Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The Lifafas

Some years ago I came across an article about Najam Sethi & GEO, before the two were together. The article narrates the story of a visit to the US by GEO TV CEO Mir Ibrahim Rehman. Mr Rehman graced with his presence a reception thrown by US AfPak ambassador Richard Holbrooke's media assistant Ashley Bommer. This was a time of strained relations between the US administration & GEO because of the latter’s aggressive nationalist, “anti-american” rhetoric. The purpose of his visit apparently was to assure the US that his channel was changing tact soon, and that the allegedly millions of US tax dollars it receives for airing American propaganda show “Voice Of America” need not be stopped. Accompanying Mr Rehman was Najam Sethi. 

Not much later, Najam Sethi joined GEO & started his show “Apas Ki Baat” on a pretty neat time slot. Everyone will have their own interpretation about whether that’s a step in more or less “anti-american”-ness.

Some critics have pointed out that there seems to be a peculiar trend in the Pakistani media. Neutral journalists that are hounded through accusations of bias by rabid social media “trolls”, often end up with cushy jobs. The jobs then often turn out to be provided by people they are, unfairly, accused of being favourably biased towards.

The latest incidence in this unsubstantiated fabrication untruth thing is appointment as ambassador of one Mr Kamran Shafi. To that harsh, unforgiving, wasteland; Cuba. Yet Shafi and friends have not made a big deal of the tough task he has been handed. Perhaps because earlier when uncle Micky almost got the UK job, ungentlemanly conduct ensued on social media. In case you are wondering why, it is because of Mr Shafi’s, entirely unwarranted, reputation as an attack dog of the PMLN.

Mr Shafi is expected to guide Raul Castro on intricacies of misogyny against political opponents.

Individual frailties, if a frailty at all right? Recall that during Dharna days last year, an attempt by the protestors to move from in front of the Parliament to in front of the PM House resulted in a crackdown by the police. Killed a few, injured a few hundred. The PMLN back then paid 450 million to private media, from the public exchequer, to promote their ads terming the episode an attack on parliament. As luck would have it, many journalists working for the channels paid started to propagate exactly what the PMLN were saying.

VC PHA & Geo journalist Iftikhar Ahmed gives his professional, unbiased & independent opinion on flowers to not his boss' son.

The point of these examples is to see things on three different levels so as to be sure before drawing any conclusions. That individual journalists, single news channels, and larger media all appear to bend their rhetoric to suit apparent benefactors is, surely, without a doubt, positively; an accident. 

It’s what you may call a fluke, a glitch, stroke of luck, chance, freak of nature, unlucky break, random occurrence, an anomaly, an inconsistency, an irregularity, or an abnormality. Etc. Point is; it’s not indicative of anything. These things happen.

“There are accidents”, said grand master Oogway.

That Najam Sethi is hired after he and GEO management assure the US of going soft on them is an accident. That Kamran Shafi gets the cushy post he’s been hankering after for years whilst attacking PMLN’s political opponents is an accident. That 450 million paid to the media coincided with journalists using exact terms as analysis as those advertised by PMLN is, no prizes for guessing; an accident. 

"O ballay ballay phir PCB chairman bana dya Mian sahab ne"

Here is a partial list of accidents one can recall that happened to journalists or people in the media who in turn happened to be parroting the stance of those in power.

Murtaza Solangi (Radio Pakistan)

Najam Sethi (GEO)

Irfan Siddiqui (Advisor)

Najam Sethi (Caretaker 90s)

Mubasher Luqman (Caretaker)

Najam Sethi (Caretaker 2013)

Iftikhar Ahmed (Vice Chairman PHA)

Najam Sethi (PCB Caretaker)

Arif Nizami (Caretaker)

Najam Sethi (PCB suspending constitution)

Muhammad Malick (MD PTV)

Najam Sethi (PCB Board)

Kamran Shafi (Ambassador Cuba)

Hussain Haqqani (Ambassador USA)

Ata-ul-Haq Qasmi (Chairman Alhamra Arts Council)

Note: Marxist rebel turned US real estate investors are more prone to accidents than others.

"Nazareen ab contractually mandated 5 minute me Murtaza ko bolnay du ga kyun ke channel PPP ka hai"

Of course these are bigger names whose misfortunes have been of a public nature. Accidents are happening daily. In areas such as gov housing allotments to journalists, plots, business to advertising companies, or media consultancies run by journos or spouses or relatives.

If you go through the names above the preceding lines, and the ones in between them, you will surely realize that most, if not all, of these gents have had it with their motives being questioned. They have all faced the virulent harassment by trolls who think, unreasonably, that they sell their speech for various incentives. That harassment must stop. They are the victims here.

