Thursday, June 29, 2006

Prime Minister, do your job and let them do theirs

Much is made of Musharraf loosening the reins on the national press and allowing the news media a freer hand than they have enjoyed in decades. Yet, Musharraf was not motivated by altruism. In the first place, the mushrooming cable TV providers in the informal sector were difficult to regulate and foreign news and entertainment flowed unchecked into people's homes. In the second place, even a crackdown on the cable providers would not have stemmed the flow from foreign news channels because the cost of owning a satellite receiver had fallen to an almost insignificant level. Of course, Chinese style media controls were always out of the question, so Musharraf chose the politically savvy option: open the floodgates and bask in the praise that comes your way.

Yet, governments by their very nature dislike scrutiny. So it is that the federal government is seeking to ban the media from meetings of Parliamentary standing committees. The reason: the government has been embarrassed by a series of disclosures made by opposition members in the Public Accounts Committee. At one level the measure is almost farcical as the current Parliament must surely have set some kind of record for the amount of work it undertakes. But a more serious democratic principle will be eroded if the media is barred from sitting in on the meetings: the media is a watchdog that should be free to report on what the people's representatives are doing. This is all the more important when it comes to financial oversight which the PAC undertakes. The Prime Minister, Shaukat Aziz, never misses a chance to talk about good governance and transparency. Perhaps it's time to stop talking and start acting. Nip this in the bud, Prime Minister.

For more on the topic, read an editorial in the News here.

Ghoulish, not cartoonish

The tragedy of the 'honour killing' of a young Danish woman of Pakistani origin is also bitterly ironical given the virulent protests of the beards in Pakistan against the publication of cartoons in Denmark. Is there a connection between the murder of an innocent woman and rampaging beards? Yes. The beards' preoccupation, nay, obsession, with religious ritual and dogma creates the space for the morally bankrupt amongst us to continue to perpetrate their evil acts. Cartoons and the like are no more than red herrings, but so long as they are forced down the gullet of society there will be little appetite for change.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Name and shame

When members of the provincial assembly in Sindh recently turned to fisticuffs to defend the honour of a female counterpart who was being sexually harassed by an MPA from the ruling party, the high profile punch-up turned the spotlight on the routine harassment of women in all spheres of life. That women are harassed, brutalised and even murdered in Pakistan is not news nor is the fact that little is done by the government to curb the institutional and social repression of women.

Yet, every once in a while the juxtaposition of the abuse of women and the complicity of the state and society in that abuse is hard to ignore. Yesterday was one of those days in Peshawar. In the NWFP assembly a female member of the provincial government of the beards submitted an adjournment motion to suspend the regular proceedings of the house to discuss an important issue: renaming the province to give it an appropriately Islamic appellation. Meanwhile, in a lawyer's office yet another sorrowful tale of exploitation was being narrated. It has all the usual ingredients: an impoverished woman, a rich, licentious man, threats and intimidation, and elders willing to subordinate morality to a misogynistic culture.

That the unfortunate woman had to give an account of her suffering to a reporter while her democratic representative sought to adjourn the assembly's proceedings to discuss the 'urgent' matter of changing the province's name is an elegiac lament for a society that has lost its soul. More damningly, they are few mourners.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Neo-liberalism: clinging to the past

Over lunch with Wasim Sajjad this weekend I had the opportunity to question him about the government's neo-liberal economic policies. Even as the world is reassessing its commitment to liberalisation, privatisation and deregulation, Pakistan has embraced neo-liberalism with a gusto that rivals anything seen at the height of the discredited theory's heydays in the 90s. The result of that commitment has been entirely predictable: increased inequality and a static, arguably worsening, level of poverty.

Wasim Sajjad acknowledged that the problems of inflation, unemployment and inequality needed to be addressed urgently, but he was less forthcoming on the specific policies necessary to tackle those problems. I asked him whether Shaukat Aziz was the right man to continue to set the country's economic compass given that he seemed incapable of thinking beyond stale and discredited policies and again he was reluctant to comment. Obviously as Chairman of the Senate, Wasim Sajjad must toe the party line - a party that is nominally headed by Shaukat Aziz.

