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DAWN - Editorial; March 14, 2007

March 14, 2007

The end of an era

AN era in Pakistan’s journalism came to an end when Dawn’s legendary editor, Ahmad Ali Khan, died in Karachi on Tuesday morning after a protracted illness. He took over as Dawn’s editor in 1973 when the paper was facing virtual closure, and the country had still not come out of the trauma of the separation of East Pakistan. Dawn was reduced to six pages, with the paper finding it difficult to pay salaries to its staff. By the time he quit as Chief Editor 27 yeas later, Dawn was in a financially sound position — an asset that helped him stand pressures from despotic regimes. In salvaging Dawn, Mr Ahmad Ali Khan, known to his colleagues and admirers as Khan Saab, proved himself a tenacious fighter not only for Dawn but for all that the Quaid stood for. A left-leaning intellectual, well-read and remarkably intelligent, he was in any given situation able to get to the root of a problem by avoiding the pitfalls of details. This helped him face acute crises stemming from pressures bordering on persecution by governments unhappy with the paper’s policies. These pressures included threats to him and to Dawn staff members by non-state actors.

Pragmatic in his approach, he never thought that getting a paper closed down by reckless journalism served the cause of Press freedom. Yet this did not mean kowtowing to the government of the day and compromising on the fundamental principles of journalism and Dawn’s commitment to the values and principles of the profession. During the period of the military dictatorship (1977-1988) Dawn under his stewardship stood firm on all key issues and paid for it in various forms, including denial of government ads, but by that time the paper was on its own, and Khan Saab pursued his policies independently. The fact that his editorship spanned an era starting from the Bhutto years and ending with the Musharraf regime gives an indication of the crises and personalities he was called upon to handle.

His career in English journalism began with Dawn in Delhi before partition and ended in the 21st century when he retired in 2000, coming back again for a short stint in 2003. In between he was associated with The Pakistan Times for 13 years. On the whole he remained with Dawn for 42 years and was at the helm for 28 years. No wonder he left the stamp of his personality on the paper. His was a career that was self-fulfilling, for he upheld the highest values of journalism and created for Dawn a reputation that would be the envy of any newspaper. On foreign policy, Khan Saab never toed the line of the government of the day, and that was one reason why the diplomatic community in Pakistan took Dawn’s views as a barometer of the nation’s position on international affairs.

Personal likes and dislikes did not affect his judgment, and whenever Dawn erred in reporting or in a comment, he never failed to publish a retraction or the aggrieved party’s version. The variety of views available to Dawn readers in the letters’ column and the diversity of opinion in articles by a host of writers testify to his commitment to professionalism. His personality had a touch of charisma about it, and he commanded respect and obedience, though he was basically a team man who inspired others by his honesty, vision and dedication to principles. His was a major contribution in turning Dawn into an institution.

Spectacle of shame

YESTERDAY’S brutal manhandling by the Islamabad police of the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, whose clothes were torn as he was forced into a car by the police for taking him to the Supreme Court, casts the government in a terrible light. Never before has a chief justice been treated in such a callous and disrespectful manner, with little regard for his position, exposing the full extent of the government’s muddling of the whole affair since Friday. Restrictions placed on the Chief Justice who, together with his family, was virtually kept under house arrest shattered all illusions about any democratic credentials that anyone expected this government to have. Since the CJ’s illegal, virtual confinement, lawyers, politicians and senior media persons who wanted to meet him were turned away by the security personnel. The sheer deception indulged in by the federal information and law ministers, who kept denying that any restrictions had been placed on the freedom of movement or of speech of the Chief Justice, is a matter of further shame. On Tuesday night an official handout attributing the issuance of an ‘advice’ by the Supreme Judicial Council warning the media not to print or broadcast news or comments on the proceedings against the Chief Justice was released to the media. Earlier, the government forced two independent news channels off the air after images of police action against a lawyers’ rally in Lahore were telecast. Transmissions were resumed only after the footage had been ‘edited’ or censored.

How could a government which claims to have been elected by the people conduct itself in such a callous and thoughtless manner? That in the preceding four years in office it has never allowed any meaningful debate to take place in parliament over national issues is bad enough; the abrupt adjournment of the Punjab Assembly sessions on Monday and Tuesday after the speaker disallowed a debate on the developing crisis involving the legal community further exposed this government’s lack of democratic credentials. Little can be expected of a government whose security apparatus can manhandle even the Chief Justice of Pakistan against all norms of civilised conduct.