I know it’s a small step, but I hope this write-up has clarified a number of misconceptions that pollute social media & trolls will now realize how wrong they have been to question our paragons of virtue, truth, neutrality & weird hairdos. So the next time you see them or their friends having an indignant rant on TV about allegations of bias, or sharing a joke on social media about non-payment of bribes, have a heart and give them a hug. They need our support, for they get no Lifafay.

P.S: Wishing Mr Shafi a jolly good time & deep statesmanship in Cuba.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Balochistan(Part 3): The Politics of HR

In the aftermath of Sabeen Mahmud’s murder, actually right after the cancellation of the LUMS talk, a large number of people voiced anger against those trying to highlight state abuses in Balochistan. Mama Qadeer especially came under fire, but many people vocal about the issue were also accused of being traitorous, or at least of lacking patriotism, or colluding with separatists or, well, you get the idea.

The group under fire have expressed shock over the reaction they have faced. All they are trying to do is highlight basic, basic, human rights violations; human life itself. Human life, in theory, should be the foremost concern of every decent person, even in an indecent society.

In Pakistan however, that is perhaps too much to ask for.

As mentioned in part 2, an overlooked aspect of the Balochistan issue is that tactics employed by Baloch insurgents are similar to those that are used by TTP in FATA and KP. Another overlooked aspect is that the state’s security apparatus has also employed similarly abusive tactics in KP/FATA to deal with them.

The displacement of a population, like that of parts of the Bugti tribe, has been witnessed in South Waziristan. Also witnessed is distrust of the populace and delayed rehabilitation. The raising/backing of pro-government militias to fight the insurgents, as alleged to take place in Balochistan, is another common occurrence in the long fight against the Taliban.

There’s more. Amnesty International’s report in 2012, “The Hands Of Cruelty”, details some of the other abuses committed by the Pakistani forces in the tribal areas. These include abductions, torture, deaths in custody and dumping of bodies. They also include “enforced disappearances”, again, like the ones that have brought Balochistan into the limelight. If anything, the intensity seems to be greater, with the report noting 2000 court cases filed by 2012, compared to only 135 by 2015 for Balochistan.

In addition, the people in FATA and parts of KP face intensive artillery & aerial bombing campaigns in populated areas, villages and towns etc. These forced millions to move and caused unprecedented damage to property and, one would imagine, to life. “Imagine” because even though there are recorded instances of gunship helicopters firing indiscriminately, and mowing down everyone, in crowded main bazars, no figures of civilian deaths have been compiled by any organization whatsoever.

This is because their lives, or deaths, are not relevant to politics of any organization. Or any group. In fact, highlighting the above mentioned tragedies is considered, by most of us, as detrimental to the greater good.

Consider that, according to Wikileaks, Asma Jehangir & HRCP, when investigating HR violations in the wake of the Swat operation, actually covered up the military’s abuses. The rights body, that has been vocal on Balochistan, did so in order to “avoid arming the militants' propaganda machine”

Is it a secret that the establishment doesn’t want its abuses in Balochistan to be highlighted for the same reason HRCP covered them up in Swat? What happens when someone is intent on highlighting abuses another group would rather have swept under the carpet?

Let’s take the example of drone strikes. Not only a violation of international law, but also the purest, most arbitrary form of extrajudicial killings we have seen in the last decade.

Unlike in the case of missing persons, there are no arrests, no interrogations, no one is released. Drone attacks have killed roughly the same number of children as the number of enforced disappearances the HRCP could confirm in Balochistan.

Yet many that are appalled by the atrocities elsewhere have cheered them on. They have mocked protests against drone strikes with religious fervour and admonished the protesters as informers or supporters of TTP.

Is that at all different from what happened last month? The efforts to hide the truth about military brutality. The vitriol against those who protest. Only the roles have changed.

The same people who are willing to overlook abuses & attack dissenters in one conflict, for the greater good, can be at the other end of vitriol for highlighting abuses in another theatre. For the greater good.

This is the sad reality of discourse in our country. Around the world, peoples’ politics decide the HR causes they get behind. In Pakistan, our politics decide the HR abuses we get behind. 

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Balochistan(Part 2) : A Disfigured Insurgency

The attack by Baloch separatists on labourers in Turbat last month was a timely reminder that there is more to Balochistan than the state’s high-handedness. The atrocities of the armed forces reviewed in the preceding blog-post take place in, and are part of, a two way conflict.

Mama Qadeer’s son, Jalil Reiki, was the information secretary of the Balochistan Republican Party, headed by Brahamdagh Bugti. Brahamdagh is also believed to control the Balochistan Republican Army and, alongside Harbiyar Marri & Allah Nazar Baloch, credited with leading the insurgency in Balochistan. All 3 are designated as terrorists by Pakistan.

