Friday, September 28, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial September 28, 2017

Undermining the media

The federal government constituted a ‘content committee’ to approve the issuance of government advertisements to the print and electronic media on September 17, 2018. The committee is headed by federal Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry and includes the information ministers of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as well as the Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Media Iftikhar Durrani and Senator Faisal Javed Khan. The notable omission is any representation for Sindh. The need and purpose of the committee have yet to be explained. The All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) though seems to have seen through the intent of the decision. In a statement, APNS has expressed its grave concern at the move. It has described the step as a ‘surgical strike’ against the media that would endanger the independence and viability of the media and be used as a lever to curb press freedom. The action, APNS goes on, is contrary to the assurances of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) government to not only uphold media freedoms but also the devolution of power to the provincial and district levels. Regretfully, APNS argues, the federal government has adopted a policy to control the print and electronic media through overcentralisation of government advertisements that are the lifeblood of the media’s economy. APNS believes this is an encroachment on the powers vested in the provinces in the Constitution (particularly after the 18th Amendment). APNS emphasises that only a financially sound and vibrant media can perform the role of a watchdog of the people’s interests and safeguard democratic norms. In any case, APNS underlines, since the induction of the PTI government, the quantum of federal and provincial governments’ advertisements has declined drastically, causing an acute financial crunch, particularly for the regional and smaller media outlets. APNS has urged the federal government to immediately withdraw the policy and let the media play its essential role in the democratic system. Last but not least, APNS requested Prime Minister Imran Khan to intervene in the matter. APNS’s concern is well grounded. The media already suffers because of governments’ habit over the years of controlling their financial lifeline – government advertising – that constitutes their bread and butter. Any interruption or partisan diversion of such advertisements can cripple individual media houses or even the media as a whole. A constant complaint of the media is the tardy pace at which the accumulated dues on account of government advertisements are paid. The composition and stated purpose of the committee set up by the federal government and including the three provinces where the PTI is in power bodes ill for the media.

APNS’s concern regarding the effect of the federal government’s decision cannot be dismissed lightly, particularly when media freedom is already under attack from various quarters. Take for example the order of the Lahore High Court to issue non-bailable arrest warrants for Dawn Assistant Editor Cyril Almeida and place his name on the Exit Control List in a case pertaining to an interview he conducted with former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, and for which act of professional duty he has been charged with treason. PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has expressed his surprise and dismay at the Lahore High Court’s order. He went on to state that this showed the media was under siege and facing the worst form of censorship. After all, Bilawal asked, what law did Almeida break in carrying out his professional duties and nothing more? The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan too has added its voice to those who feel the charge of treason is ill founded and tantamount to shooting the messenger. After all, as Bilawal reminded us, democracy without media freedom is a sham. APNS’s worry that the federal government’s move will result in downsizing and unemployment in the media is not without foundation. The PTI government should, in its own as well as democracy’s interest, withdraw this ill thought through and transparently anti-media freedom step.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial September 27, 2018

CCI reconstituted

The first meeting of the reconstituted Council of Common Interests (CCI) held on September 24, 2018, dealt with a raft of issues on its agenda. The eight-member CCI is headed by the Prime Minister (PM) and includes the four provincial Chief Ministers (CMs) and federal ministers for Inter-Provincial Coordination, Industries and Production, and Finance. However, in the present reconstituted CCI, the ruling coalition has an overwhelming majority, with Sindh CM Syed Murad Ali Shah the only opposition member. Amongst other issues taken up, the CCI meeting agreed on implementation of the AGN Kazi formula for net hydel profits. The formula has been perambulating in government circles for decades, but its non-implementation has caused much ruction amongst the provinces and between the provinces and the Centre. Better late than never though, although reports the decision may impose added costs on consumers was not elucidated. The CCI agreed to resolve the Sindh and Balochistan water crisis by asking the two CMs to settle the issue of shortage of water in the Pat Feeder and Kirthar Canals bilaterally. The demand for an additional 650 MGD for Karachi was referred to the National Water Council to make recommendations keeping in view the present water supply situation and a formula for water distribution among the provinces. Better education facilities, based on coordination between the Centre and the provinces, and the implementation of a uniform education system across the country were highlighted and the Higher Education Commission was asked for its recommendations within a month. Prime Minister Imran Khan assured the CMs that the federal government would take them all on board to solve their problems. He also advocated a comprehensive and transparent monitoring system for water distribution among the provinces to provide accurate and timely information, the absence of which causes misunderstandings. The CCI reviewed Balochistan’s energy, education and health problems. It set up a task force and special committee to implement the decisions of all regulatory bodies of the federal government and maintain a uniform standard of food items and their quality throughout the country. A countrywide cleanliness drive will be launched on October 7, 2018. Another task force was formed to review the devolution of powers to the Workers Welfare Fund and Employees Old-age Benefit Institution to the provinces. Two summaries of the Ministry of Energy on amendment to the Petroleum (Exploration and Production) Policy 2012 and import of LNG were referred to the Economic Coordination Committee. The federal government announced its intention to bring forth the LNG import agreements signed by the previous government.

