Thursday, February 28, 2019

Business Recorder Editorial March 1, 2019

Fawad Chaudhry’s insistence

Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry told a meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Information on February 25 that there was a need for a centralised regulatory authority for all types of media, print, electronic and digital. The minister mustered in support of his idea the convergence of news and entertainment in mobile phones because of technological advances. That may be so, although it is not yet a situation where the mobile phone reigns supreme unchallenged over all other sources of information. However, how this development justifies the setting up of the proposed Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PMRA) to oversee (and control) all media was not explained by the worthy minister. To his credit, the minister at least paid lip service to consultations with political leaders and stakeholders to forge a consensus on the proposal and that PMRA would be free from government intervention. At present, the minister informed the committee, the Press Council of Pakistan (PCP) looks after matters related to the print media, the Pakistan Electronic Media Authority (PEMRA) the affairs of the electronic media and the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) digital media and cellular companies. Fawad Chaudhry hastened to add that the new regulatory body was by no means being established to curb media freedoms. Contrary to the minister’s claim that the media enjoys more freedom than any other country in the Muslim or Third world (a dubious distinction even if accepted), media practitioners and users know the kind of control of news and information to bring it into conformity with the establishment’s narrative that has been at work in recent years. Media houses have been compelled on pain of financial survival if they do not toe the officially certified line. Self-censorship therefore is rife. The other contentious statement made by Fawad Chaudhry to the Standing Committee was to shed crocodile tears for the plight of media workers, especially electronic media workers, who the minister argued did not enjoy the same protections under the law for their rights as the print media workers. He also bent his ‘concern’ for electronic media owners having to deal with problems stemming from being subject to different regulatory authorities to argue they would ‘benefit’ from the establishment of a centralised regulatory body. In the first place, Fawad Chaudhry should have taken the trouble to point out which are these ‘different regulatory bodies’ that electronic media owners have to deal with, since his statement contradicts what he had said about the existence and function of PEMRA. Second, he should also have explained how a centralised media regulatory authority would benefit such owners. Merely asserting such conclusions without explicating and filling in the argument remains less than convincing. Last but not least, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry thought little of sprinkling salt on the wounds of media workers by asserting that advertising was shifting from news channels to digital forums and thereby creating problems for the traditional news media. He neglected to mention his government’s role in creating unprecedented problems for the media by hitting it in its pocket where it hurts. Government advertising has been cruelly slashed both in quantum and rates under the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government. Whatever financial difficulties the media houses entire had been experiencing before, this ‘gift’ from the PTI government has led to thousands of journalists and media workers losing their jobs throughout the country as a result of the shrinking earnings of all media houses.

The minister’s effort to paint the government’s intentions vis-à-vis the freedom and independence of the media in a rosy light simply does not hold water. Print, electronic and even social media are being subjected as we speak to an intolerably high level of self-censorship and control through intimidation and worse. Media houses are being squeezed financially through the government’s advertising policy. The most dire consequences of all this have fallen first and foremost on the heads of media workers. In any case, in democracies the media is free of the kind of regulation envisaged in the PMRA idea. Our Constitution’s Article 19 too empowers freedom of the media and expression. The minister’s insistence on monitoring the media through one overarching regulatory authority not only cuts across the grain of these freedoms, it raises suspicions that what is being proposed is a draconian censorship regime to outrival even the worst military dictatorship in our history.

Business Recorder Editorial Feb 28, 2019

On the escalation ladder

The escalation of tensions and conflict between Pakistan and India has by now assumed alarming proportions. First and foremost, India’s claim of an air raid in Balakot that destroyed a training camp of Jaish-i-Mohammad (JeM) and purportedly killed 300 fighters including the commander in retaliation for the Pulwama attack has been questioned if not refuted by reports from the area and the authorities that in fact the intruding Indian aircraft were repulsed by our scrambled jets and forced to retreat within four minutes, in the process dumping their payload in scarcely populated territory without any casualties or damage. Now the latest reports speak of the downing of an Indian fighter and the capture of a pilot. Artillery duels have broken out on the Line of Control (LoC) and the reported toll so far is four civilians killed and 11 wounded in Azad Kashmir. Inevitably, the top civilian and military leadership has met in the National Security Committee and considered the highly dangerous and escalating situation. Prime Minister Imran Khan has reiterated his offer of talks to India, an approach echoed in DG ISPR Major General Asif Ghafoor’s press conference in which he underlined the fact that Pakistan did not want war but could not escape the necessity of a response that would convey to India Pakistani defensive capability and the high risks involved in any military adventurism against Pakistan. While here the government and opposition seem in rare harmony on the need to join hands in defence of the country, in India the hysteria being whipped up by the media and Hindutva brigade has all but drowned out rational, sober voices, to the detriment of peace. Internationally too alarm is rising at the rapidly deteriorating situation given the possibility of military exchanges blowing up into a full scale war with both countries possessing nuclear weapons. Ironically, while received wisdom holds nuclear weaponised countries do not go to war with each other, in the case of the old historic rivals Pakistan and India, all bets are off.

