Dawn Editorial 5th September 2023

IHK media’s siege

THERE was a time when journalists in Indian-held Kashmir were the cynosure of Indian media — tenacious, reliable, courageous and resourceful with ear to the ground. Embassies in New Delhi had point persons to pick the brains of many of these intrepid news hounds working in a tricky place, among the world’s most heavily militarised zones. Many of the journalists are now in prison or facing trumped-up cases often with daily dire threats from state agencies. And the embassies have mostly turned their backs on the trauma. The situation has worsened manifold since the annexation of IHK by a parliamentary fiat in August 2019. Though the annexation is being questioned in India’s supreme court, the terror and normalisation of the insidious violence against the media goes mostly underreported.

Still, a recent BBC report ‘Any story could be your last’ described the crackdown on Kashmiri media in some detail. It cites several specific cases to describe a “sinister and systematic campaign to intimidate and silence the press” in IHK. The report has incensed the police, who say that the State Investigation Agency, the elite counter-militancy agency, “reserves the right to initiate further legal action” against the BBC for “misreporting facts in a case which is sub judice”. The BBC says it stands by the report. The specific case relates to the incarceration of Fahad Shah, a Srinagar-based journalist, for publishing a “seditious” article in his online media outlet, The Kashmir Walla. The Srinagar-based digital media house shut down last month after the government took down its website and social media accounts. The BBC report quotes seven journalists and one editor, all anonymously, who told the British media group that they felt “choked and suffocated” due to an atmosphere of “fear and intimidation.” The report on the eve of the G20 summit in India makes it particularly noteworthy, raising hopes that it won’t go as unnoticed as others did before it.

Published in Dawn, September 5th, 2023

Digging in

WITHIN what is a very narrow space these days, there seems to be some effort to renegotiate the PTI’s relationship with the state. A message was recently sent from Attock jail: Imran Khan is ready to talk, but only on elections. But who does Mr Khan think still wants to talk to him? The statement could have been a signal to other political parties, or it could have been a tentative ‘yes’ to someone making efforts to tape together the PTI and establishment’s long-torn ‘same page’. With the PTI, it is always difficult to tell. While a new political configuration seems like a tall order at this point in time, the latter possibility appears more likely. The party’s leaders have made no secret of their yearning for a soft corner in the hardened hearts of their once benefactors. They know, as well as anyone, that their predicament is unlikely to change till the PTI is ready to share its political capital with unelected quarters again.

The question, therefore, is: is there even a remote chance of a rapprochement in the current circumstances? The unyielding will of Mr Khan — a man notoriously difficult to reason with once he makes up his mind — has repeatedly come in the way of past efforts. The PTI chief, who seems to be in good health and spirits and in no mood to leave the country, according to his lawyers, also remains a thorn in the side of the establishment despite being confined to jail. Notwithstanding the brutal crackdown on his party post-May 9, the narrative crafted by the former prime minister continues to endure. With the state beginning to feel the enormity of public discontent as the cost of living soars to unbearable levels, it will soon realise, if it hasn’t already, that the current situation is untenable and brute force alone cannot solve the country’s problems. The problem is neither side has been willing to cede an inch. Clearly, Mr Khan needs to engage on more than just elections, especially if he hopes to take the country forward under his leadership. The other side must realise that it cannot continue to weaken the social fabric with heavy-handed interventions if it wishes to see Pakistan stronger. Both need to realise that the fortunes of more than 240m souls are at stake.

Published in Dawn, September 5th, 2023

GB unrest

AWAY from the glare of mainstream media, trouble has been brewing in Gilgit-Baltistan in recent weeks. Demonstrations and counter-protests have been held in the mountainous region, with key thoroughfares blocked and mobile internet shut, as sectarian hatreds have returned to cast a long shadow over the area.

According to reports, action was sought against a religious leader belonging to one school of thought, who had made a controversial statement last month.

After protests in Chilas and elsewhere, a case was registered against the said cleric. This led to protests in Skardu and other towns, while allegedly derogatory remarks were made by another cleric, resulting in the filing of a case against this individual.

Communal differences may only be a trigger for the protests, as there are several underlying factors in GB fuelling disaffection.

However, the state’s bulldozing of the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2023, through parliament has certainly breathed new life into sectarian discourses that were largely dormant.

GB may only be the first area where narrow communalism is being revived, thanks to this debatable legislation, and unless democratic forces and enlightened clerics speak up, the fire of hatred may spread, especially to those spots in the country where sectarian tensions are already high.

There are signs that matters are improving, as the region’s chief minister met both Shia and Sunni clerics, who have promised to maintain calm. The caretaker federal information minister has said the area is experiencing “peace and stability”, while adding that the military had been called in only to maintain peace during Chehlum.

Though GB has witnessed sporadic sectarian violence over the past several decades, matters, over the past few years, had been improving where inter-communal relations are concerned.

Therefore, the local administration, as well as clerics from both sects, need to support efforts for peace-building and shunning those who promote divisive agendas.

In particular, hate groups must not be allowed to spread their toxic views in an effort to fan communal flames. But beyond GB, unless the bill in question, specifically the amendments to the blasphemy law, is reconsidered, it will only add to extremism and widen fault lines in society.

As this paper has argued before, blasphemy cannot be condoned, and all religious figures should be respected. But bringing complicated theological and historical issues before parliament — which are better addressed by subject specialists and scholars of the highest calibre — and then rushing them through without any debate will only add to divisions in the country.

Such sensitive issues should not be codified in law in such a haphazard manner. For over four decades, Pakistan has been reeling from the effects of terrifying sectarian violence. To prevent the misuse of blasphemy laws, and the violence this begets, the amendments need to be rethought.

Published in Dawn, September 5th, 2023

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