Tightening the Authoritarian Noose Around the People’s Neck

Source: flare.pk

Pakistan is not a country we should feel proud of anymore. It has increasingly become an entity that is acting hostile to the people it is supposed to stand for. This is clear and evident by the recent curbs on political freedom and freedom of speech in the current year reminiscent of the years of the military dictatorship in the country. However, the comment of the current Chairman PTA, who happens to be a military officer (surprise, surprise) is unprecedented.

The PTA Chairman Maj. Gen. (R) Amir Azeem Bajwa, whose name sounds eerily related to the current Army Chief, said that social media in Pakistan should be blocked in the manner of China and the UAE. He recommended that Pakistan should develop its own social media channels to allow for state censorship and censor inappropriate content. Appointed in December 2018, under the able leadership of Prime Minister Imran Khan, General Bajwa mainly focused on “blasphemous content” to make his case of taking away the right of citizens to use social media to express their voices. If anyone had doubts about democracy being under threat in Pakistan, this statement should remove it.

The Chairman PTA was testifying to the Senate panel examining purported grievances where he remarked that “either the technical abilities of the organization be enhanced or the allow them to block social media websites to stop the circulation of blasphemous material.”  Even though nobody is ever going to explain what a retired general is doing serving this position and one which he is most likely not qualified for, his comments will largely go unaccounted for other than some fringe criticism on the social media of all the places. Nobody is going to mention it on the mainstream media and any criticism on the national news is improbable.

Surely, for the PTA chairman, blocking more than 850,000 porn and news websites are not enough. It is pretty clear that for these state authoritarians, it is not nearly enough. They want to go after the internet itself and if not the internet connectivity to maintain a facade of modernity, they will neuter it to an unusable state-regulated version.

With the launch of CPEC development projects and the rolling out of the optic fiber link from Khunjerab to Gwadar, one of the biggest fears is the Chinese internet spilling over into Pakistan. While thankfully the CPEC projects in Pakistan have appeared to slow down, it has nevertheless inspired the civil and military bureaucratic despots at the reins of administration in this country.

Unfortunately, the narratives these anti-democratic forces have nurtured for the past seventy years have duped well-meaning conservative citizens into believing that their civil rights and political freedoms are bad for them and for the country. Even in the name of blasphemy and national security, there is no shortage of urban nationalist conservatives in the country who would gladly sacrifice the internet as a public enemy.

The greatest tragedy of all is the fascist administration of PTI, a party that was pretty much built by and through the power of social media, other than a little help of our military establishment of late. More than the duplicitous and malicious leadership of the PTI, the people who would be the greatest losers are the urban educated voters of the party who look down upon the traditional and less privileged voters all across Pakistan. The government they voted in might be infringing on their rights but they have a choice to speak up. Pretty soon this little freedom we have will be gone.

Pakistan still has a lot to lose, which it continues to lose every day.

Hameed Haroon’s Case Against Media Censorship in Pakistan

Source: BBC

The pro-military nationalist and PTI trolls, which are effectively the same team now, have been trumpeting how comprehensively Hameed Haroon was ripped apart for his anti-establishment viewpoint, oblivious of the fact that hard line of questioning is the format of the show. Even some journalists were disappointed by his performance. But I cannot imagine why. There really was nothing about the interview that was not properly handled by him. I have shared the video in this post and clearly, all of them and I are watching completely different shows.

There are a few things to say about the content of the show and the way Hameed Haroon covered it. Other than the disingenuous questioning representing the supposed viewpoint of the nationalistic elements that Stephen Sackur had to come up with to keep up with the format of the show, Haroon used self-restraint for the most part. What the critics of his performance on the show are forgetting is that he could have been far more direct and blunt in his criticism of the military than he was. This was because he was obviously mindful of the fact that he was representing Pakistan on an international media forum.