Bane of corporal punishment

GIVEN that corporal punishment is a routine affair at schools, it is hardly surprising that seven children on board a minibus that was taking them to their boarding school in Muzaffargarh chose to avoid their destination by getting off at a different stop. Corporal punishment at schools in the country is a major reason for children running away from home. While some are found, others never return home. Such dislocation, coupled with the hardships they have to face without their families to care for them, exposes these young children to criminal elements who take full advantage of their vulnerability. On the other hand, continuing their studies at schools and madressahs where teachers ill-treat the students also causes personality defects in the children. It is unfortunate that the authorities do not hold principals and school owners responsible for not stopping teachers from inflicting cruel and degrading punishment on the students. Many are beaten to the point of losing consciousness. Yet others are sexually abused. How can the victims of such violence be expected to grow up into happy, confident adults capable of making a positive contribution to society?

Most developed societies around the world realise that the maxim “spare the rod and spoil the child” is an outdated idea, and that corporal punishment, far from correcting character deficiencies, is a major cause of emotional trauma that can sometimes last a lifetime. Educational authorities in Pakistan must understand this and penalise those teachers who resort to beating their students in the conviction that this is the only way to instil discipline in them. Strict legislation is also needed to ban corporal punishment at schools and madressahs. In the absence of this and of regular public campaigns against such physical abuse, the authorities will have only themselves to blame for children growing up as emotionally dysfunctional adults.

Untruths behind a token trial

By Mahir Ali

IN the end, after a court case that lasted the better part of a year, Dick Cheney’s former chief-of-staff was found guilty of telling lies. The verdict spurred a disproportionate degree of jubilation in certain quarters.

However, the conviction of I. Lewis Libby on relatively frivolous charges hardly qualifies as the sort of comeuppance that the Bush administration deserves.

After all, it isn’t unreasonable to assume that among members of the political class in Washington, those who do not routinely palter with the truth constitute a minuscule minority.

Lies are the currency of political discourse, and whoppers ought to be judged by their size as well as their consequences. Libby was convicted last week on four charges of lying to the FBI and to a grand jury. That seems like a pretty minor misdemeanour compared with lying systematically to the American public and, on the basis of those lies, leading the nation into an illegal, unjustifiable and unwinnable war. The tragedy is that no one is likely to face trial on the latter charges.

The case against “Scooter” Libby was something of a farce, although the tale of how he got into this predicament reveals quite a bit about the unpalatable nature of the Bush administration.

The story begins in early 2001 with a bizarre robbery at Niger’s embassy in Rome: Italian police discovered that only some official stationery and stamps had been stolen. A couple of arrests were made, but nothing was recovered.

In October that year, when Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi visited the White House for post-9/11 commiserations, he brought with him a useful little present: receipts ostensibly made out by Niger’s government – on official stationery, of course, and bearing the appropriate stamps – to Saddam Hussein for the purchase of 400 tons of so-called yellowcake uranium ore.

The forgeries weren’t particularly good, and the CIA as well as the State Department smelt a rat right away. They informed the White House accordingly. That ought to have been the end of the story.

But, of course, it wasn’t. An investigation by the Italian newspaper La Repubblica revealed that the documents turned up at a December 2001 meeting in Rome that was attended by Italian intelligence chiefs, high-level representatives from the US Defence Department, and Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi. It was evidently decided at this conclave to launder the forgeries via British intelligence, in the hope that they would thereby gain a degree of credibility.

Fast-forward to January 2003, when George W. Bush ominously declared in his State of the Union speech: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

The previous year, under pressure from the vice-president’s office in particular, the State Department had despatched an emissary to Niger to investigate the British intelligence “findings”. The task was entrusted to Joseph Wilson IV, a career diplomat. He returned empty-handed, having found no evidence of a uranium deal, and filed reports to that effect. Bush’s speechwriters were either ignorant of this development, or deliberately decided to ignore it.

Wilson apparently was incensed that a demonstrably spurious strand of evidence had been woven into the patchwork casus belli, and decided to go public after the invasion of Iraq, contributing an op-ed to The New York Times in which he laid bare his side of the story.

The White House took it all rather personally. A few weeks later, conservative journalist Robert Novak disclosed in his column that Wilson was married to a CIA operative by the name of Valerie Plame. During Libby’s trial, it emerged that Cheney kept on his desk a copy of Wilson’s article, on which the vice-president had scrawled: “Did his wife send him on a junket?”

