The media has emerged as the prime voice of the people and has revealed, much to the dismay of the Establishment, the suppressed but still alive sprit of the people. There is no turning back...
By Adnan Rehmat
The last time things were this tense in Pakistan was in 1999 when the army overthrew an elected government and seized power. The military takeover was facilitated -- in 1999, as well as in 1958 and 1977 -- by the absence of private local broadcast media. The military seized the state-owned TV and radio -- until then the only terrestrial electronic media in the country and therefore the only mainstream source of information with universal geographic access -- blanked the broadcasts and most Pakistanis only found out the next day that their fate had been sealed.
How different is it this time! Within minutes of the army chief-president 'sacking' the chief justice of Pakistan for refusing to tow his line, the news was flashed around the country by national private TV channels. The first major battle between key power wielders of Pakistan since the military coup was underway and it was played out live! By the end of the day there was nothing else but the battle royale on Pakistan's dozen or so current affairs channels (of a total of about 50 private TV channels) -- in Urdu, Pashto, Sindhi and Punjabi.
Over the course of the last fortnight, a riveted Pakistani population has been sitting out their days -- at home and in offices -- before TV screens and have seen the event analysed inside out like nothing ever before. This is the first time ever that the average citizen has been afforded sustained real-time access to information about an unfolding crisis of monumental proportions in which they have found they can be involved as well through the power of informed responses.
Life in Pakistan is anything but dull. Crises and upheavals are a national staple -- military coups, hanging and forced exiles of prime ministers, bombing to death or jailing provincial chief ministers and governors, jailing serving parliamentarians and what not. The Orwellian 'Establishment' has usually managed to control events because it has controlled information flows and deployed sustained propaganda, thereby keeping people in the dark and blunting popular responses through enforcing delays on expressions of popular sentiments.
Expanded media space
This time round the establishment has been caught unguarded by the greatest access to information by the average citizen. Part of its undoing has ironically come from the Pakistan government's own policies of opening up the airwaves for private ownership. In 2002 the Musharraf regime set up the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority to issue the first licenses for private radio stations and TV channels. In the last 5 years, about 130 FM stations and around 50 TV channels have sprouted up as a result -- breathing in a refreshing open information regime that has allowed the 160 million Pakistanis the first reliable alternative sources of information about issues affecting their lives in real time. This matters a great deal to a population only 35 per cent functionally literate and where newspaper circulation is a mere 5 million.
One of Musharraf regime's consistent boasts has been its policy of opening up the media space to private TV channels. However, many argue that it was not a favour to the citizens but a right that had been denied for too many decades. The truth is that the government did not have the capacity to resist the enlarging of the public information sphere any more. It was Musharraf's Kargil fiasco -- mounting a military conflict in Indian-administered Kashmir -- that was the turning point. In the absence of private broadcast media and with state-owned TV and radio telling them virtually nothing of Pakistan's Kargil setbacks, Pakistanis were switching in their millions for information to Indian TV channels through satellite dishes beaming the military conflict live -- in a language (Hindi) that they understood.
The same happened when the 1999 military coup took place. The Musharraf regime had no choice but to open up the media space in Pakistan in a 'strategic' decision to wean away Pakistanis from Indian real-time information sources by allowing local TV channels.
The language of violence
In the interim leading to the current crisis, the government has dealt with the private media, especially TV channels and radio stations, in the way the state always has -- intimidation, coercion and violence. At least 25 journalists have been killed in Pakistan, including Daniel Pearl of the Wall Street Journal, since the 1999 military coup -- many of them suspected to be by government functionaries including intelligence agencies. Several hundreds of others have been beaten up, intimidated, arrested and prevented from performing their duties. The attacks have included violence against TV channels, radio stations and newspaper offices.
Perturbed by the unprecedented live coverage of protests by lawyers and political parties and standard heavy-handed official violence by the authorities against them, the government started by disturbing broadcasts of TV channels, banning popular current affairs programmes on them, registering court cases against channels, enforcing censorship through regular advice and finally an incredibly open show of hostility against Geo TV -- which has become the CNN, BBC and Al-Jazeera -- all rolled into one of Pakistan. Uniformed police attacked the Geo TV office and its sister media publications, assaulting its journalists and smashing property. It even lobbed teargas shells into the office to force all journalists out in a bid to disrupt transmission. The attack was shown live and continued even in the presence of the government's information minister after he rushed there and failed to stop the violence.
