Dawn Editorial 21 January 2021

  • Rising food prices

FOOD inflation continues to challenge the resolve of the government to control the prices of essential kitchen items as much as it does the patience of millions of lower-middle-income households across the country. In the last two years, food prices have increased by an aggregate of more than a third, forcing most families to cut down on their daily caloric intake. Others have been compelled to reduce their essential expenditure on education and health so that they can put food on the table. Barring its frequent claims of moving the administrative machinery against hoarders, the government has mostly stood on the side as a helpless bystander. A report in this newspaper on Wednesday lays bare the government’s claims of having brought food inflation down. The prices of sugar and staple wheat flour have risen again significantly in spite of the availability of sufficient stocks of the two commodities. Similarly, pulses, edible oil and other items are also showing a rising price trend. Traders blame speculators — or middlemen — and increasing global commodity prices for the return of this drift. Even the threat of more sugar imports and wheat seems to have failed to deter the speculators from manipulating the market. Though the government formed a committee earlier this month to take action against hoarders, nothing substantive has been done so far to provide relief to the citizens.
These have been very difficult times for the majority of the population because of the devastating impact of Covid-19 on an economy that was already struggling. A large number of people employed in the informal sectors have lost their jobs as businesses struggle to cope with the effects of the health crisis. Others have had to bear heavy cuts in their wages. The rising food prices in these circumstances have underscored the government’s inability to do its job properly and protect citizens from profiteers and market manipulators. It is time the government stopped making hollow claims and started doing its job.



Agosta kickbacks trial

A POLITICALLY significant trial opened in Paris yesterday. Former French prime minister Edouard Balladur is in the dock on charges that he used ‘retro commissions’ from arms deals to fund his presidential bid in 1995. Along with his then defence minister, Mr Balladur was charged in 2017 with “complicity in the misuse of corporate assets” over the sale of frigates to Saudi Arabia and the Agosta submarines to Pakistan.
The suicide bombing on May 8, 2002, outside the Sheraton hotel in Karachi that killed 13 French naval engineers visiting Pakistan to assist in building the submarines was a seminal moment in the saga. It turned what was until then a tale of financial wrongdoing into one about a possible act of revenge. Initially, coming as it did less than a year after 9/11 and only a few months following Daniel Pearl’s horrific murder in Karachi, the attack seemed most likely to have been perpetrated by religious extremists.
Soon however, French investigators began to focus on the possibility that the attack was engineered by elements in Pakistan as reprisal after President Jacques Chirac suspended the commission payments when the practice was criminalised in 2000. (Although in the 1990s the giving of such ‘gifts’ was legal in France, ‘retro commissions’ — in which the money was re-routed back to France through money laundering — were always illegal.) What became known as ‘l’affaire Karachi’ implicated not only prominent French politicians but also some individuals in the Pakistani military and political elite.
The deal for the sale of three Agosta military submarines to Pakistan was worth around $1bn; of this, some $50m were set aside for kickbacks, of which $2m were found to be ‘retro commissions’. The point to note here is that although the investigators’ efforts were thwarted time and again by interested parties using their clout, they continued to painstakingly build their case over nearly a quarter of a century. In June last year, six people were convicted by a Paris court and sentenced to prison for their role in the scandal. Now it is the turn of the former premier and the ex-defence minister to face the music.
In Pakistan however, aside from former naval chief Mansurul Haq, who was forced into early retirement and later had to return some of his ill-gotten gains in a plea bargain with NAB, virtually no one has been held to account. Some other naval officials were also apprehended, but a likely cover-up by Gen Musharraf’s military government prevented all those culpable from being proceeded against. And they will probably go scot free — unless there is some advantage to be achieved in prosecuting them. Sadly, that is how accountability is in Pakistan, a handmaiden of political opportunism, something that can be twisted into whatever those in power want it to be.



Indian media scandal

IT is best if the fourth estate and the government maintain a healthy distance, because when members of the media get too close to the corridors of power, independent journalism suffers and the narrative of those in government can trump the truth.

The recent scandal involving ultra-hawkish Indian anchor Arnab Goswami is a case in point. Mr Goswami, not exactly known for subtlety, fairness and accuracy in reporting, has been accused of having advance knowledge of the Indian strike on Balakot in February 2019. The scandal erupted after purported WhatsApp messages between the anchor and the head of an under-investigation ratings company were made public.

In the messages, Mr Goswami appears to be telling the other party that “something major” would happen vis-à-vis Pakistan, going on to mention a “bigger than normal strike”. Of course, the strike did occur, and India was given a befitting reply for its adventurism by this country. However, the leak illustrates the dangerous nexus that exists between right-wing Indian media outlets and the Hindu chauvinist BJP that rules from New Delhi.

While ‘embedded’ journalism is not new and some media outlets in this country are also seen to be close to those who call the shots, the recent scandal in India reveals a far more dangerous reality. In the Goswami case, sensitive information was shared with a news outlet seemingly to help the BJP’s election prospects and boost the rightist media outlet’s ratings in the process. This is a dangerous game which, if not nipped in the bud, can have many negative consequences. The first casualty in such situations is of course the truth, while media outlets such as the one in the midst of the scandal end up radicalising the public through their non-stop jingoistic broadcasts.

Common sense, factual reporting and ethics are all chucked out the window in the maddening race for ratings, influence and power. Instead of promoting peace, such an unholy nexus between powerful media outlets and the state only serves to amplify the shrill cries for war in a volatile region. Saner media outlets and moderate political elements in India need to address this unhealthy trend before brinkmanship, fuelled by a pliant, cheerleading media, leads to a potential disaster in South Asia. Last time war was averted thanks largely due to Pakistan’s firm, mature response. However, such shenanigans should not be tried again simply for a few ratings points and votes on election day.

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