However, the Supreme Court has finally shown some steel and cancelled the corrupt auction of the Pakistan Steel Mills to a consortium of Pakistani and foreign businesses. The Steel Mill's debacle highlighted a critical flaw in the government's neo-liberal policy: a fire sale of the country's assets will only harm the state rather than strengthen it. Disinvestment is only beneficial if it is carried out transparently and at market prices, but in the Steel Mill's case neither was achieved.

The other fundamental flaw in the government's strategy is that the necessary degree of market regulation and oversight has not been enforced. The crash of the Karach bourse can be attributed to a reluctance of the government to take on the powerful financiers; in the absence of the proper regulation it was only a matter of time before the market crashed.

Now that 7 years of neo-liberal policies are proving to be inadequate to address Pakistan's structural problems, the crucial question is whether there is any meaningful internal dissent that could mitigate the worst excesses of neo-liberalism. On the evidence before us so far, the answer is a resounding 'No'.

Gagged and bound - if you're lucky

The government has ballyhooed its commitment to a free press even as its tried to keep the skeletons in its closet firmly out of view. Topping the list of issues that are off-limits for reporters is coverage of the Americans' presence on Pakistani soil. Now, 3 months after they first disappeared, a reporter for Geo TV, Mukesh Ropeta, and a cameraman, Sanjay Kumar, have been charged with revealing state secrets for filming an air base in Jacobabad that was used by Americans to support the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

The charges come in the same week that another reporter, Hayatullah Khan, abducted in Dec. 2005, was found dead with a bullet in his back. Mr. Khan disappeared soon after he photographed fragments of an American Hellfire missile that had killed an Al-Qaeda operative inside Pakistan. The Pakistani government had earlier claimed that the Al-Qaeda man had died from a blast caused by a bomb-making accident.

The Supreme Court has taken suo moto notice of Mr. Khan's death, but surely it must do so in the case of the Geo reporter and cameraman, too. As they are alive and capable of testifying, they can shed light on their 3 month long disappearance; were they indeed abducted and tortured by one of Pakistan's intelligence agencies as alleged?

As the Supreme Court celebrates its golden jubilee the court could regain some credibility amongst the public if it took on the ubiquitous intelligence agencies and stood up for the rule of law.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The wrath of the beards

The country's beards have fiercely guarded the misogynistic and antediluvian hudood ordinance ever since its introduction by the dictator Zia and now a new campaign is afoot to beat back any discussion of reform. The beards ire has been stoked by the tepid Zara Sochieye (Think) campaign of Geo TV and Islamabad is now being lobbied to rein in private media channels. Of course this lobbying effort is backed up by an implicit threat of mob violence.

One hopes that the government will for once do the right thing and stand up for its own declared agenda of 'enlightened moderation' and media freedom. But with an election year on the horizon and with the government's record of yielding to the beards, the country may need to brace itself for another lurch towards extremism.

Developing the army?

The PSDP isn't working and the utilisation of funds remains woefully inadequate, so the government has offered a way out of the quandry: give the money to the army.

Public Sector Development Program - the very words suggest that a project to shift 60 telephone exchanges of the army from the recently privatised PTCL could not possibly be financed by this account. The financing for the project comes on the back of the recent hike in the defence budget. The billion rupee project raises an obvious question: why not just add it to the defence budget? Surely in a year that the defence budget has been raised by 30 billion rupees, another billion would not have caused much of a stir. And using the PSDP just exposes the military led government to further critcism - the military is probably the single most developed institution in the country.

The likely answer is hubris. The same hubris that led to this exchange:

During the course of approval of the project, the Planning Division asked about the economic viability and financial analysis of the project, but its officials were told that shifting the armed forces’ network from the PTCL to NTC was a strategic decision to address security concerns and so the issue of economic viability did not arise.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The DNA of beards

Pakistan's role in the 'war on terror' has spawned at least one positive byproduct: the introduction of DNA testing in the country. The catalyst was the need to identify the remains of suspected terrorists, but the technology can also be used in other criminal contexts, such as rape, or even to settle civil disputes over paternity and child support.

As if on cue, the beards are queuing up to denounce this diabolical intrusion of science. Referring to the onerous requirement of four male witnesses, a beard had the following to say: "The condition to provide four eyewitnesses cannot be done away with. Technology or no technology, we have to stick to the divine dictates."