Media-led mass popular
The relentless 24/7 comment on the crisis and footage of the chief justice being humiliated by the minions of the military triggered unprecedented riots led by the lawyers across the country and quickly backed by the political parties. The Musharraf-led military dispensation has been humiliated and abused like never before live on TV. Hence the inevitable crackdown on the media concluding in brute force against Geo TV. However it was the reaction of the people in general and intelligentsia in particular to the naked government attack on Geo TV that triggered something far more significant and took the national crisis to a new level: mass popular defiance, led by a unified media up in arms, the newsrooms matching the spirit of the lawyers in the streets, which assumed such threatening proportions that Musharraf himself came live on TV to apologize -- a first for him in his 8-year autocratic rule: a hasty public retreat.
* This is the most dramatic confrontation between a free and independent media and an autocratic state since the Georgian 'Rose Revolution' and is already defining a turning point in Pakistan's future.
* Citizens are finally getting information in real time on a mass scale with the result that every citizen is discussing and speaking in homes, offices and in streets about the crisis. This is the end of the traditional military-enforced culture of 'Siyasi guftagoo mana hai [political discussion prohibited]' -- the first signs of an institutionalisation of empowerment of the people.
* Media has assumed a critical conscience about its emergence as a major power wielder by its open on-air defiance of military coercion and by standing its ground and forcing an official retreat in the face of live finger-pointing. One particular show by a channel even brought together political talk show hosts of all current affairs channels (setting aside competition rivalries for a common cause) to discuss various government pressures and tactics aimed at blunting criticism. The show revealed in gory details the dirty trickery employed by the government to curb dissent and ended on a note of consensus to defy all such pressures in the future.
* Pakistan's major power wielders seem to be formally acknowledging the emergence of media as a major organ of accountability that needs to be respected. Musharraf's apology and instant shows of support by lawyers, NGOs and political parties reflect this. There seem to be a general acknowledgement that Pakistan's courageous media has assumed the lead role in national discourse.
* Pakistan's media has articulated well the concerns of the disempowered citizens, seizing this role from the political parties by mobilising public opinion as well as the intelligentsia -- the role that usually political parties do but which have been otherwise rendered impotent by the Orwellian establishment through forced exiles and intimidation of political leaders and rendering the parliament -- the only other space where public concerns can be articulated -- impotent.
The news from Pakistan is loud and clear: The media has emerged as the prime voice of the people and has revealed, much to the dismay of the Establishment, the suppressed but still alive sprit of the people. There is no turning back!
Until it is accepted that violence is not an option, that dissent is necessary within any society, the problems that exist at present will only continue
By Kamila Hyat
The use of violence by police to break up protests by unarmed civilians has become something of a norm over recent months. Baton-wielding police thugs have over the past year alone been unleashed on political activists, labour leaders, fisherfolk, the families of disappeared people and even desperate citizens protesting power cuts or other civic issues. In an especially ludicrous demonstration of police might, a group of ten elderly and quite obviously harmless professors belonging to the Agricultural University Teacher's Association staging a protest against the lifting of their chairman's car were set upon by police in Peshawar and the entire group arrested.
What is significantly different about the attack on lawyers, media personnel and other activists seen in Islamabad and other cities during the ongoing protests against the removal of the Chief Justice of Pakistan is the fact that the action has been brought into every living room. The batons, the tear-gas, the boots, the staffs, the sticks, used by policemen to bludgeon demonstrators -- including old men and women -- has been covered extensively by the TV cameras that over the past five years have become a part of public life in the country. Clumsy efforts to limit the coverage, by threatening channels, have largely failed.
The real question is why the state should see it fit to unleash such brutal force against its own citizens. The use of the violence of course testifies as to the relationship between people and the State, and the extent to which it is now essentially coercive in nature.
The contempt with which civil society is regarded by State, all the more so when the military forms a part of the ruling arrangement, is one part of the picture. This disregard for ordinary people has been exhibited again and again, even during times of acute crisis, such as during the immediate aftermath of the October 8, 2005 earthquake. Many survivors reported hostility, most particularly from military personnel -- and a deep-rooted tendency to treat civilian concerns with disdain.
But the issue of violence against people goes beyond this. In the most recent case, as lawyers and activists have been beaten and left bleeding on the ground before the watching eyes of the nation, there are also other issues at play. It would appear that the desire of authorities to prove 'all is well' within the state has over-ridden almost all other concerns. The interpretation of this desire, by agencies entrusted with enforcing law and order, has been to try and quell any kind of demonstration of dissent.
