Sunday, December 26, 2010

The morning paper -- seriously...!

Dawn Images -- front page article by Saadia Reza - what's a "dip-stick" poll? never heard of it -- and most popular tv anchors/talk show hosts -- mathura is one, ok -- but no 2 sonya rehman dawn news and no 3 juggan kazim -- dawn news

seriously saadia -- who did you survey in the "dip-stick" poll? people at dawn news? i would think even loser-from-hell sahir would be more popular than either of these two --

city pages -- front page -- anchor article titled reads as if the holding of the conference itself raises questions -- wake up subs!

also metro section -- inside pages -- coaching centres replace schools and colleges -- since when was this news --- hasnt this been happening for years -- arent the news pages supposed to carry topical news items?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Think-tanks, conferences and more hot air

As a reporter for Dawn in the mid-to-late 1990s, one of the first beats assigned to me was to cover seminars on various issues in the city of Karachi.

At first this seemed like an interesting proposition but over time it became a drag – not least because on ended up seeing the same people all the time, discussing the same things over and over again, and giving the same solutions over and over again.

Surely, they didn’t need to hold yet another conference on this issue, one would say to oneself, given that the issue had already been done to death and the recommendations were known to all and sundry. Eventually it all came down to an exchange – and quite boring at that – of hot air.

This week as I attend a reasonably high-powered three-day conference in Islamabad on a grand-sounding topic like “Peace and Sustainable Development: The way forward” (organised by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute), I thought about this issue again.

Learning about the forgotten few

There were three sessions today and the yardstick of one of these events (or reading a new paper or listening to a lecture) is whether one learnt anything new. To that effect, I could safely say that the one person from whom I did learn something was founder and co-director of Kali for Women (India’s first feminist publishing house) Urvashi Butalia who told the audience of the neglected world of oral histories of those living on the margins. In this regard she gave the instructive example of a Dalit sweeper in a village in Indian Punjab who said that her family escaped the ravages of Partition violence becuase it was against Sikhs and Hindus and Muslims and since she was a Harijan she and her family were not affected by it. Ms Butalia said that this was an example of how historiography tended to ignore the voices of those living on the margins, such as this Dalit sweeper.

Producing prejudice through the media

The other notable speaker — as measured by what he said — during the day was Ahmed Salim of the SDPI who said that the print media, especially the Urdu press, was one of the chief makers of bias against the minorities in Pakistan. He cited several examples of how Urdu newspapers still used derogatory terms like ‘choora’ against the minorities and suggested a useful set of recommendations for the print and electronic media to follow. Important among these was a suggestion that they give at least equal coverage to issues of minorities and give them — as a group or community — a voice equal to that of the majority in Pakistani society.

Think-tanks lack thought

The last session was supposed to be for brain-storming on how to make think-tanks more effective — and was by invitation only (many thanks to SDPI head Abid Qayyum Suleri for inviting a non-think-tanker to this) — but it turned out to be more of brain-deadening one. I suspect that since some of the donors were sitting in the room, the discussion was quite staid and boring and to an outsider it seemed as if they could have done with some outside/external views.

For instance, the quite obvious issue of the general public (and in turn potentially the government) not see recommendations by these think-tanks as indigenous enough because they are too too donor-driven was hardly addressed.

One of the donors, who had come from a Canadian-funded organisation based in New Delhi did say quite unequivocally that his organisation did not take into account the aims and objectives or agenda of the organisation to whom funds would be given, but then again what would one expect a donor to say at such a forum?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Islamabad, waiting in line & Arif Hasan

What is it about standing in line that Pakistanis do not understand? What your friggin turn! That's what being in line means. And why do the ASF staff want us to turn on our laptops -- what are they trying to check in any case? As for the waiting in line, this happened at the last checking point, once carry on luggage is checked right before the gates area -- waited in line and it wasnt moving and airport staff were bringing morons from the side -- and no one saying anything -- usually its me and when other people start looking at you as if you have done something wrong (AS IF!) -- but thank god another person had the good sense to admonish the ASF tag-checker -- but the latter only smiled and did nothing, which infuriated the admonisher even more -- however the tag-checker could have been smiling because that is all that he could do

once we landed at islamabad airport, shared a car to the hotel with urban planning expert extraordinaire Arif Hasan -- had to introduce myself using my print name -- Omar R Quraishi -- since often thats how many people may (if they do) know of me -- had an interesting conversation with him, especially on urban issues and devolution -- had some good points to talk about, especially how the fracturing of the office of the DC had adversely affected the post-flood relief effort -- also talked about how land-grabbing has thrived because of the lack of magesterial powers which pre-Musharraf devolution used to rest with the local DC

have asked him to write and let's hope he does

Islamabad is a chilled 13 C -- at 7 pm. Why cant Karachi have weather like this as well?

