Wednesday, May 21, 2014

More money for the military?

A senior defence ministry official - an air-vice marshal - briefed the Senate's Defence Committee on May 19 about the budgetary needs of the military. The official somewhat disingenuously told the Senate committee that Pakistan was the lowest spending on defence in the entire region and the figure he quoted to substantiate this claim was that Pakistan spent around $8,400 per soldier while India spent roughly three times that per soldier. A more accurate measure of comparison would be defence spending as a percentage of GDP which in Pakistan's case is 2.6 per cent of GDP compared to India's 1.8 per cent. Similarly, Pakistan spends $35.4 per capita on defence compared to India which spends $29.9. One is not sure whether any of the Senators present in the committee hearing could figure that what they were being told was not entirely true and that Pakistan does spend far more on defence than it should be given the size of its economy, GDP per capita and low human indicators. The official -- perhaps inadvertantly -- also told the Committee that military pensions had now reached Rs 100 billion per year and that this figure was paid out of the civilian budget. This means that the real defence budget for 2013-14 is not $6.37 billion as publicly admitted in official statistics and budget documents but around $7.4 billion, thereby making the official's claim that Pakistan spends the least on defence in the region even less credible. And now on to those who cry hoarse and paint anyone who asks such questions or point out such discrepancies with the label of 'anti-state' and/or 'anti-national'. The defence budget is paid out of public funds and this is taxpayers money and hence the public has a constitutionally guaranteed right to know how this money is spent. At one point in the briefing, the Defence Ministry official was asked by some senators about the size of the ISI budget and whether it was audited and he declined to give any details. While it is true that the size of the budget for intelligence agencies the world over is not a publicly known figure, it is however shared with members of parliament -- which is precisely a reflection of the fact in mature democracies of parliament being sovereign. In Pakistan's case, it would be fair to say that this detail is not shared with MPs except perhaps with the defence minister and the prime minister. The other issue that is raised by apologists for yet more military spending has to do with the fallacy which says that a lot more funds could be freed up in the budget for health and education if the budgets used for these sectors was used more efficiently and if there was less corruption. This ignores the fact that there is corruption in all sections of the government, not just civil, and further the inescapable reality that a country like Pakistan needs to be spending far more than it currently does on health and education, and that this extra money is not going to come from simply utilizing the existing budget for either more efficiently.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

