Friday, May 25, 2012

The Case of Shakil Afridi

The hue and cry over the 33-year sentence handed down to Dr Shakil Afridi, the doctor who may have aided the CIA in tracking down Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad is partly correct. Certainly, the fact that he was tried under the archaic Frontier Crimes Regulations, in secret, and without the chance to defend himself through a lawyer, makes the whole process highly suspect and against the basic principles of a fair trial. Valid questions have also been raised about the hollowness of some of the charges brought against him, including, apparently, 'waging war against Pakistan'.

Dr Shakil Afridi (Photo: Express)

However, some of the apoplectic reaction from members of civil society, which has condemned Dr Afridi being tried at all, is thoroughly misplaced. Some believe he did a great thing by helping rid Pakistan of the world's most dangerous terrorist and so should be thanked or awarded rather than prosecuted. Others have drawn comparisons between his swift trial and conviction and the lack of effective prosecution of real terrorists. Even journalist Najam Sethi, in his programme yesterday, questioned how what Dr Afridi did was any different from the Pakistani state's collaboration with the CIA in going after Al Qaeda's militants and stated that the Americans, after all, are Pakistan's professed strategic allies. All of these are false premises.

Let's be clear about one thing. No country in the world allows its citizens to freelance as spies for another country's agencies, whether friendly or hostile. Which is not to say that people do no do it, just that they know the risks of what can happen to them if they are caught. Forget being spies, the US has laws against its citizens even lobbying public opinion on behalf of foreign interests without revealing their connections. Remember the case of one Dr Ghulam Nabi Fai?  There have been a number of instances of American citizens being convicted of spying or passing information on to its greatest 'ally' Israel. Dr Shakil Afridi apparently confessed (this is a point that is yet to be proved in a fair trial) that he knowingly assisted the CIA in running a fake vaccinations programme set up to obtain DNA samples from the residents of the compound where bin Laden was eventually killed. No matter what one thinks of the outcome, Pakistan has every right to charge him for colluding with a foreign agency, and if the charges are proved in a fair trial, to convict him.

Yes, it's a real and terrible pity that the Pakistani state and Pakistani courts are criminally lax about the prosecution and conviction of far worse people than Dr Afridi, but this line of reasoning, while it scores political points, is really a false equivalence. By this reasoning, nobody should ever be tried for manslaughter in a road accident or theft or kidnapping or for any other everyday crime since they are far smaller crimes than those committed by those terrorists who have killed thousands and got away scot free. Similarly, with respect to Mr Sethi's point about whether what Dr Afridi did was any different from what the government of Pakistan has been doing for years, yes, there is a difference (whether one likes it or not) between a state sanctioned operation and a freelance operation. It is similar to the difference between the police having the right to use firearms versus ordinary citizens using firearms. But more importantly, if the state is violating the law - e.g. by extraditing people to a foreign entity without going through the due legal process - it is something that in and of itself needs to challenged; it still does not confer legitimacy to others who decide to violate the law.

The US Congress' hypocritical outrage over the treatment of Dr Afridi - er, Guantanamo, anyone? - really is not worth commenting over. They are simply looking to protect their asset, their employee.

In my personal opinion, whether Dr Afridi is charged with treason or not, what he certainly should have been charged with is intentional malpractice and stripped of his medical title for violating his Hippocratic Oath. First of all, he placed innocent children and families knowingly in harm's way by running a fake vaccination programme. As detailed by The Guardian's report linked to earlier:

"The doctor went to Abbottabad in March, saying he had procured funds to give free vaccinations for hepatitis B. Bypassing the management of the Abbottabad health services, he paid generous sums to low-ranking local government health workers, who took part in the operation without knowing about the connection to Bin Laden. Health visitors in the area were among the few people who had gained access to the Bin Laden compound in the past, administering polio drops to some of the children. 
Afridi had posters for the vaccination programme put up around Abbottabad, featuring a vaccine made by Amson, a medicine manufacturer based on the outskirts of Islamabad. 
In March health workers administered the vaccine in a poor neighbourhood on the edge of Abbottabad called Nawa Sher. The hepatitis B vaccine is usually given in three doses, the second a month after the first. But in April, instead of administering the second dose in Nawa Sher, the doctor returned to Abbottabad and moved the nurses on to Bilal Town, the suburb where Bin Laden lived."