The heavy agenda and deliberations of the CCI in its very first meeting indicate that there are a host of left over items for it to deal with, as well as new issues that keep cropping up. This points to the need for the CCI to meet regularly to defuse conflicts and disagreements amongst the provinces and between them and the Centre. Given the fraught history of the federation, this is critical. However, a word of caution would not be out of place here. Although the PTI enjoys power in the Centre, Punjab and Khyber Pakthunkhwa and is part of a governing coalition in Balochistan, it must not allow this to go to its head. PM Imran Khan’s reassuring noises towards the provinces are important because of this political landscape and the 18th Amendment that has devolved many more powers to the provinces. The delicate relationship in our past between the Centre and the provinces has been rendered even more delicate as a result. Adhering to democratic principles, extending respect to the people’s mandate and respecting the enhanced provincial autonomy is the only wise path for a smooth functioning of the federation. And the CCI must be made active and effective to help forge consensus on prickly issues in the overall interests of the country.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Business Recorder Column September 25, 2018

Of debacles and more

Rashed Rahman

Barely a month in office the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) government appears to lurch from one embarrassment to the next. To be charitable, it is early days and the government seems to be on a learning curve. However, there is an undeniable air of acting without forethought and proper planning and then beating a hasty retreat (U-turn).
The latest example of this kind of functioning is the debacle regarding the approach to India for talks in the interests of peace and normalisation of relations. First, the message of congratulations to Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan from his Indian counterpart was conflated by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi as opening the door to talks. A denial of this interpretation followed from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). Subsequently, PM Imran Khan wrote to Indian PM Narendra Modi and suggested a meeting of the two countries’ foreign ministers on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York. This was initially accepted by India but within a day or so, New Delhi went back on its agreement and cancelled the meeting.
Not only that, the MEA and Indian army chief General Bipin Rawat poured oil on the fire. The MEA pointed to the alleged killing and mutilation of the body of a member of India’s security forces at the hands of ‘pro-Pakistan’ elements and the issuance of postage stamps by Pakistan of slain Kashmiri militant leader Burhanuddin Wani and others as tantamount to supporting terrorism as the reasons for the cancellation. It then heaped calumny on PM Imran Khan’s head by saying his ‘evil agenda’ and ‘true face’ had been exposed. General Rawat promised retaliation and another (mythical) ‘surgical strike’ against Pakistan to administer an appropriate lesson.
Whereas the peace overture from Islamabad had given rise to hopes for a positive engagement with New Delhi, the abrupt cancellation and statements that followed had their expected effect. PM Imran Khan expressed disappointment and castigated an ‘arrogant’ India for having wasted a historic opportunity to explore the path to peace and normalisation. So far so good, but Imran Khan being Imran Khan, could not leave it at that. He went on to say that all his life he had “come across small men occupying big offices who do not have the vision to see the larger picture”. Now this could be interpreted in India as a jibe at PM Modi’s humble beginnings at a tea stall. The problem with such statements is that they personalise animosity and hatred instead of defusing tensions and paving the way for diplomatic openings through sustained interaction. This may render finding a way back from this precipice of bad vibes that much more difficult.
This apprehension is borne out by the traditional speed with which both sides have fallen into a familiar groove of mutual suspicion, hostility and swiftly escalating rhetoric. It matters little who started this turn from hope to despair once again. Given the history of tension and conflict between the two South Asian neighbours, they tend to revert very quickly to type.
Now the intriguing question is what persuaded the Indian government to reverse its stance so suddenly. A reasonable assumption would be that the afterthought flashed through New Delhi’s decision makers’ mind that even a limited engagement of the two foreign ministers in New York may weaken their stance since the stalling of the comprehensive dialogue in December 2015 that ‘terrorism’ and talks cannot go hand in hand. By ‘terrorism’ is meant not only incidents inside India like the Mumbai attacks but also the ongoing conflict in Indian Held Kashmir (IHK). The struggle in IHK may no longer feature alleged infiltration of fighters from Pakistani territory alone. New Delhi prefers still for strategic and politically expedient reasons to paint the genuine Kashmiri struggle for liberation as a purely Pakistan-driven phenomenon, thereby ignoring and negating the purely indigenous uprising in progress for some years.
Nevertheless, it is worth reflecting on why on both the eastern and western frontiers (Afghanistan), the same charge is laid at Pakistan’s door that it allows its soil to be used by terrorists and militants against its neighbours. Whether intended or not, some hangover of the past investment in jihad in both directions may still be at work. Pakistan will have to take a strategic decision to forego or stop such activities if it is to be taken at face value by its neighbours and the world at large. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi will have his work cut out in advocating Kashmir’s cause while defending Pakistan against these charges at the UN General Assembly.
But the real issue is the style of governance and decision making of the PTI government. Why was so much haste shown in taking the initiative for talks with India without proper homework and an appreciation of the factors that led to the December 2015 suspension by India of the comprehensive dialogue? Why were briefings not asked for by the foreign and security establishment and Pakistan’s High Commissioner in New Delhi regarding the way forward? Surely such internal discussions should have preceded and informed the initiative to prevent precisely such knee-jerk reactions that India has been resorting to since the dialogue stalled.
Inexperience in government notwithstanding, and in fact precisely because of this fact, the PTI government should proceed with caution in the minefield of Pakistan-India relations to avoid such embarrassments and rebuffs. This approach should also apply across the board to all policy decisions. That may help avoid the disappointment accompanying the mini-budget presented by this government that held out no hope to the poor or the people at large. The PTI government is discovering the hard way just how precarious Pakistan’s economic, social, diplomatic, strategic and foreign policy challenges are. Human beings and governments composed of them can and do make mistakes. But there appears to be no introspection and learning from such blunders. This is steadily eroding the government’s credibility all too early in its tenure.
In its own interests, the PTI government needs to put its head down, burn some midnight oil and thoroughly acquaint itself with the complexities of Pakistan’s landscape. Failure to tackle this on an urgent basis could lead to a governance crisis, failure, even collapse of the government. This scenario has already become part of our evening talk show fare on television. The government stands warned and needs to wake up to the image of floundering it is accumulating at a dizzy pace.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial September 25, 2018

