Islamabad Event on Freedom of Expression for Civil Liberties in Pakistan

Bytes for All, an organization dedicated to promoting internet freedom and free speech in Pakistan, organized an event in Islamabad on Freedom of Expression and Civil Liberties on September 19, 2013. The event featured participants from all over Pakistan, including the FATA.

The event included three sessions, focusing on hate speech, fair trial and surveillance in relation to freedom of expression. The introductory speech was made by author and journalist Mohammed Hanif, who primarily spoke about the human rights violations in Baluchistan by Pakistani security agencies. Hanif revealed that no less than 529 people have died over 5 years in such incidents, which involved torturing and mutilating the victim’s bodies beyond recognition.

Hanif also served as a panelist for the first session, along with Taha Siddiqui, Murtaza Solangi and Sabeen Mahmud. that focused on hate speech. The session was moderated by the flamboyant Ajmal Jami. Taha Siddiqui, journalist, presented the findings of his research report on the presence of terrorist organizations on the internet and the hate speech they propagate to find recruits. A participant objected that the report focused on only a certain kind of groups, which sounded reasonable, but apparently Taha’s focus was on emphasizing that terrorist groups were operating unabated in the country with a clear online presence and that authorities were not moving a muscle in response while banning other websites instead.

Murtaza Solangi, broadcasting journalist, defined hate speech for the audience and said that you should not impose your beliefs on others for harming them. What he did not explain was what if that was precisely what the beliefs required you to do. Mohammed Hanif was the one who actually briefly touched that aspect, emphasizing that you would not be able to take the poor people’s God away from them and that it simply would not happen. He also mentioned that it is hardly any use complaining about extremist militant groups if the state itself handpicked a community, namely the Ahmedis, during a democratically elected government and declared them literal outcasts by legalizing their expulsion from Islam and inviting hatred against them.

Sabeen Mahmud, the Karachi based founder of T2F, presented the hate messages and death threats, quantified on the Nafrat Aggregator, that she received in response to her controversial pro Valentine’s Day campaign in response to Tanzeem-e-Islami’s campaign of forbidding people to celebrate the holiday using Koranic verses and Hadiths. She offered a personal viewpoint on how it is like to be threatened with groups invading your free speech and right to life in that manner. The shocking aspect remains that most people in Pakistan would consider it their religious duty to violate other’s freedom and security like that, even though in this case, she had hardly done anything that can be considered wrong. I personally fully support her actions and consider her a free speech hero.

The second session focused on Fair Trial and its impact on free speech, moderated by Rabia Mehmood. The panelists included the eloquent Saroop Ijaz, a lawyer and columnist, Safdar Dawar, a FATA based journalist and journalist Mahvish Ahmed. The most important point was made by Ijaz that legal jurisdictions and continued debate about fair trial, surveillance and privacy violations are necessary and will eventually make a continual but certain difference for the better. The session also focused on the implications of the vagueness of legal definitions. Dawar emphasized how FATA was not ruled by any court of law and that there was no way to address violations of civil liberties there. Mahvish Ahmed raised the importance of political solutions.

The third session focused on Surveillance and its impact on free speech, moderated by Rahma Mian. The panelists included Abid Imam, a lawyer and academic, Asim Zafar Khan, a technology adviser to the government,  Shahzad Ahmed of Bytes for All and Fahd Deshmukh, a technology expert and activist. The crux of the session was that surveillance was inevitable, so staying ahead of the technology curve is all that people could do. Abid Imam pointed out that avoiding surveillance is not even a declared fundamental human right in the law, and not one that states are likely to grant. Shahzad Ahmed spoke passionately about the need to reclaim the right of privacy and to raise voice against growing state surveillance.

The good thing about such events is that introduces a lot of people to the very idea of freedom of expression, which is pretty much alien to a society like Pakistan where questioning is discouraged and you are mostly required to practice self-censorship right from your childhood. However, when you hear about an event focusing on freedom of expression, you prepare yourself to reflect on a more academic discussion about the subject, especially focusing on the subtleties of hate speech and freedom of expression. It is not always the case when you get there and in this case discussion often deviated from the topic due to the line of questioning from the participants as well.

As a matter of fact, a lot of participants use the forum to bring forth other subjects than the one under discussion. While there is nothing wrong with doing that, as I understand many of these participants need a forum like this to be heard, but it is rather unproductive, time-wasting, largely distracting and drains a lot of energy of everyone involved.