Saturday, December 11, 2010

When a leak is not a leak -- Express Tribune editorial, Dec 11, 2010

Apparently there is conviction among intelligence agencies that Pakistani newspaper readers will believe almost anything. The extraordinary attempt to fabricate WikiLeaks documents marks the latest twist in the saga. News items carried by at least four national newspapers, including this one, claimed the publication of cables stating that US diplomats had affirmed Indian involvement in Waziristan and Balochistan, while describing top Indian generals as ‘geeks’ or persons linked to Hindu fundamentalists. This startled many readers on the morning of December 9. In contrast, Pakistan’s military top brass was praised in glowing terms.

This detail alone points to the direction from where the fabricated documents may have come. The news agency which released the item is seen as lacking credibility and has been associated with intelligence networks. The Guardian, which ran a detailed account of the attempt to use WikiLeaks cables to serve specific interests, said it found no trace of documents containing details of this nature on the organisation’s website. Newspapers which carried the planted material are conducting their own inquiries and this paper has apologised to its readers. Had they existed, the content of the cables would have created a sudden change in the nature of ties between the US and India.

The attempted fraud offers an insight into the desperation of elements behind it. It seems this is the best they could come up with to try and tarnish an ‘enemy’ country and shine up their own standing. It is worth noting that while documents speaking of the weaknesses or wrongdoings of Pakistani politicians have been given much publicity in the country, those that direct attention towards the doing of the military or the dangers posed by activities of groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba have been virtually suppressed. The ‘self-censorship’ of the media plays some part in this; continued agency influence in press circles is a factor too. The whole sorry business should remind newsrooms not to allow themselves to be used. We hope it will also convince those involved in the attempted deception that the Pakistani public does indeed possess some grey matter and is quite capable of recognising efforts to fool it.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 11th, 2010.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The case of the missing cable

Here are some interesting nuggets that much of the world press hasn’t reported upon, and isn’t likely to either, because they don’t make for ‘sexy’ reading/content.

The case of the missing cable

The News – and Jang – of December 9 had a lead story which, quite unbelievably I must say, quoted a cable from the US embassy in Islamabad saying all the things that the establishment in Pakistan would want the world to think about:

a) India

b) India’s army

c) India’s chauvinist Hindu parties and

d) Hamid Karzai.

The Express Tribune of December 9 also carried a similar story – by Online news agency on one of its inside pages. Intriguingly enough – or perhaps worryingly – when I scoured the WikiLeaks website on the evening of December 9 for this cable I couldn’t find it. Lest I be accused of not looking hard enough, cables can be searched by embassy location and by date. The report (which has also been carried in Ahmed Quraishi’s blog and websites like Daily Mail News) said many things, including that a former Indian army chief was considered a “geek” and a “bad combat commander”, that the current Indian army chief was a braggart and egotistical and that the Americans were of the view that the Hindu right wing parties posed a far greater threat to regional stability than the Taliban, al Qaeda or the Lashkar-e-Taiba. As CafĂ© Pyala has already pointed out, this is BIG news, so why didn’t more papers (other than The News and Jang) carry it? Perhaps the reason for that may have to do with the fact that this cable cannot really be found on the website of WikiLeaks – at least not as of 6 pm December 9. So where is this missing cable? When will it be released? The News and Jang credited “agencies” with this, so which news agency had it? Apparently one of them is Online, and if the publications were fooled into carrying it perhaps they should issue a correction. Is this cable authentic and real and if so why cannot I find it on the WikiLeaks website? Or is it the handiwork of some elements (let’s not name them) who, knowing that the papers are awash with leaked cables every day, thought of introducing some of their own ‘leaks’?

Brazil refuses Guantanamo inmates

A cable from the US embassy in Brasilia, created on May 24, 2005, revealed that Brazil turned down a request from the US government to take in Guantanamo captives whom the US wanted to release and be rid off its hands. The cable quoted a political officer from the US embassy talking to officers in Brazil’s external affairs ministry on the matter, only to be asked in return why the US hadn’t first given these people refugee status. The Brazilian officials are quoted as saying that under Brazilian law, no asylum can be given unless the person applying for it first obtains refugee status and in this instance it was for the US government to give this classification. The American embassy sought help from the US State Department in this matter and also realised that if the Americans gave refugee status to the Guantanamo inmates, then Brazil would still refuse to take them in citing the custom that if a state declares aliens refugees then it should have no issue taking them in by giving them asylum.