The shrill condemnation by India of the Pulwama attack was misplaced concreteness. Both the timing and size of the attack (and its attendant casualties) do not make sense from Islamabad’s point of view when it was welcoming a de facto Saudi ruler. If the JeM claim of responsibility is accepted for the sake of argument, this puts the Pulwama incident in a very different light to how Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government have interpreted it. Major General Ghafoor too argued that proxy jihadists were a thing of the past and Pakistan should not therefore be blamed for responsibility for the Pulwama incident. The implication being that groups like JeM are ‘spoilers’ who act when even a hint of dialogue between Pakistan and India is mooted. It may be recalled that among the JeM’s ‘exploits’ are counted the attack on the Indian parliament in 2001 that brought the armies of the two countries to an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. Then there are reports that JeM attempted to assassinate the then president, Pervez Musharraf, in 2003. Both instances point to attempts to so sully the atmosphere that the two countries turn back from efforts at peace and normalisation towards confrontation and conflict. Modi, the BJP, the hysterical Indian media and the wider jingoistic campaign ongoing there must think again, rationally and coolly. War between Pakistan and India, with its concomitant possibility of a nuclear war, would be suicide for both countries. It is therefore in the interests of both, the region and the world that restraint be adopted, further tit-for-tat escalation be stopped, the militaries on either side step back from the brink of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) and find ways and means to prevent falling into the trap set by organisations whose vested interest lies in Pakistan-India confrontation and even war, since a turn to dialogue and peace would drive them out of ‘business’.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Business Recorder Column Feb 26, 2019