Proceed with caution

Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan’s remarks in Karachi the other day regarding giving citizenship to children of refugees and illegal immigrants who were born here has set off the expected mini-storm. In the National Assembly on September 18, 2018, the PM had to justify his remarks after Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNP-M) leader Sardar Akhtar Mengal sought an explanation for the PM’s statement. Akhtar Mengal argued that any such step would violate the agreement between his party and the PTI as part of their alliance after the elections. Imran Khan clarified that no decision in this regard had been taken yet and he would welcome input from all stakeholders on the issue. However, the PM went on to say that Karachi’s growing street crime is linked with the underclass composed of the children of Bengalis and Afghan refugees who cannot get CNICs or passports and therefore are unemployable. This deprived class, he argued, is driven to crime as it has no other option. While acknowledging Akhtar Mengal’s objection that the PTI and BNP-M had an agreement that the Afghan refugees would be sent back, the PM said this was a humanitarian issue. The examples the PM gave of western countries included the US, where despite President Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration, including separating children from their parents, the practice endures. However, in the UK it is no longer an automatic right for children born there. Europe is struggling with its own take on the issue, exacerbated currently by the refugee crisis. Pakistan’s 1951 citizenship law does allow children born here to acquire Pakistani nationality. But this is not simply a legal or humanitarian issue. As Sindh Chief Minister (CM) Murad Ali Shah dilated during a press conference in Karachi after the PM’s visit, the PM’s idea could not be implemented if it was not in conformity with the Pakistan Citizenship Act 1951. Were this to be carried out it would open the floodgates of illegal immigration into Pakistan, he stressed. The Chief Minister Balochistan, Jam Kamal Khan, also questioned the grounds on which the PM had given such a statement. No doubt Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) leaders, despite a PTI government being in power in the province, would express similar sentiments given their own experience of hosting millions of Afghan refugees for decades.
PM Imran Khan may genuinely feel pangs of conscience regarding the non-status of children of refugees and illegal immigrants born on our soil. His concern that such youngsters feed the burgeoning street crime phenomenon may not be far off the mark, although the assertion that a majority of such crimes are carried out by these youngsters is questionable on the touchstone of local, indigenous youngsters too perhaps being involved in such activities, given widespread unemployment. It could also be that PM Imran Khan said what he thought his Karachi audience wanted to hear. But as CM Murad Ali Shah quipped, such utterings may be a hangover of Imran Khan and the PTI’s agitation mode while in opposition, whereas they now needed to dispense with that culture and soberly take on the tasks of governance.