So begins the unravelling

By Saroop Ijaz The 2013 election was rigged. It was rigged before it happened. It was rigged before Mr. Imran Khan woke up to the fact. It was rigged when TTP picked favorites. In the run up, during the campaign, ANP leaders were killed every day. PPP and ANP were threatened, attacked, maimed and told that they could campaign at their own peril; the peril was violent death. The field was uneven, and the field was Punjab and Punjab only, since our “estranged brothers” were in no mood to allow campaign and electioneering in the rest of Al-Bakistan. Yet, to point to this elementary fact was to be an apologist for the beleaguered parties, to defend corruption.  The prime beneficiaries were Mian Nawaz Sharif and Mr. Imran Khan, who in the competitive spirit did not even spare a moment to condemn the attacks on rivals, to condole with the leaders and families of those killed. Callousness was the name of the game, leaders of PML-N and PTI implying and sometimes saying it directly that PPP and ANP had it coming, that they deserved to be murdered by the terrorists for poor governance and corruption. Would the election results been substantially had there been a level playing field? Most probably not, however, it certainly would have been less bloody. More significantly, there would have been dissent, a semblance of diverging views. Some of us warned about the “right versus the right battle”, with the liberal (even if token) parties coercively relegated to the bench even before the match started. It was not because of any love lost for the liberal forces and their performance; rather it was and is for sanity. The primary problem with an internal right contest was that there is only one direction to go, i.e. more right. Side note to friends in India: be very afraid, we have been there, done that, and got the T-shirt (which is smeared in blood now). The political rightist forces, PML-N and PTI now compete with not only the religious right of JI and JUI-F but also JUD, SSP/ASWJ and other assorted, pleasant “non-state” actors, and at times with the TTP itself for that space. The PML-N and PTI cannot win this. While, it was fun to be all glib and sly about the temporarily alignments and beating them at their own game, except, it will not happen.  Media had by then found out that xenophobia sells, and it sells best as a hybrid of religion and xenophobia. The hand is now being overplayed. When Shaheed Governor Taseer was murdered, it was apologia and obfuscation, same with Shahbaz Bhatti, and it continues to this day. Recently when Shaheed Rashid Rehman was assassinated, no television channel found the issue news worthy since there were dharnas to cover, and blasphemy law discussions have more chances of attracting bullets rather than ratings (one sparkling exception was Mr. Ejaz Haider’s excellent program on Capital TV). The Media tried very hard not to find blasphemy law, yet the blasphemy law has found the Media. It is in the nature of these things. Competitive spirit and temporary powerful allies just like the elections at play again. It is the “rival niji” channel under attack and hence “fatwas” inciting violence are being solicited and then aired on prime time. Some of them must be feeling pretty smug at the prospect of market share, ratings, and money. Well, not for long. The “fatwas” will come back to you. The agent provocateurs of today will be the victims of tomorrow. If the dangerous shenanigans do not cease immediately, it will not be a question of “if”, it will most certainly come back to other “niji channels”. Hafiz Saeed and friends have already become legitimate, now they are fast becoming the mainstream, all the rest just being fringe.  Once they do their latest media fan boys will be the first to fall. A lot of what it seems is sadism on National television is really masochism, diligently preparing the guillotine for themselves.  If you create an environment where a “Fatwa” is all you need to have the rival eliminated, and you are not the fatwa granting authority yourself, well, you are not awfully smart then, are you? What Mr. Imran Khan and Ch. Nisar Ali Khan do not understand that electoral reforms and cabinet positions will be redundant in the Khilafat. The Emirate will not tolerate Mubasher Lucmans on the airwaves (Actually, very, very hard to tolerate even before the Emirate). To make hate and terror mainstream does not work, particularly for the wannabes, be it wannabe Taliban politicians (Taliban Khans) or wannabe hysterical television anchors (Lucmans As the Amir, Mr Fazaullah has demonstrated given the opportunity “our estranged brothers” can run media enterprises of their own. The non-State actors are having a festival. The last line of defense is the most visible now. From Prime time television to outside press clubs. One perhaps needs to re-think the label “non-State”. The defense day parades in the years gone by were a visible manifestation of the State. Now they are conducted by the Difa-I-Pakistan under the dynamic leadership of Mr. Hafiz Saeed. If the mighty guardians of our State have publicly come to this, then the end perhaps is nearer than we had imagined. The history of temporary alliances in this country is long and wretched. Today, the ASWJ, Sunni Ittehad Council and the Shia organizations being united in the “great cause” of eliminating a television channel. They have all united before a few times. One was the second amendment (Side note: one not newsworthy report was that an Ahmadi charged with blasphemy was murdered in police custody yesterday, do not let it dampen the Nationalistic fervor though). Islands of hatred and persecutions do not work. Some of them know it all too well, right now. Yet, for the “greater good” they again stand united today. Not for long, some of them will fall. By becoming allies they lend credibility to the voices which have called for their murder before, and will do it again once the honeymoon is over. Good news: at this rate, unprincipled alliances and appeasement will be over soon. Nobody left to be appeased, or to appease, just one happy pious group. The inquisition will be televised. Ladies and Gentlemen, hold on tight, this how all of it unravels.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Why Geo or any other TV channel should not be blocked

