Dawn Editorials 24th May 2023

Fear tactics

IT is a familiar story. A political party, thinking it can take on the country’s all-powerful establishment, crosses a red line and quickly finds itself losing a ruthless, one-sided war of attrition. One by one, its leaders are picked out and isolated. They may find themselves being summoned by powerful officials. Others are picked up in unmarked vehicles.

Those in hiding learn their families are facing harassment. Ominous phone calls from untraceable numbers and blackmail are par for the course. There is no respite, and the unspoken message, hardened over years and years of such forces operating with complete impunity, is that no one — no judge, no lawyer, no rights organisation — is coming to help. The only way out is to do exactly what you are told.

Shireen Mazari’s departure from both party and politics yesterday would have come as a major blow to the PTI. Ms Mazari said she is in poor health, and that the recent loss of her husband has taken a heavy toll on her family. It is a huge hit nonetheless. It is the core of political parties that provides stability in the face of efforts to break it.

The loss of second- and third-tier leaders can be overcome, but an important lieutenant breaking ranks may prove deeply demoralising for a party. Perhaps the PTI should take comfort in knowing that it is not the first to suffer such humiliation at the hands of the state.

The PML-N recently suffered the same before the 2018 general election; earlier, at the turn of the century, an entire party, the PML-Q, was carved out from its ranks, yet it survived and thrived.

While it nurses its wounds, the PTI’s present experiences should give rise to some empathy within its ranks for political opponents. Mr Khan’s party may finally appreciate the need for a Charter of Democracy.

Lastly, it has been greatly disappointing to note that some supporters of the PDM have been exulting in the manner in which the PTI is being cut to size. In Pakistani politics, what goes around, comes around — and, if history is any indication, what we are seeing going around today is not going to take too long to come around to bite those celebrating.

Already this government has ceded so much space to unelected forces that it will be extremely difficult for anyone to wrest back control. The country is in the depths of economic, social and political despair, and more misery awaits.

The ruling parties should ask themselves: will it be easier or more difficult to fix Pakistan’s many crises with the citizenry continuing to grow increasingly resentful over being disenfranchised by the state? They may find the answer to be a rather sobering one.

Published in Dawn, May 24th, 2023

Bombing schools

IN an ominous throwback to one of the most dispiriting aspects of militancy in Pakistan, the war on girls’ education has started once again. Late Sunday night, two government middle schools, where nearly 500 female students were enrolled, were blown up in Mir Ali, North Waziristan. One may be sure that such a large number of students cannot be accommodated in other institutions, and their education will suffer a significant setback, perhaps on a permanent basis. There is a particular poignancy to this likely outcome, because in Pakistan the dropout rate for girls after primary school is particularly alarming, and one of the reasons for it is the inadequate number of girls’ middle schools in most parts of the country. The only silver lining to Sunday’s attack is that no loss of life was reported. That was not the case last week when a policeman posted outside a private school in Swat’s Sangota area opened fire on a school van, killing a seven-year-old girl and injuring five other female students and a teacher.

The violent campaign against girls’ education has never really been completely eradicated after the TTP began to threaten parents in Swat if they sent their daughters to school; that, and the subsequent murderous attack on her, formed the genesis of Malala Yousafzai’s evolution into a global icon for girls’ education. In 2018, no less than 14 girls’ schools were torched by reported ‘militants’ over a period of two days in GB’s ultra-conservative Diamer district. Now with the Afghan Taliban in power next door, and their banning of girls from most avenues of education, new life has been breathed into this regressive mindset on this side of the porous border as well. Pakistan is on the cusp of losing the gains it has made against militancy over the last few years. After the APS attack, state and society had evolved some semblance of a narrative against violent extremism. But the obdurate refusal to unequivocally reject extremism in all its forms has come to haunt the state. Its opaque negotiations with the TTP, encouraged by the Afghan Taliban but vociferously denounced by residents of areas that bore the brunt of militancy, has allowed agents of mayhem to find a foothold in the country. It will take more blood and sacrifice to root out this menace yet again.

Published in Dawn, May 24th, 2023

Harassing journalists

THE state has cast a wide dragnet to haul up all those allegedly involved in the May 9 rioting, while also using the opportunity to weaken the PTI. However, there can be no excuse for the hundreds of journalists that have been hounded by police just for carrying out their professional duties on the day of the mayhem.

Sadly, the methods are straight out of the colonial playbook; the state has used these tactics for decades to teach all those who have come in its way a lesson. According to the Lahore Press Club president, around 250 journalists and other media workers have complained of police harassment post-May 9.

It is likely that the media personnel were identified through geo-fencing when they were in the field covering the protests in key areas of Lahore after Imran Khan’s arrest. Particularly disturbing is the fact that family members of some media workers have also been picked up. The Lahore High Court has been petitioned to stop this flagrant abuse of authority, while the caretaker Punjab administration has also formed a committee to look into the matter.

While the wholesale crackdown on all PTI sympathisers cannot be condoned, the targeting of journalists who were simply doing their jobs has no justification whatsoever. The federal energy minister has described the ongoing actions as the “process of filtering the criminals from the onlookers”.

This cannot be used as an excuse to harass journalists and media workers. As it is, the media fraternity faces a difficult working environment in Pakistan, and journalists often put their lives on the line in the course of discharging their duties.

Using the anti-PTI crackdown as a cover to threaten journalists is not to be tolerated, and the Punjab government must stop this campaign of fear. The administration must also reveal the whereabouts of anchorperson Imran Riaz Khan, who has been missing for the last two weeks.

Published in Dawn, May 24th, 2023

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