Monday, April 29, 2019

My Interview with Naya Daur TV – Part III (final)

Interview With Rashed Rahman – Part III (final):

“The Institution Of Editor Is All But Gone. What We’re Left With Are Post Officers”

Miranda Husain April 29, 2019

Rashed Rahman is a veteran editor and journalist, intellectual and committed activist for the Left. With a career spanning some 40 years, he is presently Director of the Lahore-based Research and Publication Centre (RPC) and Editor of the Pakistan Monthly Review (PMR). Earlier this month, he sat down with Miranda Husain to discuss politics and more. This is the third of a three-part interview.
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Miranda Husain: There’s a sense among working journalists that the fourth estate in Pakistan is battling for its very survival. The irony, for many, is that the current climate — punctuated by delayed salaries and censorship — has taken a firm hold under a period of uninterrupted civilian rule. What do you make of the state of the media here in democratic Pakistan?
Rashed Rahman: It’s terrible in a number of respects. On the one hand, there is pressure from the authorities, including the government and the military. The result is a level of day-to-day control that the media hasn’t seen even during the worst days of dictatorships. There are people sitting in newsrooms, calling newsrooms. There are people sitting at television stations and ringing up in the middle of a programme to say either do this or don’t do that.
But I’m sorry to say that while the media may have had a lot of flaws in the past, there was, however, a tradition of resistance to censorship. There are many manifestations of this, including blank front pages. Yet all that seems to have gone by the wayside. Managements are now much more pliant, looking towards the balance sheet bottom line rather than ethical or professional considerations. The institution of editor is all but gone and what we’re left with are post offices. So, the room for autonomy and independence within the policy brief given to the editor to run a paper is defunct. The same holds true for television channels, although I don’t believe there’s such a thing as an editor for electronic media. The latter seems to have no gatekeeper.
And it’s not just mainstream media that’s facing imposed censorship. Of late, social media has also come in for unwanted attention and unwanted control. We’ve recently heard about Facebook removing a number of accounts that were probably traced back to the military or the ISPR. So, we have, on the one hand, critical and dissident voices being stifled or even strangulated on social media. And on the other, this same medium is being used for malign purposes, campaigns and trolling. The landscape is not very encouraging to say the least.
MH: What can both journalists and media owners do, if anything, to regain control?
RR: Publishers have the duty to uphold and reinforce the weakened institution of editor. Once there’s agreement on an editor — and (s)he has been briefed as to the policy framework within which he or she is to operate — the best and most enlightened publishers then leave it to the editor. Why? This is something that evolved historically when print media came into being. Publishers and owners found they had friends, business partners and associates across the social fabric. And they were constantly being approched by people wanting their publications to do — or not do — things a certain way. So, they actually evolved the institution of professional editor in their own self-interest to shield against all this by turning to these requesters and saying that the editor must be consulted.
 Now, when autonomy is surrendered those same considerations that prompted such a move will likely result in publishers going along with the powers-that-be. Both in terms of policy and what’s printed and broadcast and what isn’t. All in the hope that it’ll give them some material benefit. Has it worked out that way? It doesn’t look like it. Because when the PTI came into power, the first thing it did was slash both the quantum and the rates of government advertising. In the past, this used to be the media’s bread and butter. Yet this declined over time as the private sector became more oriented towards advertising, as both the economy and the media industry itself grew. Meaning that the private sector became the staple of media revenue and government adverting was the cream on top. But we’re in the middle of an economic downturn in this country.
So, naturally, the private sector isn’t inclined to advertise as much as in the past. This has contributed to a tremendous financial crisis within the media. Thousands of journalists have been laid off. In these circumstances, to expect publishers and owners to take a professional and ethical stand is akin to whistling in the wind.
And as far as journalists are concerned, the three factions of the PFUJ (Pakistan Federation Union of Journalists) refuse to sit down together and sort out their differences in order to have a strong voice for working journalists. As a result, they’re unable to either persuade their own management or the state apparatus to uphold their rights and redress grievances. The overall picture is pretty bleak.
MH: Do you think the situation will improve in the near-term? Does the fourth estate in Pakistan have a future?
RR: I think this is a question loaded with philosophical connotations. It’s not about Pakistan alone. Firstly, media as a whole is going through a transition worldwide due to the communications revolution, internet and social media. The world is connected potentially if not actually. The issue is whether traditional media can hold its own against a landscape that produces and disseminates information at an accelerated pace — not all of which is necessarily true given the absence of gatekeepers. Can traditional media compete in the long run in terms of spread and outreach? This question was raised in the 1990s when the Internet first came online globally and the demise of the newspaper was predicted. This hasn’t happened so far. But some publications have gone down while others have been forced to go online or remain in limbo, halfway between the two.
Secondly, in Pakistan specifically, the combination of blanket censorship and self-censorship has left newspapers with incredibly dull content and channels unable to teach audiences anything new. Sixty-five percent of the country’s population is under 30-years-old. I don’t believe they’re reading newspapers or watching television. That’s the future. And if this percentage is turning away from mainstream media then the latter is doomed in the long-term.
Moreover, the new media is entering into terra incognita because there aren’t any rules as yet. In fact, it’s being used in a flagrantly cavalier manner to promote particular vested interests as well as false news and distorted perspectives. Of course, there are some positives but overall the picture is mixed.
And the question remains as to which will win out against the emerging campaign of fake news and trolling on the one hand and resistance in the name of upholding freedom of expression on the other. The bottom line is that traditional media may well become a museum curiosity.
MH: Is that to say traditional media is dead on arrival?
RR: New media overheads are a fraction of traditional formats. I’m running an online monthly journal (Pakistan Monthly Review, PMR) at low output cost. And then there’s the question of outreach, real and potential. This might start off small but the potential has grown. Traditional media was always defined by the phrase: “All news is local.” Read The New York Times edition that we get in Pakistan and compare it to the one that’s published in the US and you’ll find that they’re two different beasts. The American version is American. The international version — which used to be called The International Herald Tribune — is aimed at a global readership.
Thus the very role of traditional media and its inherent character arguably no longer fit the bill as far as today’s world is concerned. What we have in its place is a potential gateway to propaganda. All of which bring us back to the question of who’s going to do the fact-checking and who’s going to decide the news agenda. In short, who’s going to be the gatekeeper.
These are all contentious questions that remain unsettled.
Having said that, however, I’m talking about historical trends that started a few years ago and the likely logical outcome. It may, indeed, be premature to offer fateha (funeral prayers) for traditional media just yet.