And on the issues of determining paternity: "Our religion prohibits us from publicizing others' sins. Publicly declaring someone illegitimate or of having fathered a child outside marriage is no service at all."

So there you have it - crimes against women and the neglect of one's biological children ought to be swept under the carpet to protect dogma and society's double-standards.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Fool's gold

The Supreme Court of Pakistan is celebrating 2006 as its golden jubilee year, but the court's history gives little reason to celebrate. Capitulating time and again before military interlopers and usurpers, the superior judiciary has little credibility amongst ordinary people. Restoring judicial independence is critical to the rule of law, but for obvious reasons this remains low on the government's list of priorities.

In a 2004 report on the judiciary in Pakistan, the International Crisis Group made the following recommendations for building judicial independence:

To the Government of Pakistan:

1. Establish, by proposing and urging adoption of a constitutional amendment, a transparent system of judicial appointments to the High Courts that expands accountability for such appointments beyond the executive and Chief Justices to include parliamentarians and bar councils and associations; prior to the adoption of such an amendment, involve the bar and parliamentarians in public discussions of candidates for posts on the High Courts.

2. End deviations from the seniority rule in the promotion of High Court judges to the posts of Chief Justice, establish by statute a seniority rule for promotions from the High Courts to the Supreme Court, and when filling vacancies on the High Courts and Supreme Court, promote female judges who are qualified candidates under the seniority rule.

3. End the practices of not confirming additional judges and of awarding government positions to retired judges; establish public audits of all members of the superior judiciary and close family members to ensure that only statutory benefits are awarded and corruption is avoided.

4. End the practice of selectively offering new oaths to judges, and renounce publicly the use of the judicial oath as a mechanism for purging the judiciary.

5. Institute new internal administrative mechanisms for the prevention of corruption and the removal of corrupt High Court judges, with oversight from a judicial commission that includes members of the bars and parliamentarians, and ensure that women and minorities are adequately represented in these mechanisms.

6. Institute administrative reforms that curtail Chief Justices' power over the assignment of cases and of judges, and establish professional, managerial divisions within the courts to fulfil this task.

7. Absorb the anti-terrorism and accountability courts into the ordinary judiciary, jettisoning procedural variations in bail, plea-bargaining, and the physical circumstances of trials that presently characterise those proceedings.

8. Institute courts within Pakistan's ordinary judicial hierarchy, with review in the Peshawar High Court and the Supreme Court, for the FATA, and conform courts' jurisdictions, judges' tenure and judges' privileges in the judiciary of the Northern Areas, including the new Court of Appeals, to practices in the ordinary courts.

9. Endeavour to ensure that judicial decisions at all levels respect international human rights, including the rights of women, and make efforts to eliminate traditional and religious practices imposed by tribal and village councils that are harmful to women.

The full report is a worthwhile read to understand the way in which the government bends the judiciary to its will. As the Supreme Court celebrates, Pakistanis only have reason to mourn.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Prisons of shame

The killing of the deputy superintendent of Karachi's central jail ought to lead to scrutiny of conditions inside Pakistan's jails. While no one has yet claimed responsibility for the murder of Amanullah Khan Niazi, the speculation has centred on enemies Niazi made inside the jail he helped run.

As the following excerpt from a PBS Frontline report indicates, Niazi had no shortage of enemies inside the prison:

I went to the Karachi Central Jail, in which more than 5,000 prisoners are incarcerated, including some of the most notorious terrorists. As I passed through to the inside, it struck me how primitive life has remained here. For example, there are no X-ray machines to monitor what guards or visitors might try to smuggle inside. The prison can't afford these machines.
When I met with the jail's superintendent, Amanullah Khan Niazi, he showed me his badly scarred arm. Last year, while Niazi was on a routine walk through the cellblocks, a militant threw boiling water mixed with sulphuric acid on him. Niazi was lucky to escape with only a burned arm. "These people are not scared at all," said Niazi. "They are capable of building bombs with sugar, fertilizer and some chemicals, and they are convinced that their ideology will lead them to heaven."
Reporter Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy visits Karachi Central Jail where some of Pakistan's most notorious terrorists are held.
Jail is meant to help reform people, but the militants in the Karachi Central Jail vow to return to their past activities as soon as they are free. "We have tried our best to convince them to change their ways," said Niazi, "but they tell us that they will fight until they die and that they will get new recruits in the process. These are very dangerous people."

