Dawn Editorial 18 October 2019

University scandal

THE sexual harassment and blackmailing scandal that has erupted at the University of Balochistan may well have jeopardised the education of thousands of young women in the province. The fact that the privacy and safety of students at a well-regarded institution is being taken so lightly by the varsity administration raises concerns about the credibility of other universities in the country as well.
If the Balochistan government was trying to advance the cause of women’s education in the province before, it has an even greater responsibility to do so now. If it does not investigate the scandal in a transparent manner and award exemplary punishment to the perpetrators, irrespective of their clout, many parents will stop their daughters from opting for higher studies. Besides it will give conservative tribal and political forces an excuse to buttress their efforts to suppress women’s education.
As per the details, students were being filmed by secret cameras installed in washrooms and smoking areas inside the campus. According to FIA officials, the videos recorded were of a ‘personal nature’ and involved the mingling of male and female students.
So far, the FIA has been able to trace 12 videos that were used to blackmail and harass female students. Statements by various students’ organisations seem to confirm claims that such harassment had been going on for quite some time on campus.
An atmosphere of fear and anger justifiably prevails, with students calling for the vice chancellor to resign. It is a matter of shame that the university ignored the students’ complaints and they had to approach the Balochistan High Court that took suo motu notice.
Though the scandal also echoed in the Balochistan Assembly, which has constituted a 10-member inquiry committee of its own, it remains to be seen what actionable evidence the FIA will come up with that it has not already found in its month-long investigation. It is expected to submit its report to the court by Oct 28.
These disturbing developments have affected both male and female students, but it is obvious that it is the latter who will feel the effects the most. Balochistan is regarded as the least developed of the provinces, and national and international statistics bear this out. The female literacy rate in the province is 33.5pc as compared to 52pc for the rest of the country, according to the Pakistan Economic Survey of 2018-19.
In fact, there are quite a few districts in Balochistan, such as Dera Bugti, Sherani and Qilla Abdullah, where the female literacy rate has persistently remained below 10pc. Coupled with conservative tribal attitudes, the scandal may put greater distance between women students and their dreams.
The authorities must take immediate action to punish the perpetrators, reassure families that this kind of incident will never occur again, and provide counselling services to all those who have gone through the trauma.




Media blackout

FOR a change, media censorship has been called out in real time on television. On Wednesday, a press briefing by Maulana Fazlur Rehman was being shown live on Geo when the news anchor interjected to say that the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority had ordered there be no live telecast of the event. The channel would therefore, she said, be unable to continue with the broadcast. At least this time viewers were privy to who had ordered this brazen violation of the people’s right to information. More often, broadcasts in today’s Pakistan are arbitrarily suspended in a manner better suited to repressive regimes where ‘autonomous’ regulatory authorities are in reality a handmaiden of the state. Pemra has no authority to order the instant blackout of any transmission. The legislation under which it functions stipulates, in a nutshell, that it must issue a show-cause notice to the offending television channel and then, if the regulatory authority’s Council of Complaints so recommends, proceed to sanction it appropriately.
Instead, there have been several recent instances where opposition politicians’ interviews and press conferences — perfectly legitimate in any democracy — have been unilaterally suspended mid-broadcast; these include former president Asif Zardari, Maryam Nawaz, and now the JUI-F chief who is gearing up for the ‘Azadi March’. In July, Pemra issued notices to 21 channels for airing a press conference by Ms Nawaz; a day later, three channels were forced off air. In fact, even Pemra was caught off-guard when Mr Zardari’s interview was stopped just a few minutes in — which, of course, begs the question who ordered the channel to take it off air. The government itself after a few days came out with half-baked reasons for why the regulatory authority should not have allowed the event to go ahead. Certainly, hate speech and defamatory statements should not be given space, and TV channels must ensure time delay mechanisms are in place to prevent such an occurrence. On its part, however, a more mature approach is to be expected from the government, particularly a PTI government. The party milked the benefits of the much more tolerant media climate that prevailed in the country during its four-month-long dharna in 2014. The sit-in — complete with the no-holds-barred diatribes that were issued from atop a container — got wall-to-wall coverage. The party must not be so squeamish when it is on the receiving end of what is part and parcel of a democracy.



Doctors’ protest

PROTESTS by doctors are endemic in parts of Pakistan. A new generation of young doctors takes over from the previous one; thousands are replaced by thousands of others. Governments come and go, and there are many changes. But the doctors continue to chant at the top of their voices as they did many years ago. Both in KP and Punjab, the cause of the protest are new laws. The KP doctors oppose a new ordinance that deprives them of key executive posts in local-level hospitals. In Punjab, the unrest is the result of the Punjab Medical Teaching Institutions Act, 2019. The protest has been organised by the Grand Health Alliance (GHA) which includes the Young Doctors Association and enjoys more than just the tacit support of senior doctors. The new law seeks to free public-sector hospitals in the province from government control. The doctors are objecting to the new terms, saying they would no more be government servants; instead, they would be beholden to independent boards of governors. The authorities claim they have accepted certain amendments to the act, but that has not had a placating effect.
It was the Shahbaz Sharif government that conceded the most important of the doctors’ demands amid much celebration. The victory in Punjab was hailed as heralding improvement in the job situation for doctors all over the country. But it didn’t quite succeed in ending the doctors’ street shows. There has been a change in perception since then. In Punjab and KP, or anywhere else in the country for that matter, doctors must adjust to certain realities that there is no escape from. As the new model of an autonomous hospital emerges on the horizon, the real cause for concern is not what it will offer to the doctors — who would be justified in asking for fair rewards for their skills, knowledge and time. The real worry is what these autonomous facilities will offer to the millions of patients who are so dependent on public-sector hospitals for treatment.






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