But it is his duty to the people and journalism in Pakistan to present the case for preserving democracy and freedom of the press in the country. And when his media group is one of the primary victims, he is indeed rightful to make the case against the military imposed censorship. Furthermore, I am very glad he brought up that ridiculous chart that the DG ISPR had put up in his press conference as if to send a message that the bloggers were a criminal cartel or a terrorist group. What about his army of paid trolls? As for the question of Dawn favoring Nawaz Sharif, which any regular reader of the center-left leaning paper knows is simply not true, comes out only of op-ed pieces criticizing the unfair targeting of this political figure by the state establishment, not their reporting.

There is no doubt that Hameed Haroon could have been more articulate than he actually was, Obviously, in my humble opinion, while he is the perfect man to speak on the subject, on the question of evidence for military meddling in the media, he failed to bring up the dozens of journalists killed over a period of five odd years in Pakistan, as well as dozens, if not hundreds more. I am sure the journalists expressing their disappointment must be upset at things of that nature. Everything documented a bit too well by the international media. That is already incriminating evidence against the military intelligence thugs hard at work at curbing dissenting journalism in the name of national security. That is enough evidence you need.

But more than that, more than presenting hard evidence which sounds so cold, it is a matter of experience. It is about the shit we are dealing with every single day. The abduction of Gul Bukhari is not a myth. The harassment of Taha Siddiqui is not a concoction. Nobody made up the story of Umer Cheema picked up by the agencies, tortured, and had his head and eyebrows shaved. Hamid Mir actually got shot by a bullet and Saleem Shahzad paid for his doing his job with his life. A simple Google search will offer you all the evidence you are looking for.

Probably journalists in Pakistan are getting more than they bargained for. They should probably quit their jobs and start selling Pakistani flags and prayer mats to make a living to appease the nationalists at home.

The Most Important Piece of Journalism of the Year

Source: The New York Times

News stories come and go every day but there are defining points which make a mark in history. The news story by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey about the revelations of sexual misconduct and even rape against Harvey Weinstein is probably the most important piece of journalism of the year.

It can be effectively argued that the story has produced conditions that have helped encourage the victims of abuse by powerful men in media to come forward. This was a moral check that was much needed after the Donald Trump tapes and his subsequent rise to the Presidency in spite of it.

Since the Weinstein exposé, more than a dozen prominent personalities from show business have been. Roger Ailes and Bill O’ Reilly went down before that but of course “they were not one of us” and “that’s who they (conservatives) are.” This was different. This time around, it was Dustin Hoffman, James Toback, Louis C.K., George Takei, and Kevin Spacey. And recently and very importantly, it was Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer. Matt Lauer you get, but Charlie fucking Rose?

If things are this worse in the world of liberals, you can imagine how tough it must be for conservatives, who might be more resistant to progressive legislation on harassment as many conservative men. Take President George H. W. Bush as an example, who I am sure slapped women’s butts because that was normal.

Another noticeable but seldom admitted nuance of this development has been the insight it has offered into the psyche of the male gender and perhaps even male sexuality regardless of sexual orientation.

This is not just a Hollywood problem. It is pervasive all over the world. Plainly speaking, we, men, are guilty of abuse and no, we are not likely to learn despite the insincere apologies. This is probably something inherent to male sexuality, and no that is not an excuse but a helpless attempt to understand a potentially criminal behavior.

I get it that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi thinks that the Presidency of Donald Trump helped pave way for this environment instead of Harvey Weinstein but let’s not take credit away from what’s due. This new story has been historic.

Cheers ladies and more power to you.

Yeah, men are pigs.

 

A Foreign Minister With A Mind of His Own?

Source: Asia Society

I am not saying it has happened for the first time in Pakistani history, but it surely seems something out of the ordinary in the current political atmosphere in Pakistan. After the Pakistani military and bureaucratic establishment realized what a colossal error its favorite dictator General Pervez Musharraf had committed by permitting private TV channels, a regime of media control was brought about.

It was at least too late for Musharraf himself who erroneously started considering himself to be a democratic leader with a liberal economic vision who enjoys complete support by the people of Pakistan. He probably banked too much on his ridiculous referendum numbers and ended up resigning due to the resistance put up by civilians for a sacked judge.