My Interview with Naya Daur TV – Part II of three

Naya Daur TV Interview With Rashed Rahman – Part II (of three):

“Reversing The 18th Amendment Will Be A Grave Error”

Miranda Husain April 27, 2019

Rashed Rahman is a veteran editor and journalist, intellectual and committed activist for the Left. With a career spanning some 40 years, he is presently Director of the Lahore-based Research and Publication Centre (RPC) and Editor of Pakistan Monthly Review (PMR). Earlier this month, he sat down with Miranda Husain to discuss PTI’s record, the role of both the Army and judiciary in the current political set-up, as well as the talk supporting a presidential system. This is the second of a three-part interview.

Miranda Husain: Pakistan has enjoyed 10 years of uninterrupted parliamentary democracy. There’s talk in the corridors of power about changing the goalposts and embracing a presidential system. Why now?
Rashed Rahman: I don’t think the presidential system is acceptable to political opinion across the board. What we’ve seen in recent years is a trend that militates against a strong centralised state. The 18th Amendment has devolved all those subjects that were due to be devolved to the provinces 10 years after the 1973 Constitution was promulgated but never happened because we landed up in various crises, including the overthrow of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. There are some things, however, that couldn’t be done, such as repealing some insertions effected by military dictators, e.g. Articles 62 and 63 and the blasphemy laws. These are, of course, controversial subjects but I think the political will within mainstream political parties to overcome the resistance of the religious right is absent.
So, the 18th Amendment basically did what could be done through consensus across the board. And it’s considerable. I don’t want to underestimate it. But the fear is now that it may be a target for reversal. This would be a grave error because what’s needed — and wasn’t done at the time — is building the capacity of the provinces to deal with the new subjects that they’ve been given and for which they were seemingly ill-prepared.
There are two issues troubling the federal government. Firstly, increased debt servicing, especially external debt, due to escalating loans and that means dollars. And earning dollars isn’t so easy. Secondly, military expenditure is going up because of the tensions on the eastern border. So, these two priorities, which are relatively inelastic and liable to rise incrementally, are behind the current efforts to change the resource sharing arrangements.
MH: Much of the current cabinet comprises those who served under the country’s last military dictator. There are concerns that Pakistan is returning to the Musharraf era minus Enlightened Moderation. Should minority communities be worried by the idea of a presidential system?
RR: I think the minorities should be worried under the current mechanism. The reason being, the kind of rights that in theory and on paper are promised in the Constitution and under the law are practised more in the breach. In addition, the intolerance, hatred and othering of religious minorities is a hangover from the state’s flirtation with proxy wars and jihadis in particular. Thus minorities have plenty to worry about as it is. Hindu girls appear to be particularly vulnerable to forced conversions and then being married off straightaway. Arguably, these communities would have even less voice in a presidential system. At least a parliamentary federal system presents conduits, both at the provincial and federal level, for them to air their grievances and try to have these addressed.
On the question of those who served under Pervez Musharraf, I would go further and say that there are many in this government who come from a religious right-wing background, including parties like the Jamaat, for example. The case of Fayazul Hasan Chohan [former Punjab Information Minister] who had to be turfed out because of anti-Hindu remarks indicates that there are people within this regime who hold those kind of extreme views.
But on the whole, I don’t think there is a strong current of anti-minority sentiment within this government. In fact, those who have come from other parties or backgrounds are now likely to be a little more cautious after the Chohan case, at least in terms of public statements and the optics.
MH: Pakistan has seen the rapid rise of a resurgent and violent religious right. One consequence of this is that Asia Bibi is still not free despite being acquitted of blasphemy twice by the highest court in the land. Is this government a friend of the minorities?
RR: Asia Bibi’s case was the favourite whipping boy of really only one sect: the Barelvis. Admittedly, they’re the overwhelming majority of Sunni Muslims here in Pakistan. Meaning that the weight of their voice is considerable. And the Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) has represented them and elevated Mumtaz Qadri [the man who gunned down Salmaan Taseer, the then Governor Punjab, over moves to reform the blasphemy laws] to the level of martyr while building a shrine in his memory. Nevertheless, the unrest following the Supreme Court (SC) verdict was likely a brief and chaotic attempt to assert Barelvi muscle.