The insurgency, which has often been romanticised because of the neglect of Baloch demands & general deprivation in the province, has sadly become increasingly problematic. To the extent that it displays a host of defining features of terrorism.

Take for instance the practice of killing settlers.

“I do not want to justify the acts of Baloch fighters but they say they only attacks spies and collaborators,” said Mir Muhammad Ali Talpur about the issue, a veteran supporter of the Baloch cause and another invitee of the cancelled LUMS talk.

History however suggests the “spies & collaborators” line to be an excuse for a terrorist operation. The TTP, for example, killed scores of alleged informants and tribal elders it saw supporting the Pakistani government in FATA.

Also, it’s not really true. As one former BSO-Azad member, now affiliated with the “independence movement”, explained, the separatists want all settlers gone. Actions speak even louder, and the tale they tell is clearly one of ethnic cleansing.

The attack that killed 20 labourers, settlers, recently was not an anomaly. Innocent settlers have been killed regularly for not being Baloch, including women. Baloch Nationalist leader Hasil Bizenjo puts the number of settlers killed by insurgents equal to his estimate of the number of missing persons; 2000. The Balochistan Punjabi Ittehad put it at 1,200 back in 2011.

The HRCP’s Balochistan head put the number at 1000 Punjabi settlers killed by last year. In addition they have been threatened and hounded out of Balochistan on a very large scale, 90,000 from Quetta city alone, leaving livelihoods and property behind. Having been all but driven out of the Baloch majority areas by now, only a few survive in Pakhtun dominated areas, or working under the watch of the security forces.

Like the labourers that were murdered earlier in April, who, to the surprise of many, included one's from Sindh. But those following Balochistan closely know that even Hindko speakers & Urdu speaking settlers have been a target for some time now.

The insurgents also go after other Baloch, “informants” obviously, but people seen as pro-Pakistan, even anyone going to contest in or cast votes for an election is threatened. It is often remarked that the Pakistani national anthem isn’t heard in schools there. Muzaffar Jamali, a principal of one such school, was attacked by the insurgents and his 10 year old son was killed in 2012, for allowing the singing of said national anthem.

This wasn’t a one off incident either. Schools, just like the TTP, and teachers in particular, have been the targets of insurgents all along. HRW’s report “Their Future At Stake” recorded killings of 22 teachers  by 2010. Attacks on schools were so rampant that government schools opened for only 120 days of the year.

Lastly, journalists in Balochistan are also threatened by the Baloch insurgents for favourable coverage, and killed when necessary. All security forces personnel & state employees are the more legitimate targets, including of kidnapping and execution style attacks.

The kidnapping & execution of security personnel is, as was the case with targeting schools, alleged informants or supporters of government, opposing figures and relative minority groups, a trait the Baloch insurgency shares with the TTP.

The insurgency is divided into factions that clearly don’t see eye to eye, and their quarrels have manifested in attacks on, and killings of, each other’s militants. Despite appeals for the militants to work together against the state, by Mr Talpur for instance, the divisions have not gone away.

Perhaps this can be explained by the different backgrounds of the people who have taken up the armed struggle. Hrybiar Marri is carrying on the long fight by the Marri tribal leaders against the state of Pakistan. Allah Nazar started as a political activist from the BSO, not a tribal sardar, and became increasingly more radicalized with time. Brahamdagh and his grandfather meanwhile had always stayed away from siding with separatists until Gen Musharaf encroached on late Akbar Bugti’s authority in Dera Bugti.

Whatever the case, these divisions add to an already weak insurgency. The military has outsourced the insurgent problem to the FC, a force designated for, and simultaneously undertaking, the manning the border. One which does not have significant military grade firepower. Yet, as Mr Bizenjo noted, the insurgents can’t defeat them.

What they can do is become a liability for those sympathetic to the Baloch cause with their many terrorist operations. 

Part 3 to follow..

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Balochistan: Nature & Extent of State's Abuses

Sabeen Mahmud, described as a peace activist and founder of The Second Floor (T2F), was shot dead on Friday after hosting a talk on Balochistan. Her guests included the now infamous Mama Qadeer, who was also the most prominent invitee at an earlier talk in LUMS. That talk was cancelled after intervention by the state, or the ISI.

The subject she highlighted right before her death, and the manner of it, suggests unusual bravery. It also puts an onus on the rest of us to discuss it more. Obviously Balochistan is too complex an issue to encompass in its entirety, especially for outsiders. We can though look at the information publicly available about the missing persons, as well as the insurgency, to at least draw some basic conclusions. 