Prince Charles is invited to dinner

A cable from the US consulate general in Jeddah, created on Nov 8, 2006, detailed a meeting between the consul general and the prince of Asir province’s “fixer”, a “prominent Western businessman”. The latter told the American diplomat that the prince sought his (the businessman’s) help prior to a visit to the Kingdom by Prince Charles and that during the said meeting the Saudi prince mentioned that like Prince Charles, he too had a love for painting. The businessman told the US diplomat that as a consequence of this the prince had opened a “painter’s village” in Abha, capital of Asir province, and in it the paintings include those of human faces. The businessman said further that the Saudi prince sought his help for hosting a dinner for Prince Charles and that the Saudi prince was “nervous” because of the state of the palace that he was living in. Though the Saudi prince had built a new palace, he was, according to the western businessman, still residing in his deceased father’s old palace and its first floor “needed attention” since the structure was “aged and in dire need of renovation”. The Saudi prince’s nervousness stemmed from the fact that the dinner for Prince Charles was three weeks away. The businessman said that the first thing he did was to “cut of all electricity so that no one would be able to turn on the lights and see what was taking place”. He then “inserted Styrofoam into the holes in the walls” and “set up projectors to project colours and designs on to the walls”. On the evening of the “party” candles were the “only source of lighting throughout the house”. It turns out that this plan was “successful as the Prince of Wales commented on how luxurious and beautiful the palace was. The businessman said that a few days later, he received a “tip” from the prince in the sum of 50,000 Saudi riyals (approximately $13,300). (The Guardian has separately reported that the businessman was British.)

Saudi journalists “free to write what they wish”

A cable from the US Embassy in Riyadh and dated May 11, 2009, wrote an extensive brief on the state of the media in the Kingdom. It started off by saying that the Saudis have a “regulatory system” that allows the ruling regime a “means to manipulate the nation’s print media” and that “Saudi journalists are free to write what they wish provided they do not criticise the ruling family or expose government corruption”. It noted that in any case, “most media in Saudi Arabia — print and electronic — are owned by royal family members” and hence “self-censorship is the order of the day”. The brief, however, noted that things were in fact changing and that one “trend we have noted in all media here: the increase of well-educated relatively pro-US Saudis in editorial positions” and that one of the leading providers of information and news in the Kingdom had been directed by its senior management to “reinforce ‘modern ideas’ that the Saudi leadership wishes to purvey as an antidote to extremist ideology”. The brief including details of Saudi having a “three-hour” discussion with “one of Rupert Murdoch’s sons on a deal to publish an Arabic-language version of the Wall Street Journal” and that one other media group was trying to “win a contract to publish the International Herald Tribune in Saudi Arabia”. The brief further detailed a conversation that a Saudi official had with a US embassy press officer on the TV channel MBC saying that while it was owned by King Fahd’s brother-in-law, half of its profits went to King Fahd’s youngest son Abdulaziz. The press officer also managed to find out that the prince took an active role in the “ideological direction” of the al-Arabiya TV channel.

The cable then goes into some detail on the viewing habits of young Saudis. It quoted an individual, whose name had been X’ed out, who said that “American programming on channels 4 and 5 [incidentally these are available in Pakistan as well] was proving the most popular among Saudis. The point in fact began with the sub-heading “David Letterman – Agent of Influence”. It specifically quoted CBS and ABC Evening News and David Letterman, and the television shows Desperate Housewives and Friends.

The brief said that embassy officials were told that this programming was “also very popular in remote, conservative corners of the country where he said ‘you no longer see Bedouins, but kids in western dress’”. The cable quite clearly said that the Saudis saw this US programming as part of a concerted effort to influence the minds of young Saudis to cajole them away from extremist thinking and ideologies and towards having a more modern worldview. A press officer in Jeddah was told by a Saudi contact, during a “conversation at Starbucks” that Saudis “are now very interested in the outside world, and everybody wants to study in the US if they can” and that they are “fascinated by US culture in a way they never were before”. However, the brief noted that most Saudis, even “liberal-minded supporters of US democracy and society with little use for conspiracy theory” thought that the US government was behind this programming.