When the PTI took to the helm, it looked as though both the government and the military came together on the same page to prevent the situation from spiralling out of control and creating fresh problems. Thus there was a crackdown against the TLP.
Their leaders are still either under house arrest or in jail and are being asked for guarantees of good behaviour before they are released. I think the wisdom sank in that such unrest had to be quelled because the Barelvis are everywhere. Thus the potential threat from such an upsurge is what finally persuaded the authorities to bring the agitators to heel. Having said that, I don’t see that this issue — apart from at a local level — incites the kind of anger and passion that it used to in the religious right as a whole. Yes, there are local incidents and a local maulvi or someone will get in on the act and create a problem. Asia Bibi’s case is a classic example in that respect. It was a local maulvi who, when it was brought to his notice long after the event, suddenly became the main complainant.
That the SC acquitted her twice is a credit to the country’s judiciary. The judges resisted all pressure — obvious or not so obvious — and delivered a fair and outstanding judgement. The TLP clearly had an axe to grind but their views failed to sway the court.
Yes, there was a review petition. But this is very much a legal instrument available to any aggrieved party who feels justice hasn’t been done.
MH: You have talked about how the government and military appear, in large part, to be on the same page. But there is a perception among a section of commentators that the military is calling the shots?
RR: I believe it’s in power behind-the-scenes and is the mentor and supporter of this government. In fact, it’s hard to imagine Prime Minister Imran Khan making the kind of rational, reasonable gestures towards India [during the recent Indo-Pak skirmish at the beginning of the year] without the military’s backing. Yes, we keep hearing that the Army and the ruling party are on the same page, always an important litmus test for any government, especially when it comes to relations with India. The PPP fell out with the top brass over its India policy and the nuclear programme. The same thing happened to the PML-N when it reached out to Narendra Modi, though that’s an old problem between Nawaz Sharif and the military, not a new one.
The logic behind those initiatives which cause so much ire in GHQ (General Headquarters) is that of the necessity of co-existence of two nuclear armed nations who, if they don’t handle their tensions and their differences in a rational and objective manner, may end up not only obliterating each other but also large parts of the world.
So, if the military has come round to the view that the relationship with India must be managed — even if bilateral talks are frozen on New Delhi’s side — this must be done in a way that doesn’t escalate beyond what is doable. So, I think that describes what happened in the Pulwama attack and after.
Also, the Pakistani state has been attempting for a long time, particularly since 9/11, to have plausible deniability as far as its involvement in proxy wars in the region go. Afghanistan is the prime example. India and Kashmir, the other. How far the struggle in Kashmir is still funded and fuelled by support from Pakistan and how far it has taken on an indigenous hue — I don’t know. But the fact is that groups operating in Kashmir and even further afield in India are still functioning here, remaining relatively untouched.
As long as these groups exist on Pakistani soil in one form or the other, fingers will continue to point towards this country. With these two proxy wars what sort of a profile does that afford the country on the international stage? And if all this is happening under the cover of the nuclear umbrella — well, that’s a very high risk game, plausible deniability notwithstanding.
If the Army is, indeed, keen to ease tensions with India there may be some cogent factors that are bringing about a 90 degree — if not 180 degree — turn in terms of security policy. Because the negative consequences of past proxy wars are chickens coming home to roost. After all, no nation can hope to progress and prosper in an interconnected globalised world if it’s at odds with the great powers, one side or the other side. For it risks being left out in the cold. And I think that’s worrying the military.
MH: The PTI is known for taking U-turns. One of the most significant being the question of dealing with Modi. The PM has now decided that his counterpart is, indeed, the best man with whom to do business. Is this a case of realpolitik or sheer recklessness?
RR: This has long been part of received wisdom. For example, Yitzhak Rabin, a former Israeli prime minster and military commander, made peace with Yasser Arafat. This was seen as a positive move because his credentials vis-a-vis the Israeli state were unassailable. He was a war hero. So, the consensus was that whatever he was doing was in the country’s best interests. That this didn’t stop him from being assassinated is another matter because there are fanatics there too. But that’s the argument I think that PM Khan was trying to make.
Modi enjoys less of the constraints in domestic politics in India than does the Congress. The latter, after all, will be more vulnerable to attack from the right if it reaches out to Pakistan or attempts to arrive at some kind of modus vivendi.