Secondly, he has endangered the lives of hundreds of thousands of other children in an area where there were already (unfounded) virulent suspicions about vaccination programmes. As the Associated Press reported soon after the programme was revealed:

"Pakistani health officials held meetings about the alleged CIA scheme on Tuesday and expressed concern that it could have a negative impact on immunization programs in other areas of the northwest, especially in Pakistan’s semiautonomous tribal region along the Afghan border, said a Pakistani official involved in polio eradication efforts… 
One of the Pakistani Taliban’s top commanders, Maulvi Faqir Mohammed, recently called on people in the northwest to avoid vaccines offered by the international community, claiming they were made with “extracts from bones and fat of an animal prohibited by God — the pig.”  
“Don’t fall prey to these infidel NGOs and this U.S.-allied government and its army,” said Mohammed over the illegal radio station he transmits from his sanctuary in eastern Afghanistan. Pakistani officials and their international partners have pushed back against these claims, but the CIA’s reported activities in the country may have made their job that much harder."

You can read more about what impact such kind of rumours have had on immunisation programmes in other places here, which also points out the following:

"[T]he allegation that a vaccine program was not what it seemed — that it was not only suspect, but justifiably suspect — has been very widely reported. This is awful. It plays, so precisely that it might have been scripted, into the most paranoid conspiracy theories about vaccines: that they are pointless, poisonous, covert shields for nefarious government agendas meant to do children harm. 
That is not speculation. The polio campaign has already seen this happen, based on just those kind of suspicions — not in a single poor slum in New Delhi, but across much of sub-Saharan Africa... 
The accusations that polio vaccination was a Potemkin cover for anti-Islamic activities almost ruined the international eradication of polio when they were false. Now, on the basis of the CIA’s alleged appalling ruse in Pakistan, they may be made again. And they will be much more believable, because this time they might be be true."

Finally, he has endangered the lives of his fellow - real - health workers. As noted here,

"InterAction, an alliance of 198 American NGOs, such as the International Rescue Committee, Mercy Corps, CARE, ChildFund International, World Wildlife Fund, Plan International USA, Helen Keller International, Action Against Hunger and Relief International, said the CIA’s tactics also endangered the lives of foreign aid workers. “The CIA-led immunization campaign compromises the perception of U.S. NGOs as independent actors focused on a common good and casts suspicion on their humanitarian workers. The CIA’s actions may also jeopardize the lives of humanitarian aid workers in Pakistan.”"

The Guardian reported that Save the Children was forced to evacuate eight of its international workers last July over fears for their safety:

"A senior western official said Afridi told his wife he was working for Save the Children when he was in fact running the fake CIA programme. The allegation emerged during interrogation. 
A senior aid worker corroborated that account, saying Afridi may have mentioned Save the Children "during the early stages of his interrogation". Save the Children said it was horrified that Afridi had abused its name. "We are shocked by the allegations that our name has been falsely used in this way. Save the Children's work in Pakistan is helping the most vulnerable children and their families," said [SCF spokesperson Ishbel] Matheson."

So, yes, demand a fair trial for Shakil Afridi by all means. This is his and all of our right. But let's not build a mercenary rogue into a hero. And I for one would not in the least shed tears if, at the end of an open and fair trial, he were to be convicted not of treason but of unabashed medical malpractice. After all, even the mobster Al Capone was convicted only for tax evasion, wasn't he?

Monday, May 21, 2012

Absurdity, Thy Name Is...

Must Pakistan - or perhaps one should say specifically its government, its political leaders, its judiciary, its military and its bureaucrats - continue to make an ass of itself? Must it circumvent any attempt to make the world forget that we can be the most absurd cretins in the world?

Graphic by Nick Bilton (Source: New York Times)

Barely had the memory of the Lahore High Court-imposed Facebook ban faded from the collective global 'News of the Weird' consciousness that we were struck with the Twitter ban, which the Ministry of Information Technology people told us was because of "blasphemous and inflammatory content" on the site.