A very dangerous precedent will have been set if Pakistan's electronic media regulator, PEMRA, decides to switch off Geo TV -- arguably the country's most popular news channel -- following a complaint by the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) accusing Geo of being "anti-Pakistan". The complaint also follows a serious allegation levelled by prominent Geo anchor and talk show host Hamid Mir's brother (following an attack on Mir) that the ISI was behind the attempt. Since the attack, which took place on April 19, Hamid Mir has made a statement in which he has said that he was approached by intelligence officers who had told him that he was on a "hit-list". His statement did not specify whose hit-list this was but in a country like Pakistan this should be cause for enough alarm for the journalist in question. If one recalls, journalist Saleem Shehzad, who was killed in 2011, had also reported receiving similar information from intelligence operatives some months before he died. As a TV channel, Geo erred in running the allegations -- which are no doubt serious -- for much of the day that Hamid Mir's attack took place. It should be faulted for that and it should apologize for going overboard. Perhaps, part of the reason it did that is because for some time now it has no professional journalist heading it, after managing director Azhar Abbas left for the upcoming Bol TV project last year. Still, that should be no excuse because the viewers of a TV channel, or the readers of a newspaper, do not -- and are not expected to -- know the inner workings of the media organization whose product they consume. That said, the complaint filed by the Ministry of Defence -- which reports suggest was strongly resisted by the civilian authorities of the ministry (read the Defence Minister) -- sets a dangerous precedent because perhaps for the first time in Pakistan the military is filing a formal application for a TV channel to be shut down. The best way forward would be for the Government of Pakistan to withdraw this application. Geo TV should tender an unqualified apology for broadcasting the allegation for several hours on April 19 and if anyone has any evidence or apprehensions about the role of any state agency or institution these should be shared with the judicial commission announced by the Prime Minister or with the law-enforcement agencies investigating the attack. Perhaps, equally importantly, if not more, the media should see this as an attack on all of itself and not on a single anchor or TV channel. Those who own and operate the channels need to unite because they are all facing the same kind of threats and those carrying out such attacks are in fact only strengthened when media organizations fight out their differences in full public view. If there are any issues between them -- and they clearly seem to be -- they should be discussed within the APNS (All Pakistan Newspapers Society) or PBA (Pakistan Broadcasters' Association) platforms and sorted out because after all, it is in their common interest for this infighting to end. In all of this, it should not be forgotten that there should be no holy cows in Pakistan. Of course, it goes without saying that in reality there are but ideally there shouldn't be any, and that includes the media itself. Pakistan, more than ever, needs an open and unfettered media because that is one of the key facilitators of a true democracy and it unequivocally promotes greater accountability and transparency among various institutions of the state. That is undoubtedly a good thing given that the role of the intelligence agencies has been widely questioned -- often in the Pakisani media -- on issues related to the presence of OBL in Pakistan, the ongoing fight with militancy, the rise of jihadis and sectarian organizations and missing persons. After all it is the much-maligned media of the country that has unmasked state and non-state corruption and acted as an effective watchdog on the abuse of state power in Pakistan. That is precisely why Geo TV, or any other TV channel or newspaper for that matter, should not be blocked.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Falling one at a time -- By Saroop Ijaz

We have for some time lost the ability to prevent murderous attacks, particularly on the courageous. However, now we are fast losing the capacity to even adequately condemn them. It is no longer apathy. It is vile bile directed at the victim. To survive is an offense, unpatriotic. Hamid Mir was shot multiple times and battles for his life. Yet, the grievance of “defense and other analysts” seemed, why he was not shot in the head, if it was a real attack. Who can argue with this cruel, foolish insensitivity? It was not only sadism; it was very acute masochism coming from quite a cross-section of the Media. Issue based differences aside, the courage and candor of Hamid Mir is beyond any doubt, and one sincerely prays for his wellbeing. The line of reasoning goes somewhat like this, the often frothing in the mouth defense analyst begins with: the ISI did not do it and so stop the lying, treasonous, RAW centered propaganda. Following it up with, had ISI done it, Mr. Mir would not have been alive, since the boys don’t miss. Then somewhat defensively implying, even, on the off chance that the ISI did it, do not hurt “National Interest” by saying it publicly. Finally making a comeback by implying Mr. Mir had it coming. We have heard this pattern of thought in different permutations before. We do not know who did it, and yes, it can be one of any number of actors and a conclusive determination can only be made after investigation. The problem with responding to tragedy in Pakistan has become that we oscillate between incredible understatement and incredible overstatement. Now, that the Judicial Commission is being formed, mud-slinging should cease. However, the attack on Hamid Mir brought to light the fundamental confusion that plagues us, and indeed the platitudes that come with it. For example, “National interest” should be paramount. “National Institutions” should not be attacked or maligned. Banal and stressing the obvious a bit too much. The problem lies in definition. It seems the only things “National” and “Institutional” are those related to the Army. Those who are dealing in these clich├ęs had no qualms in recently branding the Presidency to be conspiring against the country or even now implying that the Prime Minister might not be complete sincere (Presidency and the Parliament not “National” enough or not sufficiently “Institutional”?). While, judgment needs to be deferred till investigation is complete. Yet, it is time for introspection for the Army and the ISI. The allegation against the premium institution did not seem as ridiculous, as it ideally should have. Journalists have been picked up in the past, and this is not conjecture. Saleem Shahzad has died in “mysterious” circumstances. Elections have been fixed in the past and people go “missing” in Baluchistan. These are facts on record. This does not mean that we reach any conclusion, and take the Taliban’s word on denying the attack. It does mean that the ISI has image building to do (not hollow marketing spins, Zaid Hamids and Mubasher Luqmans), serious confidence building. In these times, the wish to be immune from criticism will not only invite more, it will also be counterproductive. Open yourself to free and fair investigation and regain the trust that “We” the people so sincerely want to repose in you. Hamid Mir attack’s aftermath also saw a simmering schism reach the boiling point and become extremely public, pronounced among the Pakistani power elite; Big Media versus Patriotic “National” Institutions (lest we forget how the ISPR’s version was the only version in the Kerry-Luger Bill and Memo days); the pro-Jihad nationalist versus the pro-Army nationalist (both hating democratic process and actors though). Most dispiritingly: Big Media versus Big Media (insensitive and masochistic at the same time, since journalists from most of the Media houses have been attacked by different actors at one point of time or the other). All of these competing actors have previously been aligned. One could almost see signs of implosion in the Pakistan establishment. Maybe, however the powerful have magical ways of making between themselves. And this makes the case of the ordinary journalist being more loyal to the crown all the sadder. The Media tycoon, the General and the Maulana are for the moment all competing for monopoly over defining “National Interest” and it is a mess. Yet they can effortlessly make up at any time, leaving the apologist look bad, and worse on his/her own. The need for unity arises for the professional journalists and indeed all conscientious citizens. Hamid Mir is nearly as big as it gets and if you downplay the gravity of the attack, you sirs are making all of yours and ours houses unsafe. The tycoons and generals thrive on chaos as it is good for business; the courageous journalist in the trenches does not. The mighty perpetrators of violence and their apologists come in different brands. However, their inarticulateness owing largely to being bereft of facts is a common thread. That makes them despise the vocal and the eloquent. Watching the apologia and idiocy on television after the attack on the eloquent and vocal Mir, one is reminded of the words of W.H. Auden from “August 1968”, “The Ogre does what ogres can, Deeds quite impossible for Man, But one prize is beyond his reach, The Ogre cannot master Speech. About a subjugated plain, Among its desperate and slain, The Ogre stalks with hands on hips, While drivel gushes from his lips.” The speculations and allegations need to end. The demand should be singular and made in unison; the investigation needs to be done comprehensively, fairly, swiftly and the findings made public. Another report similar to Saleem Shahzad commission stopping short of saying really anything should be unacceptable. The futility of asking for “investigation” is not lost on one; however we have to ask for it, if for nothing else then to display that while we may have lost the hope of getting justice, we have not lost the desire for it.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Pink Flamingos on Mai Kolachi