Of course, as usual, this was misinterpreted in India, with the Congress subsequently accusing Modi of being pro-Pakistan. Vajpayee’s example is also a very good one. It’s a separate issue that he felt betrayed. Yet despite that, the very architect of the Kargil War who sabotaged the peace initiative is whom he met in Agra and came very close to an agreement with. This reinforces the argument that people with the credentials on the right have more room to manoeuvre.

Business Recorder Editorial April 29, 2019

PM’s advice to PTM

Addressing a rally in Orakzai Agency on April 19, 2019, Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan argued that the issues facing the people of the tribal areas being highlighted by the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) now are the same he had spoken about 15 years ago. He reminded his audience that he had been speaking about innocent people dying and being displaced, which the PTM is reiterating at present. But, he said, although the PTM’s complaints were justified, the tone and tenor they were using was not in the interests of the tribal areas or the country. The PM went on to remind the audience that he had spoken against the army going into the tribal areas (for the first time in Pakistan’s history) in 2004 at the behest of the US because the tribesmen are our ‘unpaid army’. The then military dictator Pervez Musharraf, according to the PM, along with people from other parts of the country had very little idea about the tribal region, people and their traditions. It was not the army to blame but Musharraf, he continued, for siding with the US. The consequence was that soldiers were martyred and the tribal people suffered. Nobody knew the pain of the tribal people having to move their women to safety in an honour-bound society. Only I knew, Imran Khan asserted. This was because no other PM had been to the tribal areas as frequently as him, Imran Khan claimed. I am here again he said because only I know your pain, knowing the area better than anyone else. Now the country and the region must think ahead about educating children, employing the youth and improving conditions. In another reference to the PTM, Imran Khan said just rubbing salt into the wounds without offering solutions was a futile approach. What was needed was balm for the wounds, help, compensation and support to those who had suffered. He ended by revealing that the registration of internally displaced persons had been completed and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister Mahmood Khan had been asked to draw up a plan to support all those who had suffered losses of houses, cattle and businesses.

While the PM’s argument that anti-army slogans by the PTM would weaken the country and inciting people without offering solutions to the problems would benefit no one has weight, there are some glaring omissions in his analysis and message. One, Imran Khan when he criticised the army’s forays into the tribal areas starting in 2004 placed his trust in negotiated settlements with the extremists, a view that proved na├»ve and unworkable when agreement after agreement with the militants broke down. Two, when he advocates balm on the wounds of the tribal people instead of what he refers to as salt sprinkled on them by PTM, it should be remembered that the tribal people have been asking for redress for their grievances even before the PTM came into existence. PTM is merely the angry and frustrated voice of the tribesmen who feel they have been the meat in the grinder between the Pakistani Taliban and the military. It is natural to assume that when military operations were mounted against the militants, some collateral damage was caused to innocent tribal people caught in the crossfire. Previous governments and the military failed to apply the balm of compensation and help after these operations, particularly after 2014 when, following the Army Public School massacre in Peshawar by the Pakistani Taliban, the military mounted a massive and ultimately successful counterinsurgency campaign (at least as far as winkling the militants out of their safe havens in the tribal areas and forcing them to flee across the border into Afghanistan is concerned). Taking the cue from the PM’s remarks, it is still not too late to assuage the hurt and losses caused to the tribal people along the lines suggested by him as the best panacea for the anger and frustration of the PTM.