(Update: I had almost finished writing this post when news came in that the Twitter ban had been lifted but am posting this in any case in the off-chance that someone within the corridors of policy-making might read and prevent a recurrence of such ineptitude.) 

According to this Express Tribune story:

"Pakistan’s government had asked Twitter to stop a discussion on Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), which was considered derogatory, [PTA Chairman Dr Mohammad] Yaseen said, adding that “Twitter refused our request.”"

Now, you would have to be totally unaware of what Twitter is and how it works to think the above statement makes any sense whatsoever. Imagine, if you will, the government asking a cell phone company to stop people SMS-ing each other anything derogatory about the Prophet. The only way it would be possible for the cell phone company to enforce such a 'request' would be to either read each and every single SMS from the billions that go out from within its network or to simply ban any SMSes that used the word 'Prophet' or 'Muhammad' or 'Mohammad' or 'Mohd' or any other possible variation (and there would still be ways to circumvent it), which would of course block all Islamic SMSes as well. Any cell phone company would obviously 'refuse' the government's request, simply because it would not be possible to implement.

Of course I am not even touching upon the concept of 'free speech' (and which particularly protects 'speech' that one disagrees with or finds offensive) which is integral to rational societies and which would be another reason for Twitter to refuse to censor something even if it could. But this is a concept which is obviously is too lofty an argument for the cretins in officialdom to understand.

In any case, I am more than sure that there is not a single person within the so-called 'Ministry of Information Technology' who is on Twitter or even has a passing knowledge of it.

In all likelihood, given the storm of outrage and mocking it has unleashed, the ban will not last very long. But let's look at what this ban has actually achieved:

1. It has given free global publicity to offensive material that most people - including us - were not even aware of. 
2. It has shown that those in Pakistan who are supposed to manage information technology actually have no clue what they are in charge of. They are obviously also clueless about the ease with which such bans can be circumvented (it took us and others a total of five minutes to get around it.)
3. It has made Pakistan a target of mocking all around the world yet again as a country that cannot be rational, trust its citizens or tolerate any opinions that don't fit in with its own. 
4. It has made an issue out of a non-issue (most people were unaware of the material as pointed out above) and in that given oxygen to precisely those obscurantist elements who use these things to fan the flames of bigotry and intolerance, both within Pakistan and abroad. Note that there had been NO protests before the Ministry of Information Technology drew attention to this 'issue' but that with its ineptitude it has ensured that it is now on the radar for all rent-a-crowd mullahs and will embolden those racists who enjoy provoking all Muslims. 
5. It has shown that any flimsy excuse can be used to censor opinions, particularly political opinions, that the government of the day is uncomfortable with. Because at the end of the day, it's not alleged blasphemers and pornographers who suffer from Pakistani bans, but common people expressing their personal views, on Twitter, Facebook or on blogs, outside the more easily controlled corporate media.

Let me draw another analogy for our esteemed policy makers. If, on the street, someone were to go around particularly eavesdropping on conversations among random groups of people to check if anyone were using foul language so that he could berate them, or more closely, telling everyone to shut up because he had heard some people using foul language, we would consider such a person a lunatic. Unfortunately, that is exactly what the people at the Ministry of Information Technology have proved themselves to be, overzealous lunatics. It's about time bureaucrats realize that we cannot police the entire world and, more importantly, that there is no need to.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Not Quite the Real Thing

A few days ago, there was a lavish launch in Karachi for Pakistani Oscar-winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy's new documentary project, a series of 6 short documentaries on Pakistanis who are doing interesting and remarkable things in their communities. Those who attended say the first of these documentaries, about a woman who runs a school for gifted children in Lyari, was also screened to much praise but that there was surprisingly no mention of the fact that Ms Obaid-Chinoy's production house, SOCFilms, had received almost $900,000 from the US government to undertake this (and perhaps another) project. (Also curious is the fact that the data for the two grants on the US government's publicly accessible website on government spending has seemingly disappeared though it was seen and tweeted about by many a few months ago.)

