Saturday, January 28, 2012

Lessons from Maya Khan

I thought about simply updating the previous post but decided that this deserved a separate entry.

So, after much pressure from social media, activists, oped writers and blogs as well as the odd well-deserved editorial in mainstream papers, it seems the message did finally get through to Samaa TV's management. Maya Khan and her team have been fired by Samaa and her programme stopped. The following is the letter from Samaa CEO Zafar Siddiqi which was shared with the media:

Dear All
Your feedback is appreciated. As a responsible corporate citizen, Samaa TV did what was required under the circumstances. We do not and have not in the past or intend to in the future to take our viewership or reporting requirements without the seriousness that they deserve.
You would appreciate that as an organisation with a functioning management team, we had to conduct certain legal requirements over the past week and internal review processes (which are operational in nature) before procedding further. 
As a result of which I can inform you: 
We asked Maya to apologise unconditionally which she did not.
The CEO asked her to do that on Friday which she refused.
As a result of which the following will be put in place on Monday, Jan 30th: 
Maya and her team will receive termination notices.
Her show is being stopped from Monday morning.
Our deeds and actions taken since this episode occured are there for the record and hope this will settle issues as far as the station is concerned. 
A lot has been written about the race for ratings. Well, we do [not] absolve such behaviour irrespective of ratings that the show was getting. 
With best regards and thank you for your understanding. 
Zafar Siddiqi
Chairman CNBC Arabiya
Chairman CNBC Africa
President CNBC Pakistan

There are a couple of things to gather from this unfortunate episode:

1. Social pressure works! While Mr Siddiqi must be fully appreciated for being willing to listen to and understand the voices of outrage and for taking swift action, none of this would have been possible without the pressure that built up over the issue. What made the pressure effective was the multi-pronged strategy which involved not just raising the issue with PEMRA, but also writing directly to the Samaa TV management, the petitions and threats of protest as well as the momentum that organizing a consensus provided via Twitter and Facebook and various oped pieces in mainstream papers. It was this momentum that forced the mainstream to raise the issue even in editorials. Let no one doubt the power of a group of people to change things.

2. The importance of thoughtful media management. Even as Samaa quickly issued a clear apology once the matter achieved notoriety, the issue might have been 'handled' with less drastic results had Ms Maya Khan not issued a half-hearted mea culpa (while grinning) at the same time which only made people question Samaa's seemingly sincere apology. On top of it all, her programme's producer, one Sohail Zaidi, was quoted by the BBC defiantly stating that he was "not responsible to anyone but himself." Ms Khan and Mr Zaidi ended up being responsible for making their own cases worse.

3. The importance of perspective and proportion. Some activists and social media types did get carried away in their anger. To be sure, Maya Khan and her unashamed cohorts did infringe on other peoples' privacy and harrass them. But posting details and pictures of Maya Khan's personal life or the personal cell phone numbers of Samaa TV management on public forums was certainly not the way to go. Thankfully, there were calmer heads within activists who immediately called out their fellow activists on the irony of responding to someone's egregious actions by acting in the same coin.

4. Need for ongoing media monitoring. One of the main reasons this blog was set up was because we felt the need for such monitoring at a time when media was booming in Pakistan and there were precious few willing to raise a voice against well-funded media houses. Obviously, however, we neither have the resources to monitor all of the media nor any official mandate to take action on issues we come across. All we can do is play a part in publicising issues as we see them. But what is really needed is for an independent body - hopefully comprising of civil society experts in the media - to oversee public complaints. PEMRA has the official authority to take action but is often criticised variously for being either overly bureaucratic, under the government's thumb (and thus partial), or too beholden to the large corporate media houses. It would be in PEMRA's interests to help set up an independent body, along the lines of the UK's Offcom, to help it monitor content and handle public complaints. This would not only reduce pressure on PEMRA but provide its decisions with the stamp of fairness and consensus it needs.

Hopefully, some of these lessons will be learnt.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Samaa Stoops to New Lows

What a fucking waste of a Sunday. Here I was minding my own business, trying to do some work, relax a little bit, surf the net and... I ended up watching 15 minutes of some five-day old desperate-for-ratings morning show on Samaa TV, hosted by an even more desperate-for-recognition C-grade actor called Maya Khan. I usually steer clear of vapid morning programming on all channels but I watched because so many people were feeling so outraged by what had gone on in the programme that I thought I might as well check.