The event was concluded after recommendations from the participants. While I believe that such seminars that educate people about freedom of expression are very useful, further interest among the educated general public could be stirred by holding public debates between liberal and conservative columnists and intellectuals who are for and against freedom of expression, instead of constantly offering a lecturing monologue.

If it does not convince more people of how important free speech is, it would actually make the anti free speech debaters look bad.

Day 3: Kissa Khwani by The Citizens Archive of Pakistan – “Evolution of Cities”

Source: Kuch Khaas/Muhammad Waheed Photography

Source: Kuch Khaas/Muhammad Waheed Photography

The Citizens Archive of Pakistan, a platform dedicated to documenting oral history, organized a three day event called “Kissa Khwani” in Islamabad, named after the famous Kissa Khwani Bazaar in Peshawar, which was meant to promote the tradition of preserving oral historical accounts and storytelling. On June 22, 2013, the third and final episode of the three day event, “Evolution of Cities” was held in Islamabad.

The panelists of the Islamabad event included columnist Ishrat Hyatt, renowned award winning photgrapher Syed Javed Kazi, Shafiq Siddiqui, urban town planner and senior director of CDA and Fauzia Minallah, nature conservation and peace activist and founder of Funkor Child Art Foundation. The event was moderated by Parveen Malik, the President of Asian Study Group.

I am sure a lot more significant sister event was held in Lahore with the same topic, where panelists included one of my favorite speakers and writers about history, travel and archeology, Salman Rashid. The Lahore event also included urban town planning expert Imrana Tiwana, artist and preservationist Dr. Ajaz Anwer, journalist Nusrat Jamil and architect Nayyar Ali Dada.

The event started with the moderator Parveen Malik recalling her early days in the twin cities when she moved in here with her husband in the ’60s. She talked about hanging out at the Shezan Restaurant, at the London Book Store and spending New Year eves at the famous Flashmann’s Hotel. She also talked about the covered market in Islamabad, which was sold off to everyone’s shock, apart from one of the Nafdec theatres in Islamabad, which was temporarily closed after a bureaucrat’s wife was bitten there by a rat.

She also mentioned a discotheque, aptly named “Disaster”, in the early days of the Islamabad Club where families used to hang out and dance. The discotheque was shut down after one Saturday night, a couple of MNAs demanded entry into the club and jumped into the swimming pool after stripping when denied. The membership fee was a few hundred rupees in those days, which is now up in hundred thousands.

Ishrat Hyatt talked about the peaceful environment in Rawalpindi and Islamabad in the 60s. She recalled how parents had complete faith that their children would return home safely each time they went out. She mentioned the unforgettable sight of fireflies in Rawalpindi, which gradually disappeared as the city expanded. She mourned the loss of a bunch of beautiful cottages that made way for the construction of a cricket stadium.

Photographer Javed Kazi painted a picture of his pleasant walks across Rawalpindi, from the Charing Cross all the way up to Topi Rakh, the location of the Ayub National Park. Kazi observed that the natural beauty of the city offered numerous photo opportunities. Structures such as Flashmann’s Hotel and the 1907 built St. Paul’s Church are located on the same road, known as the Mall. A 30 feet high statue of Queen Victoria also stood at the square by the St. Paul’s Church, which was later uprooted.

According to Kazi, one of the most remarkable structures in Rawalpindi from the colonial times is the Rawalpindi Cathedral, which was built around 1852. Another significant building of the period was the Presidency, which was actually the palace of Sikhs related to the legendary Sujan Singh of Rawalpindi. The building now serves as the campus of Fatima Jinnah Women’s University.

Other structures by the Mall Road included the Odeon and the Plaza theatres, which were surrounded by gardens at the time. Freemason’s Hall was one of the little known structures of the city on the way to Florence Road. Rawalpindi also housed religious structures of Hindu and Sikh communities. There used to be a major Hindu temple in Bagh Sardaraan, while there was a Gurdwara of Narankari Sikhs in the Narankari Bazaar located in Rawalpindi city center.

Shafik Siddiqui of CDA commenced a long account laying out the history of the creation of Islamabad with the mention of the formulation of the Federal Capital Commission under President Ayub Khan. The commission selected a territory of approximately 350 square miles spanning an area from Kohala to Hassan Abdal and from Rawat to the location of Khanpur Dam, beyond the Margallas. The commission ruled out the idea of moving the federal capital to East Pakistan.