The brief later went on to detail just how the Saudi government acts against editors and journalists who don’t follow the rules. For instance, it said that instead of being fired or seeing their publications shut down, editors are “now fined 40,000 Saudi riyals out of their own salaries for each objectionable piece that appears in their newspaper”.

Committees are formed by the ministry of information in all cities and these keep track of articles or commentary that veers off the officially-sanctioned line. In such cases, the brief said, the errant commentator or writer is invited for a chat and suggested alternatives, and further that such a course of action had been “very effective in reining in media opinion that the Saudi Arabian government doesn’t like”.

This article has been revised to reflect the following update:

Update: December 09, 2010

The title of this article has been changed to reflect new information. The first paragraph discussing “a missing cable” has been added to include information that was not available earlier.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Full marks for Gilani, Shahbaz strikes out

So far a few hundred cables have been released – this is out of approximately 250,000 that WikiLeaks say will be eventually released. Newspapers, television channels, blog sites and other sources of information and media dissemination are having a field day, both in Pakistan as well as overseas with the wealth of information that has come out.

The head of Russia’s intelligence service has said that the cables provide a “treasure trove” of information and that his analysts will go through them in detail. Meanwhile Israel is gloating that its stance on many things is the same, both in public as well as private.

America seems to have suffered the most. Although most cynical commentators have said that by and large much the information that has been released is not unexpected. Of course, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t worrying.

But do we realistically think that once this blows over – ( no one knows when that will happen given the number of cables left to release) – governments and militaries will change the way that they interact with each other? Will the next Pakistan army chief or the next President of Pakistan be more reticent in his meetings with the American ambassador or visiting Congressional delegations, out of fear that their off-the-record comments and observations will make it to the world media stage?

Yousaf Raza Gilani: American diplomats and Pakistani leaders seem to have been mostly caught with their pants down in all of this. But in some cases, the revelations are in fact heartening. Take the case of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani who, a cable leaked by WikiLeaks suggests, told the interior minister that he didn’t care too much about the drone attacks “as long as they got the right people” and that the government would complain about it in parliament and then “ignore it”. Prime Minister Gilani gets full marks for telling it like it is and for having the good sense to understand that, by and large, the drone attacks target terrorists who have proven by their deeds and actions to be no friends of the Pakistani people or state.

Shahbaz Sharif: The same, however, cannot be said of Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif. According to one leaked cable, President Asif Ali Zardari was quoted as telling a foreign dignitary in a meeting that it had come to his (the president’s) knowledge that just prior to the accounts of the Lashkar-e-Taiba being frozen, following a UN resolution, the Punjab chief minister had tipped off the organisation and it was able to empty all its bank accounts. This is the same Lashkar-e-Taiba that has been deemed as a terrorist organisation and banned by America, the UK, India, Russia, Australia, the European Union and in fact Pakistan itself. Furthermore, Islamabad has been trying in a court of law several members of the organisation for alleged involvement in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks.

Maulana Fazlur Rahman:The zero-marks prize is shared by none other than Maulana Fazlur Rahman, aka Maulana Diesel, who fulminates against America in public but in a private meeting with the then US ambassador Anne W Patterson suggested that he had qualities to become (or be installed?) prime minister. He also told the ambassador that he liked visiting America. The Maulana is thought by many to have played the role of a go-between the government and the Pakistani state and the Taliban. One can only wonder what the WikiLeaks revelation with regard to his overtures to the American ambassador suggests.

Saudia Arabia: The Saudis also don’t fare too well. While most of us know that America commands great influence and sway in Pakistan, many must have been surprised at the influence Saudi Arabia has on things in Pakistan. A leaked cable quoted extensively from a meeting that US special envoy on Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke had with Saudi Arabia’s assistant minister of the interior, Prince Mohammad bin Nayef. It said that the prince described General Kayani as a “decent man” and that the Pakistan army was the “winning horse” for the Saudis and the “best bet” for stability. This may resonate with ordinary Pakistanis to some extent, ironically the same kind who continue to cherish Pakistan’s ‘hallowed’ relationship with Saudi Arabia. Clearly, the Saudis share the same objective with the Americans in that both are interested in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons not falling into the hands of al Qaeda or the Taliban. But, unbeknownst to many Pakistanis, it seems that the Saudis are able to determine for us the nature and composition of our elected leadership.

On a separate, but equally worrying note, the same cable quoted the prince as telling Holbrooke that as recent as 2003 “radicals were present in 90 per cent” of Saudi mosques.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

WikiLeaks: Whither Muslim brotherhood?

It was never really a secret that Saudi Arabia did not like Iran. Perhaps there may be a sectarian history to this or maybe it is simple old realpolitik with two large states vying for regional power. But Saudi Arabia isn’t the only Muslim country that seems to loath Iran. There is the UAE and Kuwait as well as, albeit to a lesser extent, Qatar.

According to a cable of Feb 9, 2010, from US ambassador to UAE to Admiral Mike Mullen, head of the US armed forces, prior to the latter’s meeting with the UAE crown prince and defence minister, the UAE is one of America’s most trusted partners in the region and “most useful friends worldwide”.

The ports of Dubai and Fujairah are the “logistics backbone for the US Fifth [Fleet]“. The US Navy’s Fifth Fleet is responsible for operations in the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, Arabian Sea and down south as far as eastern Africa. Minhad airbase, some 20 kilometres south of Dubai is “a critical hub for coalition/ISAF partners in Afghanistan, including the Australians, Dutch, Canadians, Brits and Kiwis”.

This cable says that the UAE leadership sees Iran as its “primary external threat”. The defence minister and crown prince of the UAE is said to not believe that the west will be able to put adequate pressure on Iran and also is of the view, according to this cable, that Tehran cannot be persuaded to give up its nuclear weapons programme. As a result, his efforts to build up the UAE’s armed forces is seen as “near-obsessive”. The UAE has “quietly” deployed forces in Afghanistan, being the first Arab country to do so. The Americans are told by the UAE defence minister, much to their disbelief, that Iran is active in destabilising Yemen, by supporting the Houthi (who are said to Shia) rebels.

The UAE’s obsession with Iran seems to run deeper than that of even the Americans. According to cable dated Feb 22, 2010, from the American ambassador to the UAE, the country’s foreign minister Sheikh Adullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, told a visiting delegation of US Congress members in a meeting on Feb 17 that the nuclear issue “is only one aspect of the Iran problem, and that Iran’s regional meddling was a serious concern”. He said further that the UAE was concerned that “Gulf allies were being shut out of Iran sanctions planning”.

A cable by the US embassy in Kuwait dated Feb 17, 2010, detailed a meeting between Kuwait’s interior minister Jaber Al-Khaled Al Sabah and the US ambassador. The minister said that he was “deeply concerned about Iranian actions, particularly in Yemen with the Houthis” and that Iran was the “beating heart” of Islamic extremism, adding that “even Palestinians now aspire to be Shia because they have bought Iranian ‘stories’ about Shia being more prepared to “fight to the end” and stand up to Israel”.

A cable by the US embassy in Muscat, Oman, dated Feb 2, 2010, suggested that Oman was very unhappy about an article in the New York Times that had perhaps suggested that it, along with other Gulf states, was going to receive Patriot missile batteries from America. In a ‘comment’ on the reaction of the government of Oman, the US embassy noted that a statement by a senior Omani official denying any such proposal would also serve to “protect the US/Omani relationship, as any belief that the US would attempt to utilize Omani territory in this way could potentially cause a public backlash that would jeopardize other aspects of the relationship”. Furthermore, while “Iran is Oman’s number one strategic threat; however, the Government of Oman fundamentally believes the threat can be mitigated through careful management of the relationship. Therefore, it works very deliberately to create a public perception of balance in its relationships with the US and Iran”.

According to a cable of Jan 26, 2010, from the US embassy in Ankara prior to a visit by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s stance on Israel came up, especially his “outburst at Davos”. The cable said that both the Americans and “his staff” (meaning that of the Turkish prime minister) were seeking to “contain” such behaviour.

A cable describing a meeting on Feb 8, 2010, between and the US defence secretary and the French foreign minister in Paris quoted the two discussing the situation in Pakistan. It quoted him as saying that it was “astonishing” that President Zardari had remained in power and that the Pakistanis had conducted such effective COIN operations. The defence secretary “commented that one can never be an optimist about Pakistan, but that the changes had been striking”.

A cable from Jan 28, 2009, detailed a meeting between the Dutch and Russian ambassadors to Saudi Arabia, accompanied by a senior US embassy official with the undersecretary for multilateral affairs at the ministry of foreign affairs in Riyadh. During the course of the meeting, discussion came on Iran with the Saudi official saying that if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons “other countries in the Gulf region would be compelled to do the same, or to permit the stationing of nuclear weapons in the Gulf to serve as a deterrent to the Iranians”.