And guess what? Everyone who was outraged by this show is perfectly right to be outraged. I am outraged. No, actually, outrage seems a small term for what I felt while watching the shenanigans of this miserable cow Maya Khan and her motley crew of rich Defence-type airheads and gossipy burqa-clad crusaders. I felt physically nauseous. This was a new low in sensationalist television crap.

Here were a bunch of television vigilantes serving as the television arm of the Jamia Hafsa crusaders in Islamabad, the cretinous sisters of the Taliban's moral police Amar bil Maaroof, nonsensically claiming to have a "picnic" in a park while harassing poor couples whose only crime seems to be exercising their right to privacy and consensually talking to a member of the opposite sex. (Note that NONE of the couples harassed by this bunch of airhead crusaders were indulging in any act of public indecency as claimed by one man towards the end of the clip.) This is total and utter bullshit. Not only does Samaa TV's goon squad invade the privacy of people, it blatantly ignores the consequences of putting these poor people's faces on air (who knows or cares what their domestic circumstances are) and lies to them about having their mikes and cameras switched off. This is unethical behaviour beyond all limits.

But there is a bigger social issue that the likes of Maya Khan and her rabid cohorts will never understand: the rapidly diminishing public space for the less affluent sections of society. The rich have a thousand options, proverbially speaking. Where are couples who cannot afford upmarket restaurants or have access to private house parties supposed to go to just sit and talk if not places such as parks or by the sea? And the addle-headed cow who argues about unmarried couples not being allowed to see each other? Who let her out of her house to go to a salon and get on television in the first place?

Is this what we have come to with the 'freedom' of the media? A blind rush for ratings at the expense of any civic, social or even common sense? Here is a wonderful Open Letter to Maya Khan from a far more restrained Mehreen Kasana. And there is also a petition that you can sign addressed to Samaa TV CEO Zafar Siddiqui, which I would urge you all to sign. Some people have also initiated letters to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) asking it to take notice of this content.

However, I think this is far too little for the likes of Maya Khan and her mongrels. This kind of socially destructive vigilantism should be nipped in the bud and taken note of by the government itself. The entire crew and aunty brigade should all be charged, perhaps for taking the law into their hands, for invasion of privacy and also for sexual harrassment. A message should be sent out to ratings-hungry television channels that there are limits to what they can do.

Incidentally, it may be recalled that Samaa has caused serious damage before. Thankfully, it had sacked Meher Bokhari after her sensationalist comments about Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer helped create the atmosphere that led to his assassination. One had hoped it had learnt its lesson. It looks like it needs a sharp reminder.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Um...Is That Who We Think It Is? (Updated)

Some new evidence has come to light related to 'Memogate' that we think should be placed in front of the Commission investigating whether any crime was committed and if there is enough evidence to charge former Pakistan ambassador Husain Haqqani for it... Hey, with Blackberry's parent company RIM dilly-dallying about handing over crucial data, might as well go with whatever evidence you can scrounge...

The bit we're focusing on begins around the 02:45 mark... Thanks to @shehryar69 via @shahidsaeed for it. Enjoy:

: : : Update : : : 

This old video seems to have really caught the public imagination (how could it not!). And has also led to Mr Mansoor Ijaz confirming to the Associated Press (AP) that it is in fact him in the 2004 video. Of course he thinks it's been publicised at the behest of his current nemesis Mr Husain Haqqani in order to discredit him, which fits in perfectly with our earlier assessment of what ails him. We would just like to assure him that we do not have Mr Haqqani goading us on and neither do, we think, any of the people on Twitter who first discovered and shared the video out of a love for, ahem, house music. We would like to admit that we did find it - and him in it - really funny.

Even funnier, however, are the statements being made in earnest by him and on his behalf. Particularly upset about the uncensored version of the video - which reveals all - we have Ijaz telling AP:

"I was never present for any part of the video where those naked girls were shown."