The Greek architects of Islamabad, Konstantinos Apostolos Doxiadis, chose to plan the city in a grid iron pattern. This was a feat in its own right, since the grid pattern is suited for planes, instead of plateaus and hills that make up the territory of Islamabad. To the astonishment of the audiences, he mentioned that the notorious Nullah Lai, used to be a source of fresh water supply for the residents of Rawalpindi and Islamabad, which was discontinued after an epidemic broke out in the 1990s. The rest is history.

He also mentioned that four major highways were planned to be built around the city, namely, the Kashmir Highway, Islamabad Highway, Capital Highway and finally the never-built Sawan Highway, which was meant to replace the GT Road. He observed that the CDA plans to remove encroachments around the city were badly affected by corruption and lack of law and order, apart from fear of certain religious groups.

Fauzia Minallah began her account by expressing her attachment to the natural beauty of Islamabad. She recalled that she instantly fell in love with the place when she moved there. She passionately talked about the pleasures of exploring the Margallas and the Saidpur village. She spoke fondly of her experience of interacting with the natives of the village and especially with the village potter Rahim Dad, who had a pottery workshop in the village.

She mourned the loss of tolerance in the society, apart from the gradually diminishing natural beauty. She told the story of the chopping down of the “Buddhist Tree” in the E7 sector at the hands of religious fundamentalists for being sacreligious, where her Japanese friend Tajima Shinji used to meditate. I found this rather ironical because I once tweeted that maybe the only way people in our culture could preserve trees was declaring them sacred.

She also noted that Saidpur used to be a pilgrimage site for Hindus but they cannot dare visit the place anymore out of fear of extremists. She observed that the fundamentalist Muslims were narrowing down the living space for people from other communities, giving them an impression that they are not welcome here. Perhaps it was her, or Parveen Malik, who mentioned that the very name of the city, Islamabad, was like a warning to people following other faiths.

She also attacked people who called Islamabad a “dead city” due to the lack of social activities. She said that Islamabad was never a dead city to her because of its immense natural beauty and for being very habitable. She said that people should understand that every city has its own mood and this is how Islamabad is meant to be. It is not supposed to look like a city with high rise buildings.

According to Minallah, the construction of high rise buildings in Islamabad has been disastrous to its appearance and environment. She warned that unusually high structures are not meant to be built in Islamabad due to its high earthquake risk for being located on a fault line. She also criticized the “so-called developmental projects” from the CDA which were a threat to the trees of the city and which polluted the then pristine fresh water streams of Saidpur village. The stream now pretty much looks like an open sewer.

Minallah mourned the insensitivity of the town planners regarding ancient and heritage structures, as well as precious trees. She mentioned that most of the urban development of the city was misguided. She insisted that people would rather have cinemas instead of shopping malls. Answering one question she rejected the notion that people do not have a good sense of their connection with nature and their heritage. She insisted that the results of the 2013 elections confirmed that the people of Pakistan were aware.

On my question about the pathetic transport system in Islamabad, which was particularly unfriendly to anyone who dared to commute to the Capital from Rawalpindi, Mr. Siddiki admitted that it has been a problem area. He said that much had been planned to develop the transportation system of the twin cities, but out of lack of funds and sincere will,  no such projects materialized the way they should have. He also blamed the local tranporter’s unions for the problem.

Siddiki also mentioned that religious extremism and blackmailing have been on the rise in Islamabad for years and it has been a major hurdle for the CDA to carry out disciplinary measures. Parveen Malik noted that mosques in Islamabad were not allowed to build madrassahs, but just about every mosque had been violating the law, without attracting the attention of the CDA. She mentioned that President Musharraf wanted to take action against the madrassahs but Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman intervened and convinced him not to.

The panelists and participants seemed to agree that the newly constructed high rise buildings looked ugly and out of the place in Islamabad. Many raised the point that the rusty water supply pipes in the city should be fixed, which were getting mixed up with sewage at places.

But as a citizen of Rawalpindi and Islamabad, the cause that appealed to me the most was the preservation of trees. Fauzia Minallah deserves applause for raising the issue. I wish there were ways we could help people who stand up for nature for a change.

In the end, I found the Kissa Khwani event a very fulfilling experience as far as interacting people was concerned. I congratulate the Citizens Archive of Pakistan for organizing the event.

I really hope this town sees another one of these events.

Note: This is not a paid post.