The entire issue is as such rooted in the ability of rulers to fool themselves into believing in a fantasy constructed largely by their aides, within which only 'miscreants' disagree with their actions or policies. Certainly, according to some accounts received from Islamabad, leaders have been willing to buy the convenient invention that the current unrest seen across the country has been created by disgruntled politicians, or even 'trouble-makers' such as elements within the legal community or civil society. As such, the use of violent means to tackle such 'elements' has been justified.
For leaders, facing the truth is of course a far harder task. The truth would mean confronting the fact that the latest act of an autocratic regime, in removing a Chief Justice, has provided a focus for a wave of anger that had already been brewing amongst people. Till now, there was no distinct focus for this anger and as such no specific means to express it. The general disillusionment and disgruntlement with a system that has granted ordinary people nothing had surfaced earlier, during violence unleashed by mobs on various occasions. An example of this perception, that in the current order, violence remains the only means to tackle issues has come on several occasions within the usually calm environs of airport lounges.
Infuriated by news of flight delays, in ordinary cases accepted by passengers around the world with resignation or mild annoyance, fliers have in several cases attacked or threatened the staff of the national airline, and in one case at least attempted to virtually hijack a plane. The extent of such anger indicates a system within which all order, all system, all sense of mutual trust inherent in any civilised society has given way to a state of anarchy.
In anarchy, might reigns -- and with the state having increasingly lost ability to effectively govern the lives of people, it is indeed chaos that now reigns supreme. The chaos allows the powerful to do virtually as they please, while those who wield less influence have increasingly been thrust into the role of victims.
The tendency of state to also resort to the most uncivilised means to exert an authority it no longer commands, of course, acts only to worsen the situation. As has been obvious from the television footage seen over the past few weeks, agencies have been granted an absolutely free license to do as they please, and the results are in evidence everywhere. The sense that nothing can be done except through violence is obviously deeply rooted in the police mind. Asked why he was beating a young man, who happened to be wearing a black suit but insisted he was not a lawyer but a pharmaceutical company representative, a constable in Nila Gumbud insisted "this is the only language people understand". He was un-swayed by the arguments of lawyers who reaffirmed that his victim was not a protester in the first place, but simply trying to make his way to a business appointment.
Changing mindsets, overcoming anarchy or restoring order of any kind is not easy after a breakdown on such a large scale. The image of police, as the most corrupt and brutal department of state, aggravates issues. But any change, any reduction in the extent of violence that has now become a part of society, can come only when the ruling dispensation is altered.
Examples need to be set from the top. Until it is accepted that negotiation and dialogue are the only means to be used to win consent from citizens, that violence is not an option, that dissent is necessary within any society and must be given some outlet and the democracy necessary for this to happen is put in place, the problems that exist at present will only continue. It can only be hoped they don't immediately worsen, as the tussle between citizens and the state continues to unfold before the watching eyes of TV viewers.
By Shoaib Hashmi
There were half a dozen false starts when spring came and was pushed back again by ridiculous rains and we fished out the sweaters and lit the fires, but finally spring is here! I know because the white-rose vine climbs all over the nearby Shahtoot tree, and the tree is lovely with the fresh green new shoots of spring, and white roses. Also my pin board, and that of all friends I visit, are full of rows upon rows of wedding invitations.
Because after the mandatory month long interregnum, the wedding season too has started again to catch the last of the bearable weather. And there's the rub. Don't mistake me, I like weddings, and I like young people getting married and their parents are entitled to their happiness, and now that the row over wedding food is finally over, I look forward to the biriyani and palak gosht, although I am much more liable to get some inedible exotic concoction which the bride's father came across in his tour of Uruguay and wants to show off so he can tell us about his junket.
Conventional wisdom used to be that weddings were an occasion to show off your wealth, and in fact to blow so much money you spend the rest of your life in poverty showing off. That has changed. There got to be too many people with too much money to show off. So the new fad is to show you not only have money but are also cultured, and creative, and will arrange a wedding like no one has seen before!
And it starts with the wedding card. Actually it's a whole bunch of cards, in all the colours of the rainbow, and some besides; and they are a pain because first they come in custom made envelopes which fit the cards tighter than your seamless jeans, and you get bloody fingernails opening it.
Then you can spend weeks deciphering them. The first card which falls out is the Mehndi invite and it doesn't say who it's from, but has a long list of names of who are waiting for you -- which is the bride's cousins and nephews and nieces right down to the months old baby of Bhaabee Jaan -- so who's supposed to remember the names of half the kids in the neighbourhood?