That's the equivalent of Bill Clinton saying that when he smoked marijuana in his younger days, he didn't inhale. Hey, dude, what's the problem even if you were there? Apparently this:

"Ijaz provided the AP with 2004 email correspondence between him and the producer of the video in which he threatens legal action unless the producer removes him from the clip that contains nudity. "Given my political and public profile in the United States and around the world, it is impossible for me to appear in any part of any video clip with nudity of any type," he wrote. He included a reply from the producer, who assured Ijaz he would cut his role from the X-rated version and remove it from the Internet."

Oops. (And boy, talk about being anal about emails!)

Since he's so adamant about not ever being around any nude people, here's a 'Making Of' video of the video (thanks to @Rezhasan). We'll let you judge for yourselves.

Our favourite quote, however, comes from the loquacious Akram Sheikh, Mr Ijaz's lawyer in Pakistan:

"So what if my client has been dancing on the Internet," said Sheikh. "What difference does that make?" 
Now that's what we call fighting wrestling spirit.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Pakistan, A Malleable History

Last month, while other pyalas scuttled off to the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf's (PTI’s) Karachi jalsa with visions of free potty training seats in their heads, I stayed at home with a copy of Imran Khan’s Pakistan, A Personal History. I read it with the intention of reviewing it here immediately but, like certain Bufo toads that can, at will, secrete a noxious hallucinogenic substance that acts as a deterrent to predators, the book did not encourage further handling.

I revisited it today because I chanced upon Amir Zia’s review for Newsline last month. He succinctly articulated some of my biggest problems with the content of the memoir, saying:
“Khan’s personal analysis of the origin and spirit of the Pakistan Movement underlines his simplistic and superficial understanding of those times. In fact, it appears more akin to former military ruler General Zia-ul Haq’s distorted and twisted propagandist history, which still remains a part of our curriculum. For instance, Khan, in his zeal to promote the Islamic basis of Pakistan, equates Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s religious views with those of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi by saying that both stood on the same page vis-à-vis the role of religion in politics.”
“The tribal system, its code of honour and values are a constant refrain in the book. Khan maintains that the tribal areas were “crime free” before the upheavals of the recent years, ignoring the fact that before the start of the war on terror, the entire belt remained the epicenter of smuggling and gunrunning in the region. The known criminals and absconders used to take refuge in these areas and vehicles snatched from various parts of the country landed in the tribal belt. But Khan, in his zeal to glorify tribalism and the jirga system, shuts his eyes to all these facts. He makes a passing reference to the tribal practice of ‘honour’ killings which are being endorsed by jirgas in the rural areas. In fact, he views these jirgas as an “ancient democratic system.” The oppression, the backwardness, the myopic worldview and total alienation from the modern world, all of which stem from tribalism, fail to bother the Khan.”

Amir Zia did make an effort to balance his take on ‘the Khan’s’ personal history with references to the many good things in it, calling his recollections of cricketing life and building the Shaukat Khanum Memorial hospital ‘moving’ and ‘inspiring’. Mr. Zia is probably a better person than I am because I feel no such compunction. Whatever bright spark once lurked in the heart of this self professed Chosen One – his version of what happened to make an English jury return a verdict of 10-2 in his favour in the Botham libel case can be summarized with “As I was waiting, I got a message from a friend that Mian Bashir wanted to speak to me. I phoned him and found him in a cheerful mood. ‘Allah is changing the jury’s mind!’ he said – has long been obscured by a cloud of magic dust. Like in Pullman’s His Dark Materials, only without its fierce interrogation of dogma and ritual.

If you don’t like my words for it, take a few from the horse’s…er…mouth:

The Khan on what needs to be done to deal with the ‘10%’ of truly militant militants in the tribal areas (the rest apparently prefer crochet, only times are hard and the war blocks access to the market for doilies):
“I have spoken to General Pasha, head of the ISI about this, and he too believes that if we disengage from the US war, start a dialogue with the tribes, and withdraw troops from the tribal areas, we could eliminate this 10 percent in ninety days”.