The same political party which had been overthrown by the military bureaucracy returned 14 years later with another overwhelming mandate, only earlier paralleled in its volume by the Awami League in the 1970 election. The Awami League was,, of course, declared as an outlawed and traitorous party in a rebel country.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had his third term cut short by some dimension of the state bureaucracy earlier in July this year. Today, at this situation, it is refreshing to see that the Foreign Minister of the same political party who had delivered a fiery speech against the military establishment in the parliament embarrass it on an international forum. Especially when the current Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi looks like a zombie bullied by the drill sergeant at the Kakul Academy about “What to say at UN manual.”

Here is Khawaja Asif speaking at the Asia Society in New York.

Not only that, Khawaja Asif completely owned the label of a “more liberal foreign policy,” criticizing the opposition party to pandering to the “religious fringes.” Like most liberals of Pakistans, he also reminisced about the “old liberal, pluralistic, tolerant, and progressive Pakistan of the 50s and 60s,” which was taken away due to the Islamization in the wake of the Afghan Jihad. He also thought that Pakistan so openly joining the American camp during the Cold War years was a mistake. At least, it is refreshing to see such an approach taken by a Pakistan government official so openly in an international diplomatic forum.

Khawaja Asif also remarkably admitted that Hafiz Saeed, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and other terrorists like the Haqqani Group were liabilities for Pakistan and that Pakistan needed time to deal with them. He also stated that the dismissed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had put his career on stake in order to improve relations with India, which he considered necessary while also describing the struggle of the Kashmiri youth at the hands of the brutality of Indian military and government.

Khawaja Asif certainly has many flaws. He is an inarticulate loudmouth with a knack of saying inappropriate things every now and then, blame it on his Punjabi male chauvinistic upbringing.  Even was my Idiot of the year 2016. But once in a while, he also ends up doing something right. And to his credit, more often than the broken clock telling the time right. However, he is still the same man who threatened Israel over a piece of fake news when he was the Defense Minister. Read about the underlying antisemitism of his comment here.

Of course, his statements have given indigestion to a lot of nationalist conservatives and military establishment loyalists including the PTI who are accusing him of treason as usual. However, all supporters of democracy and civilian supremacy should celebrate this rare moment in Pakistan foreign policy. State protected terrorist Hafiz Saeed s even suing Khawaja Asif for Rs. 100 million for defamation. Just to give you an idea how bad things are in Pakistan when it comes to the moral authority of the state. It would also not be beyond our deep state if we shortly see the resignation of the minister following the controversy he has stirred. In that case, the Pakistani people should stand by a diplomat that has, for once, truly represented them.

There has been Shah Mehmood Qureshi in the PPP government who chose to dissent but never like this. So a Foreign Minister finally having a mind of his own, or at least saying the right thing, has been rare in Pakistan.

Let’s celebrate that.

My Pakistani Person of the Year 2016: Qandeel Baloch

Source: Dawn

Source: Dawn

Well, it feels like as if I were writing a single post for the free speech hero and this one. But believe it or not, this has been the impact of Qandeel Baloch on the Pakistani society, in my opinion. She offered Pakistanis the necessary shockwave that was needed to break their convenient slumber of socially conservative morality. It was a much needed first shock needed to a population that is a bit too uptight about its sexuality while tolerating all sorts of perversions under the cover.

To her credit, model and liberal social media icon Qandeel Baloch single-handedly cleared up that suffocation a little. With a little help from earlier stars such as Mathira. A heroic model who appeared in a much-needed ad for a much-needed commodity in Pakistan. Condoms. Of course, the ad was banned. But condoms are not. More power to her.

Qandeel Baloch, alias Fauzia Azeem, started as an apparently cheap social media sensation, and slowly started gaining the sort of following that no one could ever anticipate. Her fame was further catapulted by the local media because, let’s face it, her unusually bold glamor sold like anything in a market thirsting for it. But little did her clueless audience realize that she was making statements that went beyond just fun and games.

Now, I wish I knew more about her. I wish I had followed her more and had not dismissed her in the way most ordinary Pakistanis had. I hardly ever followed her videos. I wish I had paid more attention to the buzz about her in the local media, but I knew what was largely going on about her person. At least I cannot accuse myself of ever condemning and rejecting her. At least morally and politically, I always found a supporter of her in myself.