So you wade your way through the dozens of cards for different functions to the Baraat card, and stop dead there for the rest of the semester! In their penchant for being different, and for subtlety, they have run through all the colours known to man, and end up printing the text in pale gold on cream coloured card, or black on blue, or light green on dark green... whatever combination is impossible to read! Or you need a spectroscope to read it.
Even when you find a spectroscope and can read the text the ordeal is not over, because having read it you have to decipher it. First there is some obscure quotation which says something about the state of matrimony which you can neither read nor understand. Then there is a long text the purpose of which is to tell you how erudite the sender is; most of the texts make sense nor tell me what they are about, what am invited to, by who, when and where. There is a whole directory of mobile phone numbers where I am supposed to RSVP and I don't know any of them. Half a dozen times I have made up my mind that I am out of the whole caboodle, and will just stop attending weddings, but the memory of the smell of freshly cooked Biriyani is too much!
Conflicting response to culture
Two opposing trends -- blasts rock CD/video markets in Peshawar and Mardan and a 76 year old cinema gets saved from being demolished
By Javed Aziz Khan
While the coordinated efforts made by different conservationist groups were successful in rescuing a 76 years old cinema building in Peshawar cantonment, they could not prevent the recent threats to the business community of film-makers and exhibitors. And on March 18 the threats were concretised in the form of two blasts in Peshawar and Mardan.
The threats came in the form of pamphlets distributed in Peshawar some three months back, directing the owners of music centres and video shops to close down their 'ugly business' which they stated "spread immorality and vulgarity among the general public, especially the youth". The pamphlets, distributed in a small video market on Kohat Road opposite Gulshan Rahman Colony, were handed over to the police with a demand to ensure security for the market.
The matter was apparently taken very lightly and those who had distributed the pamphlets showed that they meant business by striking with nothing less than bombs. The early morning blast in Peshawar injured only the watchman of the market along with a passerby as the shops were yet to be opened for routine business. The same day one person was killed in a bomb blast in a CD market in Bakhshali area of Mardan district.
The two incidents on one single day shocked the entire population of Peshawar and surrounding districts that had, till then, not taken the threats seriously. As a matter of fact the campaign against the CD and video markets had already gained strength in tribal parts of the country and southern districts of the Frontier. A CD market in Darra Adamkhel, a part of Khyber Agency located between Kohat and Peshawar, had been recently closed and the shops hired for other businesses, before these incidents.
Bomb blasts outside music centres in Khyber Agency, Bajaur Agency and southern districts of Lakki Marwat, Bannu, Tank and Dera Ismail Khan had become such a routine affair that it forced many to switch over to other trades.
"It is true that some CD/video centres have been screening and selling pornographic movies. But isn't it the responsibility of PEMRA (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority) and law enforcement agencies to register these centres and then regularly monitor them? No individual has the right to send threatening letters, least of all destroy the shops if the contents of the letter are not complied with," said Hakim Khan, a CD seller in Kabuli.
"The law enforcers should trace out people who are involved in immoral activities in video or CD shops as this activity has put our business into a serious risk," said Haroon Ahmad, a CD shop owner in Nishtarabad. Thousands of people are associated with filmmaking, selling CD and cassettes along with screening films in hundreds of video centres in Nishtarabad, Kabuli and other parts of the city. Thousands others are associated with the same trade in 23 other districts and seven tribal agencies of the FATA.
Senior police officials of the city are confident that the propaganda against the CD business is not likely to come to settled parts of the province or pose any serious threat to film-makers and watchers. "I don't foresee it happening in the future. We are investigating into the matter of pamphlets sent to the video shop owners and would trace out the network soon," said capital city police officer, Abdul Majeed Marwat, while talking to TNS. Police officers, however, admit that they have so far failed to track down the network behind hurling of threats and blowing up CD shops in different parts of the province.
Around the same time an encouraging step of preserving the cultural heritage of the province was taken by stopping the demolition of a local cinema, Falak Sair. The grey coloured 76 year-old building has now been declared a protected monument. It was constructed in 1930 by a Sikh and is a sign of both the gothic and oriental architectural tastes. It hosted the Lansdowne Theatre before partition and was later renamed as Falak Sair Cinema in 1960.
Things had already moved beyond the planning stage and actual work had just started to demolish the cinema and construct a commercial plaza in its place when conservationists intervened and invited the attention of the government towards the Antiquity Act 1975 that prevent 75 years old buildings from being demolished. The same Act also applied to another cinema building in cantonment, Capital Cinema. Both have now been declared protected monuments.