Day 2: Kissa Khwani by The Citizens Archive of Pakistan – “PTV & Radio Pakistan”

Source: Kuch Khaas/Muhammad Waheed Photography

Source: Kuch Khaas/Muhammad Waheed Photography

The Citizens Archive of Pakistan, a platform dedicated to documenting oral history, organized a three day event called “Kissa Khwani” in Islamabad, named after the famous Kissa Khwani Bazaar in Peshawar, which was meant to promote the tradition of preserving oral historical accounts and storytelling. On June 21, 2013, the second episode of the three day event, “PTV and Radio Pakistan” was held in Islamabad.

The panelists included Agha Nasir, veteran broadcaster and producer, the pioneering director of Radio Pakistan and the former Managing Director of PTV, Muhammad Zubair, the former Director International Affairs of PTV and the first director of PTV Academy, and playwright, screenwriter and former columnist Ahmed Saleem, who created plays like “Amaawas” and “Kaala Pul“. Kanwal Naseer was also supposed to speak at the event but did not show up for some reason. The event was moderated by journalist, columnist and news anchor Farrukh Khan Pitafi.

A sister event was held in Lahore in which the panelists included Seemi Raheel, Salman Shahid, Naveed Shahzad and director and producer Ayub Khawar and was moderated by Adeel Hashmi and Alizeh Khalid. I really wish I were in Lahore to hear these brilliant speakers. The headline from the more interesting Lahore event was “Zia dictatorship ruined it all“, which was also discussed in Islamabad and immediately brought to mind the hazards of state-imposed censorship.

The Islamabad event kicked off with Agha Nasir presenting a historical account of the formative years of All India Radio. He was actually the only panelist in the entire three day event that mentioned the tragic Kissa Khwani Bazaar massacre, an Amritsar massacre like carnage, at the hands of the soldiers of the British Raj. Nasir mentioned that All India Radio was modeled after the BBC itself and was launched in 1935.

Remarkable pioneers such as Z. A. Bokhari, A. S. Bokhari and Patras Bokhari were engaged for establishing the state radio. Radio stations in present day Pakistan were established in Lahore at the YMCA on the Mall and in Peshawar. According to him, the Peshawar station was donated radio apparatus by Marconi himself. The monthly budget of a radio station used to be Rs. 1,500 per month and its main purpose used to be educational programming.

Agha Nasir expressed great satisfaction over his work at the Radio, despite the fact that it offered low income. According to him, the satisfaction of the work was the greatest factor why great names such as Saadat Hassan Manto and Z. A. Bokhari , apart from many prominent actors and stars, were attracted to the medium.

Muhammad Zubair lamented that the present day media is directionless and has become excessively moralistic and sardonic in its approach. He observed that radio was a medium that empowered him with the faculty of visualization during storytelling. He mourned that television was a medium which actually took that ability away from him.

He complained that the mandate of Pakistan Television of “education, information and entertainment” has eroded over time. He expressed his concern over the degeneration of the media and criticized the growing sensationalism and commercialism. He also expressed his concerns over the lack of censorship.

Playwright Ahmed Saleem mentioned producers and writers who pushed the frontiers of tolerance. He mentioned Dr. Anver Sajjad, Agha Nasir and Iqbal Ansari to be some of the most important names in this regard.

He recalled how his play “Amaawas” became a landmark in pushing the limits of tolerance on state television. The play was directed by Iqbal Ansari which portrayed the female lead played by Bushra Ansari demanding a divorce from the male lead played by Asif Raza Mir. The play stirred a great controversy at the time.

He recalled that people wrote to them objecting to the content of the play, worrying that it could corrupt the minds of women. He also recalled that they received threats from religious groups and clerics for airing such a play. However, he paid a tribute to director Ansari for encouraging him to express himself in the play as he pleased, even though the daring director had to offer an explanation and an apology once the play ended.

He also recalled working for the documentation of the Silver Jubilee celebrations of PTV. However, he left disgusted when many producers started claiming credits for things that were obviously were not their contributions. However, he said that he was proud to write scripts for Shireen Pasha’s landmark documentary on Cholistan.

He recalled that government interventions started plaguing PTV during Yahya’s regime when Tagore and Nazar-ul-Islam were banned in East Pakistan while adding more Urdu content, alienating the Bengali population.

Saleem recalled joining the newspaper “Aman” in the 80s as a television critic and used to interview TV stars. His interviews were criticized for being politically loaded such as the one involving actress Marina Khan in which he quoted her of criticizing the construction of Faisal Mosque in Islamabad. She said that many schools could have been built with that money.

Questions and answers session saw someone asking for a direction for the media. Mr. Zubair said that Pakistan was not prepared for freedom of media in its years of infancy and needed stability instead. He also insisted on the importance of following religious guidelines.