The Khan on the need for enshrining the difference between a public face and a private face or, as some people might call it, hypocrisy:
‘The main difference Islamic sharia has from Western secular society is in the realm of public morality. This protects the family system, one of Pakistan’s greatest strengths…An Islamic society tries to protect the sanctity of marriage by creating an environment that affords the least temptation for people to commit infidelity. Secondly, it tries to protect impressionable young people from public immorality, the same concept behind the ‘adults only’ film classification…So apart from these vital provisions aimed at protecting the family, a true Islamic society would be no different from the democratic welfare states of Europe.”

Passages like this worried me because they indicate a rigid, conservative mind that thinks along the lines of 'my way or the highway'. It is the disproportionate power given to those who would be custodians of 'public morality', for political purposes, that has landed Pakistan in the soup it is in today. Passages like this also amused me because, for someone whose main vote bank so far seems to be young people, he really is pretty clueless about what young people really want and, more importantly, need. The life of the body, the life of the mind, these are fundamental human rights. And too many of the physical and creative freedoms required to have either would potentially face the chop if somebody decided to place the protection of 'impressionable young minds' above both.

The Khan, for example, only took about two decades of experiential learning to understand "there was a world of difference between happiness and pleasure-seeking".

The Khan on people who might disagree with him:
“…those at the other end of the extreme are called the ‘liberal fanatics’. To liberal fanatics modernization means westernization and Islam can only impede Pakistan’s progress…For them every solution to Pakistan’s problems is imported. Hence liberal fanatics have variously advocated Marxism, a radical version of women’s liberation, market economics and other Western beliefs.”
Yep. Damn redistribution of wealth (don't look now, Ali Shariati). And women voting in parts of Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa. And supermarkets. And mineral water. Especially mineral water.

The Khan on about half of the people who attended his Party In The Park:
“ The elite that consumes most of the country’s educational resources is incapable of providing the intellectual leadership needed to move forward either the religion or the culture. Western education simply does not allow them to do so.”
... Which would, errrr, make the Oxford-educated Khan singularly incapable of providing intellectual leadership, would it not:? But I digress...

Rants about this 'elite' function as periods throughout the memoir, punctuating his opinions on everything from environmental degradation to the need to overhaul the education system to his observations about the injustice of our judicial system. This is a real pity because they undermine the few things he says that actually make sense. Pakistan is indeed, as he hammers home again and again, saddled with a parasitic elite that has insisted on usurping, keeping and abusing power to the detriment of the many hovering around the poverty line; but his reductionist identification of them as people who have strayed from the one faith and become 'westernized' is sadly flawed. The powerful elite of which he speaks include the shallu-wearing landlords and industrialists that are now part of his movement for justice. They can also wear beards, uniforms and burqas as well as jeans and ape Saudi Arabia as well as Western pop culture, but apparently that isn't quite as bad. His position seems to be that if you are not part of the solution (in this case, his notion of Islam) you are part of the problem.

This debauched, rudderless, still mentally colonized elite has done Pakistan a world of harm, he says. For example, post 9/11:
"I have never seen Pakistanis so terrified of US anger as during this period. This is a typical example of how fear can be used as a weapon by the ruling elite to make the people fall in line; at the same time, it shows that policies based on fear always end up in disaster."
That previous nugget comes much before the point towards the end of the book where he says:
" biggest worry remains that if things continue as they are we could face a rebellion within the army's ranks, the ultimate nightmare situation for Pakistan."

I could go on, and quote verbatim other choice bits of text, such as his one sentence lament about how mean presswalas kept calling up his good friend Sita White for ‘lurid interviews’, or the paragraph where he mentions one Shah Mehmood Qureshi as an example of what is wrong with Pakistani politics, or how he lambasts the jamaati thugs he is now in bed with, or how it only took him five meetings and nearly as many years to understand Musharraf wasn't a good boy, or how my mother’s brother’s third cousin’s dog inferred a Madonna-whore complex from all the things Khan Saab’s book didn’t say about women in Pakistan when he accidentally sank his teeth into it but, really, what’s the point. Let’s not be liberally fanatical in our negativity and look at the plus points of it.

1) We have been asking for a PTI manifesto and lo and behold there has been one amongst us for a couple of months already, complete with Islamic Fabioesque cover and – just like his first book where the ghost writer really was a ghost - no mention of who actually wrote it.