"It is hoped the offenders would be made to pay heavy fines. And this money is used to carry out comprehensive restoration work so that the damaged building can return to its original shape," Adil Zareef, general secretary of the Sarhad Conservation Network, was quoted as saying.
Peshawar is really short of centres for cultural activities. The only theatre of the city, Nishtar Hall, was closed down some four years back after the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal came into power. At that time many had appreciated the step as the Hall was mounting uncensored plays with vulgar and cheap dances against which many complaints were received.
Many people, however, criticise the government on this step, arguing that the place could better be used for cultural activities instead of closing its doors permanently.
About the recent threats and bombings, Provincial Minister for Law Asif Iqbal Daudzai said this: "The situation of the NWFP has been peaceful throughout the MMA rule. But as the elections came near, suddenly we see these bombings and kidnappings. It is our belief that the Federal Government is behind all this to malign the MMA."
By Omar R. Quraishi
The events of the past couple of weeks suggest that the so-called 'new media' has well and truly arrived with a bang in Pakistan, and that's perhaps the positive thing to have emerged out of the current crisis. By new media, one obviously is referring to the electronic media, to cable television and more importantly to the Internet and the various ways in which it allows users to provide and access information.
The rise of the new media is important because it provided a platform for the many disparate segments of civil society who all came together through experiencing it (either in the form of watching live coverage of the police lathi-charging unarmed defenceless lawyers or plainclothes intelligence sleuths posted at the gate of Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry's residence stopping visitors). Perhaps the best example of this (and one doesn't want to come across as blowing one's trumpet) was the live coverage shown by various TV channels, particularly GEO and followed closely by AAJ TV and others of the happenings in Islamabad in and around the Supreme Court building on March 16. This of course led to the unbridled assault on the offices of the TV channel and of this newspaper in a building that couldn't be a few hundred yards away from the seat of government and parliament. All this was shown live on television -- and one can imagine the impact that it would have made if it were not shown live in real time.
A lot has already been written on the attack and on the possible motives -- the president has apologised and the prime minister even visited the offices of the TV channel and the newspaper but the question still remains: how could the police have done this on their own, and who were they receiving orders from on their walkie-talkies, as reported by many eyewitnesses, and if they didn't do it on their own, who are the people behind the attack? Also, will a tribunal formed at the additional sessions judge level have the requisite courage and authority to come to a fair assessment as to the possible identities of those who ordered the attacker.
One thing that I would like to say here is that some people in cyberspace and in online web forums have actually tried to justify the attack by saying that the channel should have known better than to be broadcasting what it did. This is probably the view of the government and its apologists as well. The fact of the matter is they should know that the job of the media -- anywhere and not just in Pakistan -- is to try and show events and incidents, and clearly the police engaged in a street battle with civilian protesters qualifies as extremely newsworthy footage. After all, the footage showed policemen picking up stones and throwing them at random at the protesters -- so the people of this country finally got to see for themselves their conduct for themselves (perhaps the attack on GEO showed this in more stark fashion).
Of course, in all of this, one shouldn't forget the blogging world, which though still small seems to have matured in Pakistan. There are several sites -- my personal favourites have been www.pakistaniat.com and www.karachi.metblogs.com -- which have been carrying lively discussions and exchanges regarding the current crises. Both these have also been carrying footage of the lathi-charges, of the attack on GEO and The News and also the now famous (or should one say infamous) exchange between Ansar Abbasi and Law Minister Wasi Zafar on a Voice of America radio show where the minister proceeded to tell the journalist what he would do with his (the minister's) 'big arm'. There is the medium of the SMS (short message service) as well, which has now become a handy means of communication in most Pakistani cities and used by people regardless of financial standing.
It can't be said that the advent of the new media was the reason for the near unanimity that has been seen in the response by Pakistanis in general to the 'suspension' of the chief justice and the attack on the press and media, but it has certainly helped crystallise it. Clearly, from the point of view of those in the government and the establishment who would like to see the media be put in its place (read submissive and deferential to the government's wishes) had not envisaged that new technology brings with it its own democratising possibilities and opportunities. That has been particularly true in the case of the Internet since it isn't known as the Great Leveller for nothing -- a truly democratic way for people to communicate and to provide and access information.
And the best part of this all is that the new media is very much here to stay. Perhaps, newspapers and TV channels (though none have done this so far in Pakistan) need to begin their own blogs soon.
The writer is Op-ed Pages Editor of The News.