Pink flamingos on Mai Kolachi These days if you drive on Mai Kolachi expressway towards Queens Road, you can see something quite unusually pleasant as you look to your left. No, it’s not the grey silhouettes of the cranes at Karachi port but something else, and quite unexpected. As you cross the train tracks you see and get on to the bypass proper, keep driving till you go past the land being reclaimed, rather controversially, by the Karachi Port Trust, on your left. A bit beyond that is a stretch of shallow water, probably caused by the mangroves on the other side or by the tide. Here, every day I have been seeing the rather unexpected but very welcome sight of a large flock of pink flamingos in the water. In fact, each time I drive on this road, my head rather automatically — and rather dangerously — swings towards their general direction. I have seen them fly a few times and the sight is quite amazing because the pink in their feathers is sharp and striking. The only problem is that they are a bit further away from the road, so if you really want to get a closer look at them you will have to park your car on the side and walk as close to the shallow water as possible — hopefully without scaring them away. Since I hardly know much about these birds myself except that they look really pretty and exotic, and apparently fly all the way here from Russia, I decided to do some research on the matter for the benefit of readers. And quite a few interesting things turned up including the fact that Pakistan along with India is one of the major places where pink flamingos can be found every summer. The National Geographic website said that flamingos build nests out of clay and make them above the water. They feed while standing in shallow water and for this they have to lower their necks and tilt their heads so that their bills hang upside-down and face backward in the water. They apparently do this because this allows them to filter plankton, red and blue-green algae, insects, fish, molluscs, and small crustaceans from the water. The reason flamingos are pink has to do with the red and blue-green algae and insects they eat. These are high in certain pigments that cause the colour of the birds to become striking pink. The birds do come all the way from Siberia in Russia’s far east and because of the war in Afghanistan they, like many other birds, have changed their migratory routes and now fly via Iran. The mangroves in and around Karachi and the Indus delta basin are one of the prime places in the world for these incredible creatures. In fact, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, over 80 species of birds flock to the mangroves every year, so it is quite unfortunate that these wetlands are constantly under threat from various government agencies. — By Karachian