When writing this post, I simply cannot put into words what Qandeel Baloch has really accomplished. She has been dubbed the Pakistani Kim Kardashian, a reality icon widely mocked for her superficially extravagant lifestyle and social media selfies. Imagine how big a reality star she would have become had she appeared in Bigg Boss on Indian TV.

Qandeel’s own lifestyle had become something similar from her humble beginnings, though nowhere near extravagant as that of the Hollywood superstar who never had to face any such odds in her life. Qandeel Baloch came from a much more difficult background and never ever really enjoyed the “privilege” you could accuse her of enjoying. Well, being a woman in Pakistan is enough to explain it, for that matter.

Now I hear that double Oscar winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy has made a film on her life. Even though I was considering her to be the nominee for this title of mine this year, but even if she were to win three straight Oscars in a row, she would never have been able to pull off what Qandeel Baloch did. Perhaps no one could, short of a Pakistani Larry Flynt. Hell, not even such a character. And yes, a part of it is being a woman.

Qandeel Baloch’s sense of self-righteousness and of being morally upright came from a mix of the modern urban Pakistani liberalism, as well as the social conservative background of her roots in South Punjab. In an interview with Sohail Warraich recorded just before her death, you would hear her being a snob toward the “vulgar” mujra dancers. Being pro-mujra, that slightly offended me.

No, these women are not prostitutes. And yes, prostitutes are honorable women too. But I leave aversion to mujra as a personal aesthetic preference, as opposed to being a matter of making cultural judgments.

Unfortunately, she was accused herself of vulgarity by people from her ranks and from the less liberal sections of the more progressive Pakistani urban classes. You know, for twerking and not dressing up according to the standards ordained by the Sharia. Don’t believe me? Google for any of her videos and observe the titles from the socially conservative uploaders.

As I have often said, it sometimes becomes hard to keep track of what amounts to vulgar and what does not in Pakistan. I am not even sure what the word really means anymore.

And another thing that I like repeating is that it is easy to talk about feminist ideals. It is very hard to live them up in a society and industry dominated by men, who are going to attack you like a vicious pack of wolves from all directions and every chance they get. So it was obligatory for someone like me to defend her every chance I get. I have respect for what she did.

As I said, it is hard to articulate the impact of Qandeel Baloch. Through her bold antics, she proved how confined and captivated the Pakistani women really are. Through her outspokenness, she proved how tolerant our society really is. She basically demonstrated how free women are in our society and how hypocritical we are about our sexuality in public. She also proved how easily our men are willing to put our women to death for “honor.”

She was a resounding slap in the face of every woman-hating man rejecting the notion that Pakistan is not a society dominated by men.

She helped expose how disgusting religious clerics can be when it comes to women and in ways nobody could even imagine before.

She tested and questioned our moral compass in a complicated world in which we take it for granted, and exposed our hypocrisy harmlessly.

She showed how easy it was to kill in Pakistan, and for what reasons.

She made us feel immensely proud of being a Pakistani and made us feel immensely ashamed at the same time.

In that sense, she has been an iconoclast of the revolutionary proportions in her individual capacity. Nobody even comes close.

I learned about the news of her murder while I was on a shoot in Karachi this year’s July, right when I was in the middle of people in front of who I had to defend Qandeel Baloch. On that day, it seemed I really had no other substantial purpose to my existence. Not that there would be any otherwise. But when her brother and former husband are found involved in her murder, it is hard not to feel disappointed.

And the government also did not take her requests for security seriously.

I know a lot of people believe that a lot more people were so much more important to Pakistan this terrible year. But honestly, I don’t have time to think about those self-proclaimed saviors of this country. Because seriously nobody did this much for the Pakistani society for decades. Nobody in the history of this country ever promised a striptease for a Pakistani cricket star.

Qandeel Baloch is the star of the age of social media. I know she came into prominence from a Pakistan Idol audition, but it was social media that really took her voice to the people. So in many ways, in the transformation of the Pakistani society to more liberal and open ideas, social media is as much a star as are the people whose voices it is empowering.