In any case, the entity that was more than mentioned and praised for its generosity towards the project was the multinational Coca Cola Company which will be putting the whole project on 16 (!) television channels and advertising it, basically flooding the media as they do with their Coke Studio project. In fact, the entire launch ceremony at a high-end private club was also organized by the corporate, including springing for a well-stocked high tea for the attendees and a give-away high-gloss hardcover coffee table book, and their marketing director apparently spoke at length about his philosophy and hopes about Pakistan.

Now I should point out that I think it's a great thing that a corporate entity is actually putting money into something other than just glitzy fashion shows, expensive ads and 'club nights' for the elite and certainly the much-neglected genre of documentaries is worthy of such support. Not having seen the documentaries themselves, I am not going to talk about them. But I did get my hands on the coffee table book handed out at the launch and this is what I really want to talk about here. Especially because it provides a little window into why those who oppose the corporate/ multinational approach to 'culture' (or what Naomi Klein referred to as the corporatization of culture) have a point.

The book is titled '101 Reasons To Believe In A Better Pakistan' to go with Coke's current 'Ho Yaqeen Tau...' (If You Have Faith) tagline. The idea, apparently, is to re-invigorate dwindling faith in the country among its upper class readers. And this is the cover (the dimensions are a bit off, it's actually a 11"x11" square book, but it was too big to scan in its entirety):

Screw the subconscious, go for the jugular

Yes, apparently, this is a book of belief in, optimism about and hope for Pakistan. But can you really blame the sponsor for, ever so subtly, reminding people who paid for it? In any case, what could possibly encapsulate the idea of belief in Pakistan better than a bottle of sugared and carbonated water?

You open the book. The first page consists of those six youngsters you can see through the cut-out of the bottle on the cover, looking up with hope at... the Coke logo. You turn the page. You confront a "Manifesto!" Let's just say it's not quite the Communist Manifesto, with lines such as "Today I will believe... In bigger, stronger, happier as a we / In sunshine and joyrides, how the best is yet to be." And: "Today I will believe... How the touch of a friend breaks through the dreary." You might be thinking 'sophomoric', but let's not be down on the Revolution.

On the opposite page, the publication information informs us that "The Editor does not share the opinions sustained [sic] in the signed articles; their authors exclusively respond for [sic] them." There is no mention of who the Editor is, perhaps because anonymity allows him / her to have a chance of being hired by anyone to ever edit again. Or perhaps revolutionary propagandists just need to keep a low profile.

The rest of the book consists of full page images of various 'Reasons to Believe in a Better Pakistan' numbered through (what else?) Coke bottle images, interspersed with 11 short profiles (without bylines, so much for the "signed articles") of 'inspiring' people such as a surgeon, a youth activist, two school administrators, a teacher, a driver, a healthcare administrator, a disabilities campaigner, a tailor, an orphanage caretaker and a food kitchen administrator.

The layout of the profiles cannot be termed inspired

The profiles make up 11 of the 101 reasons. Fair enough (though laid out as they are with boring mugshots of these people, and headlines such as "Mohammad Jawaid: Worker at Pleasures Tailors" they don't really draw you in to read them). 'But what are the 90 other reasons?' you may ask. Well, they can broadly be divided into a number of sub-groups.

1. The 'Perfectly Understandable Cliche' Group

This is a surprisingly small bunch and includes a total of 8 reasons, which are: "#14: Pakistan has the world's 7th largest pool of scientists and engineers"; "#22: The largest volunteer ambulance organization in the world belongs to Pakistan - founded by Sattar Edhi"; "#29: Pakistan has the largest Wimax network in the world"; "#34: Pakistan has the world's 2nd largest salt mine in the world - the Khewra mines"; "#47: Gwadar, situated in Pakistan, is the world's largest deep sea port"; "#52: Pakistan has Asia's largest bird sanctuary at Haleji Lake"; "#65: Pakistan has the world's 5th largest coal reserves"; and "#91: Above 70% of the world's football production is carried out in Pakistan."