Agha Nasir recalled that PTV was issued one directive per week during Zia’s regime. Directives were about things like how the dopatta should be worn on air, that female singer should not gyrate while singing and that duets should be banned. Nazia and Zohaib Hassan’s duet also came under fire, despite the fact that they were siblings. The puritanical disciplinarians responded that not everybody was aware of that.

Moderator Farrukh Pitafi conceded that the media is rightfully criticized by the audience for sensationalizing reporting, distorting facts and commercializing and trivializing information, as well desensitizing audiences. He said that Pakistan was a classical example wherein space was expanding and quality was diminishing.

He said that poetic license of freedom was being used in news in Pakistan instead and that anchors have been guilty of such excesses. However, he also made a point that educated audiences would demand better content from the media and that the population explosion has been making things worse.

Almost unanimously, the panelists agreed that excessive freedom of expression is inappropriate. Ahmed Saleem gave a similar reply to my question why people were so fond of censorship in Pakistan. I found that rather disappointing coming from a writer.

He narrated how a news anchor misrepresented CM Shahbaz Sharif’s medical aid to him for undergoing a liver transplant as an act of corruption. He noticed that it came as a surprise to him since he was a political critic of the Sharif brothers. Yet the generous and praiseworthy deed of the leader was painted as a vile act by a news anchor with a political agenda.

But this story made me doubt his understanding of freedom of speech, which he later mentioned to be a positive tool if used properly. He recalled how they used to wonder what they should play and write about after the death of dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in 1988. But they frequently followed their heroic struggle for freedom of speech with the warnings of the need for discipline and order.

Revolutionaries of yesterday, with the exception of Mr. Zubair of course, have become the conservatives of our times.

But it is hardly a surprise.

Note: This is not a paid post.

The Launching Ceremony of 16 Days of Activism Against Violence Against Women and Girls

Source: UNWOMEN/DilSeJoKehtiHai

Source: UNWOMEN/DilSeJoKehtiHai

On November 28, 2012, the launching ceremony of 16 days of Activism Against Violence Against Women and Girls was held in Islamabad by UNWOMEN and the Ministry of Human Rights. I happened to cover the event on social media with a team led by Tazeen Javed and including Shiraz Hassan and Usama Khilji, under the directions of Faisal Kapadia. The event was a part of the UNiTE campaign initiated by the UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon in 2008 that is meant to spread awareness against gender-based violence. The campaign itself aims to raise awareness of the issue, particualarly among men.

Several government figures participated in the event, including Begum Shehnaz Wazir Ali, Special Advisor to the Prime Minister on Human Rights, Shaigan Sharif Malik, the Secretary Ministry of Human Rights, Ghazala Gola, the Baluchistan Minister for Minorities and Women’s Development, Sitara Ayaz, the Khyber Pakhtunkwa Minster for Social Welfare, Farzana Yakub, the AJK Minister for Social Welfare and Women’s Development and Dr. Nafisa Shah, the Head of the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus. All of them reiterated the government’s commitment to bring the necessary social change to end violence against women and girls through legislation and its implementation.

The main focus of the event this time around was social media. The campaign has its social media face in “Dil Se Jo Kehti Hai“, which has its own facebook page and twitter account. In that relation, Natasha Kemal and Farieha Aziz presented how social media can be effectively used to report incidents of violence against women and girls and how it is an effective tool to reach the policymakers. They also emphasized its role and relevance to activism and how it can make a difference. The event also featured a brief exclusive screening of Samar Minallah’s documentary “We Are All Malalas!” about education of girls in Swat.

UNWomen OIC Lena Lindberg and the UN Resident Coordinator Timmo Pakkala also spoke at the event. They found it heartening to see all the Pakistani government officials participating in the event and showing their commitment to end violence against women and girls. In the end, a group discussion was held to brainstorm ideas for mobilizing social change. While everyone was pretty clear about the legislation, the experts were more or less at a loss on how to actually bring about the social change that they want to see. Sorry if that sounds like an oversimplification.

And then again, there was the usual obsession with correcting people’s and media’s morals as per their ideals which I find so widespread among activists and which really puts me off most of the time.

As I walked out of the hotel conference hall with a smoking Shiraz Hassan under the steel grey rainy skies of Islamabad, I simply hoped that the Senate would let all the reasonable legislation protecting the rights of women pass and that we could find a way to break down the walls of social conservatism, which is the real enemy of men and women of Pakistan more than any moral degradation or anything else.