And don’t let me forget. She is not my Pakistani Person of the Year because she was killed. Far from it. You know a lot of people died in 2016, including Edhi. It was not the death of Qandeel Baloch that made her special, but her life. It is her impact on the society that has outlived her, and it is our responsibility as citizens to carry it forward and fight ignorance, illiberalism, and obscurantism.

All I can say is that as a Pakistani citizen, I salute Qandeel Baloch and applaud her for her courage to express her sexuality. She is and must be an inspiration to all of us. Shame on us for not valuing her enough.

Farewell, and rest in peace, you brave, beautiful soul.

Read about my Pakistani person of the last year here.

Pakistani Free Speech Hero of the Year 2016: Qandeel Baloch

Source: Qandeel Baloch Official Facebook

Source: Qandeel Baloch Official Facebook

She made a statement by expressing her sexuality in a society where it is considered an abomination. She was predictably accused of vulgarity in a society that has probably even forgotten the meaning of this vague expression.

Forsaken by the liberal media, in the words of feminist academic Nabiha Meher Sheikh, when she needed them the most and condemned by a society of self-righteous savages, model and internet sensation Qandeel Baloch tested the morality of our standards of morality.

Her selfie clip with Maulana Abdul Qavi pretty much realized my dream of watching Mathira and Mufti Muneeb-ur-Rehman do the tango on TV.

The shockwave that it caused not only resulted in his removal from the Ruet-e-Hilal Committee, an insignificant body that performs the significant function of sighting the moon but also leading to the murder of Qandeel at the hands of her own brother because she had offended his honor. Qandeel’s former husband was also said to be involved. To no effect, or without much substance, Mufti Abdul Qavi’s name was included in the investigation of her murder for provoking it on the complaint of her parents.

Yep, death comes that cheap in Pakistan. Or is it life?

Source: Human Rights Tulip Twitter

Nighat Dad – Source: Human Rights Tulip Twitter

Shout outs also go to some other free speech heroes in Pakistan, who are continuing their struggle in the face of brutal opposition. Heartiest congratulations and salute to internet privacy and digital rights activist Nighat Dad who won the 2016 Human Rights Tulip Award from the Dutch government. She has used the prize to establish the first cyber harassment helpline for the people of Pakistan.

A mention of publisher and social activist Abdul Wahid Baloch is also due, who was briefly abducted by unknown entities following his activism to find the whereabouts of the Baloch missing persons. These individuals have been the victim of the crackdown on the Baloch insurgency.  Thankfully, he is safely home.

Journalist Cyril Almeida became the victim of undue state scrutiny, following the daring release of an exclusive news story that revealed that the civilian government of the Sharif brothers had reprimanded the military leadership for inaction against religious terrorists. Almeida was briefly put on the Exit Control List by the Federal Ministry of the Interior following the government’s and the military’s repeated stern denials of his story. Too much fuss about nothing, of course.

Source: pakistantv.tv

Shaan Taseer – Source: pakistantv.tv

Another great Pakistani free speech hero remains to be Shaan Taseer, the son of the slain Governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer, who was a free speech hero in his own right. Shaan Taseer is continuing the fight against the draconian blasphemy law and for the rights of the minority religious communities in Pakistan.

Source: Sunni Youth Parliament/Shaan Taseer facebook

Source: Sunni Youth Parliament/Shaan Taseer facebook

Qandeel’s antics may not sound serious to some of you, but the fatwa issued by Sunni clerics against Shaan Taseer, which he publicized on his facebook page, is no joke. If only this evidence was enough to convince people how much dangerous people we are dealing with here.

In the guise of peace and love, these religious zealots ensure that no one is safe from their venom. I can only commend people like Shaan Taseer for really taking them on in his bold and fearless manner. Now, I can’t do that for one, and the image of the “legal opinion” I posted above can be considered a death threat to Taseer.