Unfortunately Coke could not find a single image of the largest volunteer ambulance service in the world, or of Abdus Sattar Edhi

2. The 'Not Sure Why This Should Make Us Believe In A Better Pakistan' Group

This slightly larger group includes reasons such as  "#9: Pakistan is the world's 9th largest English speaking country", "#19: Pakistan's K2 is the 2nd highest mountain peak in the world"; "#42: Asia's highest railway station, Kan Mehtarzai, is located 2,240 meters above sea level near Quetta"; "#57: Thar Desert is one of the largest deserts in the world"; "#70: More than 60 languages are spoken in Pakistan"; "#75: Pakistan's Karakoram Highway is the highest paved road in the world"; "#85: Pakistan's Faisal Mosque is the world's 6th and Asia's largest mosque"; "#95: Pakistan's Nanga Parbat is the 9th highest peak in the world"; and "#98: Pakistan has the world's highest polo ground at Shandur, Pakistan."

Hokay, good times here we come

3. The 'Let's Quote Important People Even Though They May Not Have Actually Said Anything Related to Pakistan' Group

This very small group includes quotable quotes from luminaries such as Che Guevara ("The true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love"), Dr Martin Luther King, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sophocles and Allama Mohammad Iqbal.

Reasons #31, #67 and #49, apparently

Make your own deductions how these quotes can be considered reasons to believe in the future of Pakistan.

4. The 'Take Completely Irrelevant Stuff Off The Net' Group

The biggest group, by far, apparently came about through the mindless extraction of global statistics and factoids from the internet. Some examples:

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is Reason #74 to Believe in a Better Pakistan

Imagine, a billion mothers, baking chocolate cakes for Pakistan! Oh wait...

Good thing only Pakistanis have 3 or 4 friends

Small problem: none of these 6000 'laughter clubs' are in Pakistan (but Coke is trying)

5. The 'So Clueless It's Kind of Offensive' Group

This includes some banal generalizations that one can easily poke holes in. Such as...

Tell that to the 40% of the population below the poverty line or to the world's second highest percentage of children out of school


Leaving aside the specific relevance to Pakistan of this global figure, this still leaves only 5.4 billion people without access to drinkable water doesn't it?


Except Ahmadis. Or Christians and Hindus. Or Shias. Or the Baloch

6. The 'WTF Does This Even Mean?' Group

Another major subset of the reasons to believe in a better Pakistan consists of the following classics... which can only be put down to the fact that perhaps Coke still contains the substance it was named after. Consider the following samples:

If that isn't a reason to believe in your country, don't know what is


Just do it! Sorry, wrong brand...


This is Reason #32: Apprarently so self-explanatory that it's not even numbered; Maybe it means that unlike white foreigners, Pakistanis don't throw naked kids up in the air in public? - Win!

And my personal favourite reason for believing in a better Pakistan...

They should have stopped right here, what further proof do you need to believe?

And finally, for those who looked at the cover, the little coke numbering bottles and still didn't get the real reason for believing in Pakistan, there is...

7. The 'In Case You Thought There Weren't Enough References to Coke' Group

Reasons such as:

Reason #5

Reason #101

At a very conservative estimate, this revolutionary manifesto of hope and optimism would have cost Coke about 1.5 million to 2 million rupees to produce if they printed only 1000 copies. Knowing how corporate budgets work, in all likelihood it probably cost far, far more. But the fact that they could have utilized that money better is not even the issue (certainly it is a tiny fraction of the kind of monies spent by Coke on other kinds of advertising). What really is the issue is:

1) How multinationals seem utterly divorced from the real issues (cultural and otherwise) of the countries they operate in;
2) Why 'culture' can only be addressed by corporates as a series of banal cliches or, as in this case, by dishing out senseless tripe, never ever anything remotely controversial or contested as real culture often is; and
3) What makes a corporate entity believe it can unashamedly make itself the focus of the 'cultural expression' it is ostensibly setting out to 'support' and why we have stopped publicly even questioning that.

Surely, if really Ho Yaqeen Tau...

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

I Opened The News, And It Was Yellow

When you have four stories on one patently manufactured 'issue' carried by a newspaper in five days, you can safely consider it an object lesson in how to conduct a witch-hunt.

The News' City pages May 3, 2012

In the first story, titled 'City's elite schools say no to national anthem' published in the city pages of The News on May 3, 2012, reporter Sidrah Roghay wrote that several "elite" schools in Karachi had discontinued the tradition of singing the Pakistani national anthem during morning assembly "calling it a waste of time and energy."

She went on to imply that "regulatory authorities" were complicit in this "dismal" state of affairs, because of the schools' "influence and connections." The schools, we were told, catered mostly to the "elite, upper-middle class and middle class families." The battle lines between 'us' and 'them' being drawn, Ms Roghay and the city editor (who presumably helped commission this near flawless incitement to class resentment and hyper-patriotism), went on to helpfully pin the tail on the donkey. With a staple gun.

A vice principal of Bayview High School was quoted as saying the national anthem was sung only once a week because "it takes too long, and wastes time that can be used in the class constructively."

The reader's take home is, this person, this school, thinks singing the national anthem is a waste of time.

An anonymous school head is then quoted mouthing the words to really get the dander up of all Pakistani and linguistic patriots:
“I do not ask students to sing the national anthem: firstly, because it is in Urdu; secondly, I do not believe in national cohesion. What purpose does the national anthem serve? Students should be engaged in more meaningful activities.”

The reader's take home is, what a jerk!

Further on, for those horses who are reluctant to drink:
"The principal’s obvious disdain for the national language and anthem underlines the fundamental crisis of Pakistan’s education system which remains divided not just on the [sic] class basis, but also on the [sic] ideological grounds."

And in the rub down stage, we have quotes from a collection of impressively titled talking heads that subtly conflate the frequency with which a student sings the national anthem with the depth of their patriotism.

After the first article, there was radio silence for a day as the article did the rounds, eliciting the predictable outraged how dare these people think the national anthem should not be sung! from people who either a) read it; b) read about it on someone's Facebook wall or Twitter feed; or c) heard about it during a lull in conversation at a gathering (such as the provincial assembly).

The News' City pages May 5, 2012

Then, on Saturday May 5th, The News carried two follow up stories. The first, titled 'Elite schools' defiance over national anthem stirs debate in PA' by reporter Imtiaz Ali, began with a paragraph saying that Sindh Education Minister Pir Mazharul Haq had taken serious notice of the paper's report that some of the "elite" schools in Karachi had "banned" the singing of the national anthem.

The minister went on to express his "displeasure" at the schools, and said that such an attitude "made a joke of national identity."

Three schools were named in a sentence that said they had either "totally scrapped the tradition of singing the national anthem or do it only once a week." No further details were provided about which of them had done the former or the latter. No details at all were provided about the frequency of the singing of the national anthem in government schools, madrassas, or the private school equivalent of an alternative to an "elite" school. But...
"The report came as a shock for many senior educationists, parents and students. They expressed concern over the banning of the national anthem at these institutions, which follow the Cambridge system of education, and asked the government to intervene. The minister said the Directorate of Private Schools had been directed to take strict action against these schools, saying that they considered themselves above the law."

An MQM minister is then reported to have suggested that the Sindh Assembly pass a resolution making the singing of the national anthem mandatory at all schools, including the ones "affiliated with a foreign system of education."

The third story, titled 'Schools served with notices' detailed how the Directorate of Private School Institution Sindh (DPIS) had on Friday sent notices to some of the leading private schools which had "barred" the singing of national anthem at their morning assemblies. The heads of the schools mentioned in the initial report - bar one - and some others that traditionally come under the 'elite' banner, met with the DPIS:

"Representatives of most of these schools said that they follow the tradition of national anthem at their assemblies. Meanwhile, Khalid Shah, chairman All Pakistan Private Schools Management Associations Sindh, promised an inquiry regarding the issue, saying that the registration of those schools, which refuse to follow the tradition [italics added] of national anthem, would be cancelled."

Two days later, on Monday May 7th, a further story appeared by Fasahat Mohiuddin under the subheading "Discarding the National Anthem", detailing how various political parties had jumped into the fray and wanted urgent "action against the schools." The PPP minister for local bodies, Agha Siraj Durrani said "Our party will never allow such practice to go unchecked." The MQM's Coordination Committee's Waseem Aftab said his party "strongly condemned the act of dropping the national anthem by a handful of elite schools." The PMLN Sindh President Ghous Ali Shah "demanded action" and "asked for an 'investigation' of how these institutions had been allowed to get away with it for such a long time." The PMLQ's Halim Adil Sheikh "demanded that the government should penalise all such schools." The Jamaat-e-Islami, the Sunni Tehrik and Jafferia Alliance reps expressed similar shock and outrage. The reporter noted:

"There appears a strong, but rare consensus among all the political and religious parties that some of those private schools, which teach the Cambridge system of education, should not be allowed to flout the country's traditions."

The News' City pages May 7, 2012

I do not wish to get into the issue of whether singing the national anthem makes someone more or less patriotic (though many of the people dubbed threats to Pakistan by the same political parties mentioned above sing the anthem the loudest). Or whether making a herd of sleepy kids mouth lyrics they often don't understand five times a week instead of once a week is the most productive use of their time in school. Let's just say I too have been moved by the melody of the Land of the Pure, and I too understand why Sesame Street has a character dubbed a grouch. But I do want to comment on the kind of yellow journalism that characterizes these reports:

1) The facts are that the national anthem is sung and taught at all schools in Pakistan, just not always every single day. After these loaded stories, a lot of people now think the anthem is not sung at all. But far more importantly, in a country where the illiteracy rate is easily above 50%,  where the vast majority of children drop out of school before reaching the 6th grade, where there are more children out of school than the entire population of Australia, where 50% of children between the ages of 6-16 who are in school cannot read a single sentence in any language, where less than 1.5% of the GDP is allocated to education (and even that is not fully spent), where just 39% of schools have electricity connections, and where  the average teacher is missing from school one day every week, THIS is what The News believes is the most pressing issue to take up and run as a campaign?!? (For more shocking figures see Education Emergency.)

2) Note the subtle, intelligent manipulation of language in such propaganda, which is perhaps the only time you see subtle, intelligent manipulation of anything in newsprint these days. The four stories consistently claim the anthem has been 'banned' or 'barred' or 'dropped' or 'scrapped' or 'discarded' in the schools they name, and perhaps others, and that is blatantly false, even going by the stories themselves. You'd have to be a real idiot to 'ban' the national anthem anywhere in Pakistan (and how would that even work?). Furthermore, the fact that a parliamentarian floated a resolution calling for the singing of the national anthem to be made mandatory in schools clearly establishes that there exists no such law in the first place. Even if a school head (from Mars) decided a full assembly with the raising of the flag and the national anthem was best done once a week, he/she would not be breaking any laws. Most people keep referring to the "tradition" of singing the anthem, which also shows there is no law mandating the singing of the anthem. (Incidentally it's also a tradition in Pakistan to provide bad education but nobody wants to harp on that.) Yet, note, in story two, we have a reference to how the 'elite' schools considered themselves "above the law." The editors of The News probably also don't even know that parliamentary resolutions are not laws and are not binding. Then, there is the consistent raising of the 'elite' flag, and the equation of private schools with the elite. Had the reporters and editors of The News done a little bit of real research, they would know that more than half of all urban children in Pakistan attend private schools.

3) The statement most guaranteed to raise hackles, "I do not believe in national cohesion", is attributed to an 'anonymous' source. We have no way of knowing if this is actually a real quote or a bit of spice thrown in by the reporter. If someone is unwilling to own up to what is clearly a provocative statement, why include it? What's next for The News' city pages? "A non-Muslim, speaking on condition of anonymity, said 'I do not believe Muhammed was the last prophet"? Why cross the line between reportage and sensationalism? This bring me to…

4) Motive. What beef does The News, or the editors who have okayed these stories (reasonable to assume since more than one reporter has been assigned this particular story) have with these particular schools? Until they can provide us with more fire than smoke, we're going to have to assume this was simply a case of a child or relative refused admittance or employment.

And we're not going to talk about where Mir Shakilur Rehman's children went to school and college.

I shudder to think what all this says about the issues that will power upcoming electoral pleas. The city pages, more than the oped pages (and definitely more than the lifestyle pages) often act as remoras to the sharks apt to surface in the speeches of the coming year. The rhetoric employed in this campaign against certain private schools "which follow the Cambridge system of education" (note the frequency with which two pop up in the first three stories) is reminiscent of that employed by Imran Khan in his magnum opus I Know What You Did Last Summer (But Let's Not Talk About What I Did Because That's So Last Summer). Now that we have decided we don't like America, are we going to be told we don't like anything foreign at all? Shall we be asked to say goodbye to pants, guitars and any kind of learning focussed on inculcating critical thinking rather than rote learning? If we refuse, will we be told we are not Pakistani enough?