KP and Balochistan have long complained of the heavy presence of Afghan refugees for decades in their respective provinces. KP felt this overwhelming presence disadvantaged the indigenous citizens and their rights to economic and other opportunities. Balochistan feared its delicate demography would be irrevocably altered to the deprivation in one more way of its long-suffering people. Sindh rightfully sees Karachi as the jewel in its crown and has been averse to changing the de jure polyglot demography of its populace by according citizenship to illegal immigrants (mostly from Bangladesh) or Afghan refugees. These are old and sensitive issues for all three provinces. The PM is therefore advised to tread softly, softly on such terrain, and certainly not without listening to the full range of views on the problem from all stakeholders before even discussing the issue publicly. As Akhtar Mengal put it, when the PM speaks, it is taken as the state’s policy. Imran Khan has to learn the limits circumscribing the PM’s ability to speak casually on issues of such sensitivity.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial September 24, 2018

One step forward, two steps back

Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan in his first speech after the July 25, 2018 elections had sent out a positive message to India regarding normalisation of relations through a resumption of the dialogue between the two countries that has been stalled since December 2015. He had said if India takes one step forward in this regard, Pakistan would take two. Perhaps in his zeal to see Pakistan and India engaging with each other, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi subsequently misread Indian PM Narendra Modi’s congratulatory message to Imran Khan as agreeing to reopen the dialogue. This was then refuted by India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). In reply to Mr Modi’s message, PM Imran Khan wrote a letter to his Indian counterpart suggesting a meeting between the foreign ministers of both countries on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session and welcomed the possibility of PM Modi visiting Pakistan to attend the SAARC summit in Islamabad. What followed was clear but tinged with the colours of a comedy of errors. On the SAARC summit in Islamabad India unequivocally rejected the notion per se. On the foreign ministers’ meeting in New York, the MEA initially only felt it necessary to clarify that it was just a meeting, not a dialogue, and then backed out from it citing “unclean intentions” on Pakistan’s part. Indian media has reported that the post-haste cancellation of the New York meeting came in the wake of charges that pro-Pakistan elements were responsible for the killing of Indian security forces personnel and charged Pakistan with “glorifying terrorists”, a reference to the commemorative postage stamps carrying slain Kashmiri leader Burhanuddin Wani and others’ likenesses. In response to this flip-flop on India’s part, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi had to respond to media questions by stating that Pakistan wanted a dignified dialogue and would be reluctant to follow up its offers of talks unless the other side signalled its willingness to come to the negotiations table.

Pakistan-India relations resemble less a waltz and more a forward-backward minuet. In response to PM Imran Khan’s generous offer of two steps for one, India has instead opted for one step forward, two steps back. New Delhi’s stance since it called off the dialogue in December 2015 has been that terrorism and dialogue cannot go hand in hand. Perhaps to meet this objection, PM Imran Khan had offered a comprehensive set of talks to include not only trade, people to people contacts, religious tourism and humanitarian issues, but also terrorism and Kashmir. One hopes attacks on mainland India like the Mumbai attacks that led to the dialogue being frozen by India are a thing of the past. As far as the Kashmir struggle is concerned, it needs to be noted that Pakistan is no longer the sole factor in the ongoing conflict. An indigenous element has by now become part of the equation. Nevertheless, on this most intractable issue as on Siachen, Sir Creek, etc, there seems no escape from the logic of dialogue, especially since all-out war is no longer an option after both countries have become declared nuclear weapons powers. The pattern of the South Asian minuet seems to be that with each change of government in either country, hopes are resurrected of a peaceful resolution of all issues through talks. All too soon however, this initial euphoria makes shipwreck on predictable stances on both sides following a by now tired script. Too many generations in both countries have suffered the consequences of the unresolved Pakistan-India conflicts because of the heavy burden of military spending that leaves precious little in the way of butter when guns are prized on the menu. Surely the time has come for once again efforts to be made for a fresh start, given that Islamabad now has a new government. If PM Modi is worried about domestic political compulsions related to the general elections in India next year, he could prove himself a courageous, visionary leader if he did not allow such expediencies to stand in the way of the responsibility of ensuring peace and normalisation with Pakistan through talks.