All of these free speech heroes are important. Freedom of Press is important. Fighting for religious minority rights is important. But perhaps nothing is more important than a woman challenging the norms of a society that collectively hates women and is abusive to them. Pakistan remains to be one of the countries collectively abusive to women in the name of culture and religion, and apart from my own hometown of Rawalpindi, I have seen glimpses of that in various parts of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, such as Swat and Lower Dir. So, I am pretty sure of what I am talking about here.

For that reason alone, Qandeel Baloch is my Pakistani free speech hero for the year 2016.

As Nighat Dad herself said, every time a woman stands for herself somewhere, she is standing for all the women.

Read about the last year’s Pakistani free speech hero, Sabeen Mahmud, here.

India-Pakistan Conflict: Boycott the Boycott

Source: Dawn

Source: Dawn

Ah, the season of war is back. Time to deal with completely needless inconveniences because of the bloated egos of the leaderships of the two countries, if you are unfortunate enough to live in one of them.

War hysteria is at an all-time high in recent years in India, especially fueled by the Fuhrer and the warmongering media. Similar roles have been taken up by the military leadership on this side as well as warmongering news anchors on warmongering channels.

In the wake of the national mood, the association of Indian film producers considered it necessary to take action against Pakistani artists from appearing in Indian films. This tells us a lot about the Indian film producers and their version of patriotism.

Now India has been known to do this before and considering that it was not always exactly a fan of free trade and has even had some love for trade protectionism in the past, old habits creeping into the new Indian age of economic freedom is not a surprise.

But what is even worse is that the Pakistani film distributors and theater owners felt the need to emulate the Indian version of patriotism. They have responded by taking off Indian films from Pakistani theaters. I know Pakistanis have been at it before, but is this really the right way to act? Even PEMRA is pressing to eliminate Indian television content in Pakistan and to suspend the guilty TV channels. This is completely nonsensical, especially in the age of the internet.

Regardless of the quality of Indian films, it is a well-known fact that these productions are awfully popular in Pakistan. Has our hate for India really exceeded the love of the free market and freedom of access?

Why do we have to punish the local consumer to make a point about nothing to the Indian producers or the government of India?

And if we say that India started it, then why do we have to act in kind? Are we trying to harm India or our local consumer?

While a good number of both Indian artists and public are maintaining their sanity, sadly their public debate is dominated by people who are inciting an emotional reaction. Likewise, there is no shortage of such idiots on this side of the border.

However, it is easy to see that the India-Pakistan conflict has been reduced to the words and actions of brawling, irresponsible, and mentally impaired high school bullies who don’t know any better but to resort to juvenile antics to score cheap points.

As two of the largest nations of the world, the people must pause and reflect. Have we really lost our minds? Is this who we really are?

Well, apparently. Because it seems like we have been waiting for an opportunity to pounce on each other for quite a while. But in all fairness, you cannot blame the hysteria among the people. The political and military leadership, in both India and Pakistan, need to get their heads examined.

With Pakistan threatening nuclear warfare and India threatening to block Pakistan’s water supply, it is clear that the welfare of the common people is the last thing on their minds. Just imagine countries issuing such threats lecturing others on terrorism.

The ban on the art from across the border by private entities, who we very well know are pressured by government authorities and public opinion shaped by propaganda, are also reflective of the disregard of the public opinion. The regulatory authorities and film business bodies on both sides have only shown how much they regard the audiences. Shameful to say the least.

So should we move ahead likewise and boycott these film producers and theater owners as well? I guess not because that is not who we are, even if their terrible business sense makes them a deserving party.

Let us not respond to a boycott with a boycott.

Let us not respond to a ban with a ban.

If some business entities and government in India have decided to punish their people, why should we react to punish ours?

Pakistan had embraced the free market way earlier in its history than India and must keep that tradition alive. At least the Pakistani people remain very libertarian and pro-free market when it comes to their freedom of access, and will remain so despite the government bans.

The government should get out of their way when it comes to ridiculous regulations. Or the citizens know very well how to go out of their way to get around them.

And let’s face it, many people in Pakistan love Indian movies. So let them watch in peace.

When it comes to the India-Pakistan conflict, let’s boycott the boycott.

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs.