United States" leading the journalist to rightly question that who has such an allegiance if not a US citizen?
b. The US media all but ignored the passage of the John Warner Defense
Authorization Act For Fiscal Year 2007 whose section 1076 allows the US president to declare a public emergency and send federal troops to take over paramilitary National Guard units and local police if he deems them unfit for maintaining order. Witherell says that this turned out to be more or less a revival of the Insurrection Act which was repealed by Congress in 1878! It was replaced by the Posse Comitatus Act which served to reinforce the legal principle enshrined in the US constitution that the job of the federal government was to police the national border and the states were to be left responsible to take care of their own regions.
The Warner act defines a public emergency as a "natural disaster, epidemic, or other serious public health emergency, terrorist attack or incident, or other condition in any state or possession of the United States" and extends its provisions to any place where "the president determines that domestic violence has occurred to such an extent that the constituted authorities of the state or possession are incapable of maintaining public order". Surprisingly, this piece of legislation was passed with 90 per cent of the votes in the lower house and unanimously in the US Senate. It was only several months after its signing in Oct 2006 that one senator noticed this provision hidden in the act and introduced a bill (no. 513) to repeal section 1076. That bill is yet to pass.
c. The use of (virtually) indentured labour to build the US embassy in Baghdad's Green Zone. Billed as the largest embassy in the world, on a plot measuring some 104 acres, the construction job of 4592 million was awarded in 2005 to First Kuwaiti Trading and Contracting. Though much of the project's management is staffed by Americans, most of the workers are from small or developing countries like the Philippines, India, and Pakistan and, according to one US-based corporate watchdog, CorpWatch, are recruited under false pretences. The watchdog claims that at the airport, their boarding passes read port of disembarkation as 'Dubai' but when they get off the plane, they're in Baghdad. The labourers are paid between $10 and $30 a day and CorpWatch alleges -- it says it has spoken to people who are involved in all of this --that all kinds of practices take place which in the US would constitute a clear violation of most US labour laws.
The writer is Editorial Pages Editor of The News.