In 1996 the UN's Special Rapporteur on torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment published a scathing report on prison conditions in Pakistan, and it's safe to say that not much has changed in the past decade. While the Supreme Court has taken note of the unlawful use of fetters on child prisoners, a 2003 special report by The News on Sunday indicates the acuteness of the problems that still plague the country's jails.

Amanullah Khan Niazi, three other policemen and an innocent bystander lost their lives in Karachi today. Their killers should be brought to justice. But so should the perpetrators of crimes inside our jails.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Losing the plot

A pair of editiorials in the Daily Times highlighted the country's drift into the smothering embrace of intolerance and extermism. First, Jamaat-ul-Dawa, the same group involved in the trafficking of children and allowed to operate freely in earthquake zone, organised prayers for Zarqawi. Second, beards in the Punjab assembly demanded an end to the practice of allowing non-Muslims to legally purchase alcohol produced by local distilleries and single brewery.

The government's reaction? None. Jamaat-ul-Dawa, as the Daily Times editorial points out, could not operate so openly without the government's tacit approval. As for the beards, Musharraf has demonstrated time and again that he is willing to accommodate them if it suits his political needs. The government's view may well be that the ends justifies the means, but all too often the means can alter the ends.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Switched off

Karachites have been suffering more than ever this summer with frequent and prolonged power outages. The situation has already led to violent protests by frustrated and angry residents in a few neighbourhoods and may yet escalate as warnings of disruptions deep into August are being sounded.

A creaking distribution network is the usual culprit, but this particular crisis appears to have been caused by the shortage of 200 MW of electricity at peak hours. The two power authorities at the heart of the problem, KESC (Karachi Electric Suppply Corporation) and WAPDA (Water and Power Development Authority), have traded accusations over the reasons for the shortage, but suspicions keep growing that it has been contrived.

KESC was privatised last year as part of the government's ongoing privatisation process and this is the first summer that the new management has been in charge. It appears that officials at WAPDA, a government organisation, fearing that their organisation might be the next on the chopping list, are doing their part in undermining confidence in private sector management of electricity supplies. The unfortunate residents of Karachi are simply the pawns in this high stakes game.

Transparency International has labelled WAPDA as the second-most corrupt organisation in Pakistan, but there appears to be no political will to tackle the problem. Instead the government has decided to force traders and other businesses to close at dusk, thus compounding the misery of the city's shopkeepers and workers. The fact that the electricity shortages are most acute during the sweltering afternoons appears to have been overlooked by the government as has the fact that people are likely to shop on their way home from work.

The issue goes to the heart of the government's neo-liberal policies - all the privatisation, liberalisation and deregulation in the world can be scuppered by the lack of political will to effectively enforce the rules. And ultimately it's the consumers who will pay the price.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

A forsaken father

Outside Pakistan there are few salutary images of the homeland. One that comes to mind is the Empire State Building lit in green and white on August 14. Another that could warm the cockles of any Pakistani's heart is the portrait of Jinnah that hangs at the entrance of the magnificent dining hall in Lincolns Inn. Accomplished individuals are legion at the Inns of Court and for Pakistan's greatest citizen to be honoured thus is significant.

Then there is Pakistan - where the sacred is regularly defiled. This time it's the turn of Jinnah's birthplace. Bureaucrats in charge of the renovation of the home have been accused of embezzling funds for the project. In a long history of pelf and corruption this particular mischief will likely be become a mere footnote; yet, the juxtaposition of Jinnah and corruption is full of pathos.

Over lunch at the aforementioned dining hall, I once explained to a judge the meaning of Jinnah's appellation, Quaid-e-Azam. "Well, as things have turned out, I'm not sure how happy he'd be with that association," was the wry response.

For a reminder of the values the Quaid hoped to impart to the custodians of his progeny, click here and listen to a sample of his speeches.