2) In this book, we learn a lot about poetry. Well, Iqbal’s poetry. Well, those of Iqbal’s poems which fit into Imran Khan’s view of the world. In particular, the one about the shaheen. No not Khayaban-e-Shaheen, the other shaheen, the eagle, which as Khan Saab tells us is “an emblem of royalty which denoted a kind of heroic idealism based on daring, pride and honour.” (No mention of course of that of Iqbal's verse that calls, e.g., for burning down crop fields that do not feed the peasant, but I digress again.)

I was thinking of Khan Saab's fondness for the metaphor of the regal predator driven to hunt rather than scavenge when I read the inimitable Aakar Patel’s column in the Express Tribune today. In the column, the second in his examination of the army’s dominance in Pakistan today, Mr. Patel puts it down to a caste-driven obsession with the notion of ‘warrior’. His hypothesis…
“is that the division of the Punjabi nation in 1947 produced a Pakistani Punjab that was heavily weighted in favour of the martial castes. The trading castes, which tend to be more pragmatic and balance society’s extremism mostly left to come to India. This has produced the imbalance which explains Pakistan’s fondness for a state dominated by soldiers. Gen Pervez Kayani runs the state’s foreign policy, security policy and most of its economic policy because the majority of Punjabis are comfortable with the idea of a warrior being in charge.”

Mr. Patel’s insight into the veneration awarded to ‘leading from the front’- which in my book can also be considered a Pashtun trait- is driven home when, later in the column while mentioning Kayani’s recent statement that our nation’s “honour will not be traded for posterity”, he goes on to say that…
"Only a warrior would make that statement and only a nation of warriors would accept it."

You see the same kind of verbal posturing in Imran Khan's utterances (tsunami = destruction), and the same kind of frenzied, emotional response in his followers (tsunami? a massive tidal wave that kills indiscriminately? hell yeah!) that a popular general would get from his ranks. It is almost as if hundreds of thousands of usually pacifist people have suddenly decided to get in touch with their inner Spartan.

In Imran Khan's Pakistan though, there would be no loincloths.

My basic problem with the worldview that Aakar Patel is skewering and Imran Khan and other balding eagles seem most comfortable inhabiting is that Pakistan can no longer afford to be a nation of warriors. We need a narrative of inclusiveness, tolerance and unity based on achievable things like economic goals, not one that suggests identity is who you're not rather than who you are. Those who want to buy into the PTI’s ‘war' on corruption, the west (and mineral water) might want to stop and ask themselves what impulse, whose hand, they are really strengthening.

My other basic problem with men who think they are berserkers is their propensity for camp followers or, in less offensive terms, their demonstrated opinion of where women would be post-victory. Consider this clip follow up of an excellent Express Tribune report about what happened after Prime Minister Gilani was successfully driven off stage by the soldiers of the Lawyers' Movement at a Lahore Bar Association meeting a couple of days ago...

Incidentally, Imran Khan's last reference to the the Brotherhood of the Black Coats he mentions glowingly several times in his memoir is:
"Though the anti-status quo wave known as the lawyers' movement for genuine democracy was hijacked, it remains simmering beneath the surface; I am convinced the moment the next elections are announced, a 'soft revolution' will explode on our political horizon and sweep away the corrupt status quo from Pakistan once and for all."

Ladies, keep those Rose Petals handy.

Monday, January 9, 2012

PTI Gets, Like Totally, Pwned

I was never very fond of former DawnNews morning show and current TVOne anchor Faisal Qureshi - he currently hosts the show Bang-e-Dara on the latter. For some reason his style of speaking seemed a bit too smarmy for my tastes, which I realize is purely a subjective, personal reaction. But I have to admit I have a new-found respect for him now. Heck, he's my new television hero.

Watch him take down Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf's Dr Awab Alvi after the PTI jalsa in Karachi on December 25. I think this is what the word 'merciless' was originally coined for. And the best thing is, Qureshi does it with simple substantiated facts and no recourse to grand sweeps of emotive logic (yes, those critiquing PTI are also prone to it as much as PTI supporters). By the end Dr Alvi is forced to concede that he never wants to match wits with Qureshi again. A must watch!