Dawn Editorials 2nd January 2023

MQM merger

ONCE the dominant electoral machine in urban Sindh, thanks largely to a vicious militant wing, the MQM today is split into various factions and is no longer the vote-getter it once was.

While the Altaf Hussain-led ‘London’ faction was banished from politics by the powers that be after the MQM supremo made his infamous speech in 2016, triggering violence in Karachi, the other factions — MQM-P, Farooq Sattar, Haqiqi, the PSP — are largely non-entities in electoral politics.

However, it seems that the establishment is cobbling together these disparate elements to create a reunified Muttahida, though apparently minus Altaf Hussain. Leading this mission is Sindh Governor Kamran Tessori, a recent, lateral entrant in the MQM ranks, who has been busy trying to bring the factions back together.

Mr Tessori says that both Dr Sattar and the PSP have agreed to return to the mothership and work with the Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui-led MQM-P, while he met Mustafa Kamal and other PSP leaders in this regard recently. As there are few certainties in politics, we must wait and see if the merger materialises. A similar farcical attempt to merge the PSP and MQM-P in 2017, again reportedly at the behest of the gentlemen in Rawalpindi, imploded quite spectacularly a few hours after it was announced.

The fact is that without Mr Hussain’s iron grip, it is very difficult for the competing power interests within the MQM and its factions to unite under one leader.

More importantly, it is unfortunate that despite promises to do otherwise, attempts to engineer political alliances continue by the establishment. It must be asked what would be gained by artificially rehabilitating the MQM in urban Sindh? Instead of promoting these manufactured alliances, let the people of Karachi, Hyderabad and other urban centres choose their own leadership through the ballot box.

The MQM for decades oversaw a reign of terror in Karachi; do the powers that be wish to see a repeat of the bad old days? The people of urban Sindh deserve much better.

Published in Dawn, January 2nd, 2023

Journalists’ safety

A YEAR-END report by Reporters Without Borders sheds light on the dark reality of working as a journalist in countries where press freedom is constantly under threat. Spanning two decades, the report says 1,668 journalists have been killed across the world. Around 80pc of these deaths have taken place in 15 countries. Tragically, Pakistan is fifth on this list, with 93 journalists killed since 2003. Afghanistan saw 81 deaths of journalists in this period and India had 58, making them sixth and eighth on the list respectively. Nearly 80 journalists have been killed worldwide every year, with 2012 and 2013 being the years where violence peaked, largely due to the war in Syria. It says that reporters face the greatest risk in war zones, which explains why Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Palestine are so prominent on the list. In Europe, Russia has Europe’s highest death toll, and the report notes that press freedom has worsened in the years since Vladimir Putin came to power.

Pakistan’s position on this list is a moment of humiliation for our leaders, and a testament to its weak democracy. It falls in the list of countries where no war is officially taking place, but where the situation is still not safe for reporters. The report notes that more journalists have been killed in “zones at peace” than war zones during the past two decades, “in most cases because they were investigating organised crime and corruption”. In Pakistan, journalists have been killed not only by militants and insurgents but also by unidentified state actors. The common thread in these killings is that truth and justice are elusive, and killers walk free while families look in vain for answers. The recent killing of Arshad Sharif in Kenya under mysterious circumstances only underscores this fact, and points to a chilling reality that Pakistani journalists and dissidents are not safe from threats even outside the country. Not only is this a reason for our authorities to reflect on how badly successive governments have failed to protect journalists, but also the failure of all institutions — the government, law enforcement, the courts — to protect representatives of the fourth pillar of state. Freedom of press has been and still is under grave threat in Pakistan. The government must do more than issue token condemnations and investigation announcements. It must have the courage to name, try and punish perpetrators — or risk being seen as a democracy only in name.

Published in Dawn, January 2nd, 2023

Another commission

A NEW commission formed by the Balochistan government, on the orders of the provincial high court, to trace missing persons would be the third such government body given this specific task. Already there exists the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, formed by the Supreme Court, while the Islamabad High Court has also set up such a commission, members of which were recently in Balochistan to talk to relatives of the disappeared. While the state’s interest in tracing the missing is commendable, it should be remembered that, instead of forming a multitude of commissions and committees, enforcing steps to hold those state elements, who are responsible for this deplorable practice, to account would go a long way in ending enforced disappearances.

If the state — both its civilian and military wings — is serious about bringing the missing back home and ending illegal detentions by government and state operatives, then, for one, the multiplicity of commissions must be reconsidered; instead, a single empowered body can be given the job of tracing the missing. Moreover, the recently formed Balochistan commission will only help trace those individuals “not involved in anti-state or terrorist activities”. The issue here is that ‘anti-state’ is a broad, vague term, and can be misused by the government or the establishment to penalise even those who criticise state institutions within the confines of free speech. The fact is that whether it is Balochistan or elsewhere in the country, it is the civilian law-enforcement agencies, as well as the courts, who should be arresting and trying, respectively, those accused of breaking the law. By all means, those individuals who take part in illegal activities, or attempt to wage war against the state, need to be tried and punished. But this must be a transparent process, with access to a fair trial. People just cannot be picked up in the dead of the night, ‘disappeared’, and then ‘returned’ years later ‘repentant’, or even worse, come home in a coffin. Enforced disappearances are an affront to democratic rule, and only end up adding to alienation with the state and the system. Those who think that illegally picking up people will add to the country’s security are mistaken; this vile practice only serves to radicalise marginalised groups. As has been stated countless times, if the state or the security forces believe an individual is involved in subversive activities, bring them to a court of law so that they can defend themselves.

The political leadership, as well as the new army chief, can help end this deplorable practice. There needs to be an institutional decision to make enforced disappearances a thing of the past, and bring back all the missing, while trying those who the state may have credible evidence against. Pakistan can only be made safer by respecting the law, not breaking it.

Published in Dawn, January 2nd, 2023

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