Pakistan-India tensions

Rashed Rahman

The current tensions between Pakistan and India in the wake of the Pulwama suicide attack that killed 44 Central Reserve Police Force (CPRF) personnel are following a familiar pattern. India, relying on the claim of responsibility by Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), has pointed the finger of accusation at Pakistan. Pakistan has denied responsibility, arguing that the suicide bomber was an indigenous Kashmiri radicalised by brutalisation at the hands of the Indian security forces, the huge amount of explosives used in the attack were locally procured, and if India can provide actionable intelligence on the perpetrators, Pakistan will take action against them.
Despite the rejection of responsibility by Pakistan, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government has moved to ban Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) and its charitable wing Falah-i-Insaniat, both widely known to be replacements for the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba banned by Pakistan in 2002. The government has also taken over the JeM’s headquarters in a mosque in Bahawalpur and a madrassa attached to it. JeM too was banned in 2002. Banning has proved in practice to be a fig leaf for reinventing these groups under new names and thereby allowing them to function freely.
India is threatening military retaliation, with the Pakistani military, government, opposition and media giving equal measure to their opposite numbers across the border. Suspicions abound in Pakistan and even in India that Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi is whipping up anti-Pakistan rhetoric in order to get better results in the upcoming elections in that country. Sane voices on either side that counsel restraint seem few and weak, but after the passions of nationalist rhetoric subside relatively, are proving the only ones worth paying attention to. The two nuclear-armed South Asian neighbours cannot even conceive of going to war. It would mean mutual mass suicide and the ruin of both. Alternatives such as surgical strikes are still in the realm of wishful thinking rather than feasible reality.
Going by the track record, passionate denunciations on either side, fuelled by a hyper-patriotic media at both ends, may persist in its irresponsibility until after the Indian elections but, afterwards, and God willing in the absence of actual conflict, are likely to subside. Post-Kargil, the two sides did return to the negotiating table, although in 1999 this seemed an unlikely possibility. Sooner or later, even belligerent states return to rational calculation, or at least we hope so in the current highly dangerous standoff.
India has taken its case to world opinion, including the UN Security Council (UNSC). The resolution adopted in the UNSC condemns the Pulwama attack, advises Pakistan to prevent such incidents, and calls for talks between the two countries to defuse the increasingly dangerous escalation. US President Donald Trump, not known for his perspicacity on international issues, has nevertheless raised the alarm and revealed his administration’s intent to hold meetings with Pakistan with which Washington’s relations have improved of late since the US-Taliban talks process started. Pakistan too has been pulling out all the diplomatic stops to argue its case before world opinion.
Cleaving through all the propaganda on both sides, some home truths are evident. What we are witnessing is hybrid warfare at its finest. As DG ISPR Major General Asif Ghafoor has succinctly summed it up, media is the first line of defence. How did this concept, practiced with great proficiency by the west in particular in its forays into the developing world to bring about regime change in its favour, come to nestle in our bosoms of late? Some background may be useful. Pakistan’s establishment refined proxy war as an art during the long Afghan wars. The success of such warfare against the Soviets and communists in Afghanistan emboldened it to attempt something similar in Indian Held Kashmir (IHK) from 1989 onwards, the very year the Soviets retreated from Afghanistan. But our proxy planners and warriors failed to take adequate account of the very important differences between the two situations. Nevertheless, the insurgency and protest movement persist to this day and have been met by an overwhelming Indian military and security forces presence in IHK and extreme repression of the Kashmiri people. India generally, and the Modi government in particular, refuse to countenance the historically necessary internal rapprochement with the Kashmiri people and talks with Pakistan to resolve the long standing conundrum. With this one-sided heavy-handed approach amidst repression against Kashmiris all over India in particular and Muslims in general, Modi’s Hindutva agenda is in action in full force. This tyranny may endure for now, but is unlikely to quell the Kashmiri spirit of seeking liberation.
While the IHK pot now simmers now boils, Pakistan now also stands accused by Iran at the very least of turning a blind eye to the presence of Jaish-e-Adl (JeA) on its soil, from where previous and the latest attack on the Iranian Revolutionary Guards was launched. Iran is now making threatening noises of retaliation if Pakistan does not act itself.
The question is, can Pakistan, under its nuclear weapons umbrella, continue with this high risk strategy of three proxy wars with three of its neighbours without suffering some adverse consequences? The world is watching and listening, and Pakistan’s attempts at plausible deniability in all three cases are wearing increasingly thin. It is in our interests to promote a political settlement of the war in Afghanistan, adopt a policy of persuading India to implement an internal political settlement with the Kashmiris and an external one with Pakistan, and desist from even the appearance of condoning terrorist forays across the border with Iran.
Pakistan has to live, survive and prosper in today’s interconnected world. Going out on a limb for dubious strategic gains in the region is not in our best interests. Time to introspect.

Business Recorder Editorial Feb 26, 2019

LHC censure of NAB

In its detailed judgement on the bail petitions of Leader of the Opposition Shahbaz Sharif, a Lahore High Court (LHC) two-member bench has delivered what amounts to an indictment of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) for levelling allegations of misuse of authority, misappropriation of funds and receiving illegal gratification, commission and kickbacks that are unsubstantiated on the touchstone of the law, rules or the documentary evidence/record. The LHC had granted post-arrest bail to Shahbaz Sharif on February 14, 2019 in the Ashiana Housing Scheme and Ramzan Sugar Mills cases through a short order. In the Ashiana Housing Scheme case, the LHC found that the allegation that Shahbaz Sharif had the contract of M/s Chaudhry Abdul Latif and Sons cancelled is not supported by the record because the contract was never cancelled; rather the matter was settled through a written agreement with the mutual consent of the parties. The court observed that there was no mention in the record of the former chief minister Punjab being a signatory to the mutual agreement signed by the Punjab Land Development Company (PLDC), then Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Shahid Latif and contractor Chaudhry Amir Latif. Another former PLDC CEO Tahir Khurshid, the star witness of NAB, had not uttered a single word in his statement to the effect that he was pressurised by Shahbaz Sharif to cancel the contract in question. The LHC rejected another allegation that Shahbaz Sharif illegally transferred the housing project from the PLDC to the Lahore Development Authority since this was done with the approval of the PLDC Board of Directors. The bench queried the insistence of NAB that the project should have been executed in government mode instead of a public-private partnership when the latter is lawful under the Public Private Partnership Act 2014. The LHC pointed out that the current government too has launched a project for the construction of 5,000,000 houses under the same public-private mode but no objection to that has been raised so far by NAB. Besides, the chief minister had the authority under the Punjab government Rules of Business 2011to transfer any subject or matter from one department to any other. NAB failed to establish any relationship between Shahbaz Sharif and the owners of M/s Paragon City for whom the initial contract of the housing scheme was allegedly cancelled, a fact conceded by the NAB special prosecutor. Even the subsequent contract awarded to M/s Casa Developers was cancelled about six months before the first complaint was received by NAB. Not a single inch of state land has been transferred to any person/contractor to date. Not a single affectee of the 61,000 claimed by NAB has made any statement before it. Prima facie there is not a single affectee because no amount from any person pertaining to the allotment of any plot has so far been received except the non-refundable fee of Rs 1,000 for an application form, which has been deposited in the treasury. In the Ramzan Sugar Mills case, the LHC said the drain constructed by the government in Chiniot at a cost of Rs 200 million benefited the public at large and not just the mills. No evidence has been found on record of any kickbacks or embezzlement of public funds.