 I hope not. Because I have always hated the Indian toilet.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Of Governance Scandals And Clean Hands

We are sometimes accused by partisan supporters of opposition political parties of being soft on or for not being more vehement about denouncing the alleged corruption or misgovernance of the currently ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). While I could point to dozens of examples to dispute these claims, I would like to explain, once again, a couple of things.

Firstly, we do not brook real corrupt practises, arrogance or misgovernance; our only problem is when either claims are made without substantial proof or when such allegations are made arbitrarily only against the PPP and without context, as if everyone else - from the military to the judiciary to other political parties - is innocent of any blame and everything was hunky dory aside from the times that the PPP has been in power. This is not to say that the PPP should not be hauled up for its sins, only to provide a more balanced perspective.

But even more importantly than this is the fact that in the context of a mainstream media that overwhelmingly targets the ruling party (usually because that is in the nature of the media and sometimes because of less salubrious vested reasons), it makes little sense for us to repeat the same charges. The mainstream media has far, far more resources and outreach than we do and, to be sure, it is perfectly justified in its criticisms when it investigates and exposes real corruption and misgovernance. Our role, as we see it on the other hand, is not to reinforce what the dominant narrative is, but to provide, hopefully, some perspective, sometimes corrections and an alternative narrative where required.

Punjab Laptop Scheme: note the personal publicity

In any case, with that bit of explanation out of the way (and there is a connection which I will come to later), let me get down to what this post really is about. Those who follow us on Twitter will know that we already expressed our opposition to the Punjab Goverment's laptop distribution scheme. Our main contention against the scheme was two-fold:

1. That this was a wasteful publicity stunt that, like the disastrous Sasti Roti scheme before it, would drain the public exchequer without addressing real issues and would divert resources that could be better utilized in more productive schemes with more long-term benefit. 
2. That if providing access to computers to students is the goal, giving away laptops to individual students is possibly one of the worst solutions possible. Laptops, by their very nature, are more fragile, less upgradable and more prone to breakage and theft.

Keep in mind that our critique did not revolve around the issues of corruption or maladministration of the scheme, only its conceptualisation.

However, yesterday, Dunya TV's Khari Baat Lucman Ke Saath programme carried a devastating expose of how this scheme has really been run. It is a shocking expose of a scandal that most mainstream media has chosen to ignore so far, probably because it is too busy with stories about Memogate and exposing the federal government's malfeasance in the NRO case. I managed to catch the programme on repeat today and really think everyone who was upset at our opposition to the scheme should take a look at. (Hasan Nisar doesn't really add much to the programme but I am including the whole programme here so that you can appreciate the solid work and research that went into it. Kudos to the young reporter Huzaifa Rehman Qureshi who did most of it and to Mubasher Lucman for carrying it.)

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

So basically, not only was there apparently huge financial bungling in the procurements of laptops and in the publicity of the scheme, many of those who benefited from the scheme were either PMLN supporters, mediocre students or affluent people who did not deserve to be subsidized by the state.

This laptop scheme was announced in November last year. It has taken the mainstream media six months to raise serious issues about it (even though there were various murmurings against it online for some time). Most of the time, we have been treated only with PR-type statements justifying it, such as this one  in The Daily Times claiming total transparency in the scheme with no counter narrative or actual investigation of the claims. At the same time, the Chief Minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, is given ample (and often uncritical) coverage in the media vowing to ensure "good governance" and proclaiming that he will "hang the looters of the national wealth (i.e. PPP leaders) publicly."

Coming back to what I began with, can you imagine had such a scandal involved the PPP, that the media would have waited even a moment to pounce on it? Had the PPP been bestowing largesse to its jiyalas, to failed students and making money off it too, would Geo, to cite just one example, have waited six months to run exposes on it? Isn't it about time one questioned why certain people get a much easier ride from the media's vigilant watchdogs than others?