Mama Qadeer’s story is well known by now. His son, Jalil Reiki, was “disappeared” by state agencies and found dead 3 years later. One has to note that, appallingly, Mama Qadeer’s story is not unique. People in Balochistan - activists and those suspected of working with/being separatists - have been subjected to extra-judicial killings and disappearances for the better part of the last decade.

The number of such cases however is a contested issue, with a huge gulf between the claims by Baloch activists, HR bodies and the statistics of the govt. Mama Qadeer’s VBMP has always claimed the highest toll, which, according to the organisation, has climbed dramatically in the last 5 years.

Baloch Activists: 

In 2011 it was claimed by the organization that 8000 people had gone missing in Balochistan and 200 dead bodies had been found. However, they had complete data about 1,300. (In 2013, a US State Dept. Report noted that the VBMP had listed information on 2,627 missing persons.)

By 2012 VBMP’s claim of missing people had gone up to 14,385 and 400 dead bodies, an increase of more than 6,000 in one year. By the time of Mama Qadeer’s long march, VBMP had revised their figures to 18,000 and last month, April 2015, they increased it further to 21,000 missing, & another 6,000 dead

It is not clear what is the number they have actual data on at this moment. The International Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, an apparently separate organization working for the same cause, has provided names and general areas of residence for the people who have gone missing from Balochistan on its website. Their database has names of around 600 missing people

The Baloch Republican Party lists around 70 missing persons. Jalil Reiki, Mama Qadeer's son, belonged to the BRP. The oldest victim listed is from 2009, so the data is probably partial. 

State's Figures:

In terms of official bodies, the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances (CIED) informed the Supreme Court that 982 missing persons had been traced in the last 4 years. According to CIED’s report 1,273 cases of enforced disappearances are still unresolved, with only 122 of them belonging to Balochistan.

The Balochistan Assembly was informed recently that 135 cases of missing persons are in court, while 80 had already been traced.

HR Bodies:

Defence of Human Rights, an NGO that traces missing people and has relatives of missing people included in its ranks, puts the number at 5,149. However their figure is of missing persons in the whole country, not just Balochistan.

HRCP have been vocal about the issue of Baloch missing persons, and HRCP’s IA Rehman was among the invitees of the cancelled LUMS talk. Two activists associated with HRCP are also among the extra-judicially killed in Balochistan.

The HRCP in its 2012 fact finding mission titled “Hopes Fears and Alienation in Balochistan” confirmed 198 cases of missing people in Balochistan. These include those released and those still missing, and there is some overlap with those whose dead bodies had already turned up. A full list with each victim’s name & status is provided at the end.

The word “overlap” is used because sometimes the bodies that turn up are not accounted for in the missing persons. For example, the report gives a breakdown of the disappearances in the Makran area. 148 cases of disappearances had come to the attention of HRCP since 2004, 103 of them had been released. However, 60 dead bodies had also turned up.

Perhaps these can be accounted for if we include the work of alleged “death squads”. In addition to the disappearances phenomenon, activists blame state agencies for raising and/or empowering “death squads”. Comprised of religious outfit cadres or pro-establishment Baloch Sardars, in some cases the two working in tandem, these are armed elements that seek out & kill dissident or separatist elements.


Coming back to the actual number of missing persons in Balochistan, it can be observed that government figures, plus those of rights bodies, IVBMP and the inquiry commission all hover well below the 1,000 mark. The number claimed by VBMP, i.e. 21000, is not backed by most other resources available on the matter, not even by the documentation they apparently possess.

Similarly, the VBMP claim of 6000 dead is a significant climb from their earlier figures. It also offers significant contrast when put beside other sources. For example, Balochistan assembly was informed that in the last 5 years 612 dead bodies had been found in the province, 373 of them Baloch.

The IVBMP’s database on extra-judicial killings of the Baloch consists of around 210 names. Baloch Republican Party has names of around 100

According to data compiled by SATP, 153 dumbed bodies were recovered from Balochistan in 2014. This was much higher than the average because of discovery of 3 mass graves. The 2013 number for bodies found is 39.

It is not unlikely that a relatives of many missing people do not come forward, or those who have been released after being held & tortured don’t speak out, for fear of renewing their ordeal. It is though unlikely that such cases can account for a difference of around 20,000 missing persons, and 5000 dead.

P.S: There are undeniably thousands of displaced Baloch, largely from Dera Bugti. They fled fighting when the army & Akbar Bugti faced off, or have been expelled because the security forces believe them to be loyal to the late Nawab & responsible for sabotaging activities.

Part-2 to follow.