A perusal of the detailed judgement glaringly exposes NAB’s lack of knowledge of the law, rules, and the need to substantiate through evidence or the record the allegations it has been freely bandying about. These two are not the only cases where such free-wheeling methods have been found. The fact that the normative principle of being considered innocent until proved guilty having been overturned in the NAB Ordinance 1999 to lay the onus for proof of innocence on the accused seems to have given NAB the confidence to freely fling allegations without the rigour normally required to prove them in any court of law. Last but not least, the overwhelming weight of NAB cases having been framed against the opposition leaders strengthens the worrying perception that NAB is conducting a witch-hunt motivated by purely political considerations rather than the sober task of uprooting corruption that is its mandate.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Business Recorder Editorial Feb 24, 2019

The need for neutrality

A discordant note was struck in the joint press conference by the Pakistani and Saudi Foreign Ministers during the visit of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. While Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi underlined the convergence with Saudi Arabia’s position on regional issues, his Saudi counterpart Adel al-Jubeir denounced the Iranian government as the “chief sponsor of terrorism”. Both statements came in response to questions by reporters. Perhaps the Saudi Foreign Minister’s diatribe against Iran was to be expected, given the tensions, rivalry and even conflict with Iran on opposite sides of the wars in Syria and Yemen. It is not possible to truly understand this rivalry without taking account of the factor of sectarianism. For Pakistan, the Saudi Foreign Minister’s outburst proved deeply embarrassing. Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s subsequent attempt to paper over the discordance was a reflection of this embarrassment. It should not be forgotten that Pakistan and Iran are currently engaged in the issue of the suicide attack on a bus carrying personnel of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) in the latter country’s Sistan-Balochistan province bordering Pakistan last week in which 27 guards were killed. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed the attack on the spy agencies of some regional and trans-regional countries. IRGC Commander Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari was less diplomatic. He pointed the finger of accusation at Saudi Arabia and the UAE, adding that Iran’s patience was not without limits. The IRGC Commander also accused Pakistan of turning a blind eye to the sanctuaries on Pakistani soil of the terrorist group Jaish-e-Adl that carried out the latest of its attacks across the border into Iran. Ominously, Major General Jafari warned that if Pakistan failed to act against those sanctuaries, Iran has the right under international law to counter the threat and punish the terrorists. Shah Mahmood Qureshi had stated in the press conference that he had been in touch with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to seek proofs or evidence if Iran had some to confirm that the attack originated from Pakistani soil. The Pakistani Foreign Office added its two cents by saying Pakistan respects Iran’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and expected the same from Tehran. In the meantime Iran has arrested three facilitators of the attack just across the border in Iran. Iranian officials claim they have provided Pakistani authorities with information regarding the hidden and semi-hidden training centres of Jaish-e-Adl and that Islamabad has launched an operation against them on February 17.

Pakistan has so far succeeded in keeping itself away from sharpening differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran. An example of this is Parliament’s refusal in 2015 to accede to the Saudi request for Pakistani troops for Yemen, a step that could have sucked Pakistan into the sectarian quagmire in that country. Pakistan cannot afford, despite its close ties with Saudi Arabia and the economic help it is getting as a result of the Crown Prince’s visit, to be party to any anti-Iran campaign. Pakistan’s best interests lie in remaining neutral in the conflicts in the region and certainly not to become part of these conflicts at the cost of its ties with other regional states. Staying away from these regional power games is also a way to ensure sectarian harmony at home.