The implication in Cheney’s question, as in Novak’s column, was that Wilson’s trip to Niger was based on his wife’s recommendation rather than the envoy’s competence, and that his conclusions might therefore be questionable.

The White House found itself in a bit of a quandary when it emerged that Plame was effectively working undercover for the CIA. According to a law instituted in the 1980s, leaking the identity of an undercover agent is a federal offence.

It was reasonably certain from the outset that the leak came from a senior administration source. And it was widely suspected that Bush’s deputy chief-of-staff and long-time right-hand man Karl Rove was the guilty party. However, during the investigation that followed, it was Libby who tied himself up in knots. He was eventually indicted for lying under oath and obstructing the course of justice, rather than for exposing Plame.

Evidence from Novak and other journalists during the trial left no doubt that the White House was indeed involved in a whispering campaign intended to discredit Wilson. Rove and Libby – the latter at Cheney’s behest - were both encouraging friendly journalists to get on the case; Novak, however, initially gained his information about Plame from former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage.

It is unclear whether any of them was aware that she was an undercover employee.

That, however, is almost besides the point. Given the CIA’s range of activities over the decades, it is hardly possible to defend a law designed to prevent the unmasking of its agents. What’s interesting is that even the CIA, notwithstanding its predilection for regime change on an international scale, invariably through covert and unpleasant means, has found itself at odds with the Bush administration.

That reveals more about the latter than about the men and women at Langley, for there is little evidence that they have seen the error of their ways. In the period since its postwar inception, never before has the CIA had to deal with a US regime so determined to fish in troubled waters: a situation that compelled the Company to attempt exerting a calming influence. It wasn’t, in the end, of much avail.

Libby, meanwhile, is a longstanding member of the neoconservative coterie that has striven for decades to empower the sort of men who would be ruthless and unequivocal in establishing unrestrained American hegemony by demonstrating the superiority of its firepower.

The evidence suggests that as an impressionable undergraduate he was corrupted by Paul Wolfowitz, who is now the World Bank president, after having served as Donald Rumsfeld’s deputy in the Department of Defence. The New York Times cites fellow students of Libby at Yale in the early 1970s as saying that once upon a time he helped to “silkscreen T-shirts proclaiming solidarity between Yalies and the Black Panthers” and assisted the organisers of an anti-Vietnam War demonstration.

However, he also took courses with Wolfowitz, who was a young political science instructor at the time. Libby’s friend Francis Fukuyama (who has lately turned his back on the neocons, perhaps because their actions made mockery of his ridiculous “end of history” thesis) recalls that Scooter was “fascinated by Paul’s thinking”.

Some years later, during the Reagan presidency, Wolfowitz hired Libby as a speechwriter and an Asia analyst at the State Department, and subsequently as a strategist in the Defence Department, which was headed at the time by Cheney. There Libby played a role in drafting a 1992 military policy paper that foreshadowed the present administration’s pre-emptive tendencies. Five years later, he became a founding member of the neoconservative movement’s flagship Plan for the New American Century.

So Libby, like his mentor and his bosses, has a great deal to answer for. But whatever role he may have played in undermining Wilson and exposing Plame, that cannot figure too high in his list of crimes. As such his trial, to invert the key portion of Neil Armstrong’s lunar soundbite, was a pretty small step for mankind. It does not pass muster as a vindication of American democracy, especially when other key figures in the pathetic Plame case haven’t been deemed worthy of even a rap on the knuckles.

Scooter Libby – no relation, as far as anyone can tell, of Abu Faraj al-Libbi, who was reportedly ambushed while riding a scooter – is to be sentenced on June 5. Chances are that he’ll get off lightly. If not, there’s a good chance of a presidential pardon - not so much as a reward for Libby’s loyalty to the administration but because he knows too much about its dark deeds.

There is, after all, a solid precedent for such a procedure. Bush the Elder pardoned the Iran-Contra convicts before his term ended, and one of them, Elliott Abrams, was even rewarded with a senior post in the second Bush presidency; the felon remains deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy – and we all know what that means in the neoconservative context.

Perhaps the only positive outcome from the Libby sideshow has been Cheney’s growing discomfiture. The vice-president had clung on for as long as possible to Rumsfeld, his one-time benefactor, and let go only reluctantly. He was reportedly miffed by the decision to use Libby as a fall guy: the chief-of-staff has been described as “Cheney’s Cheney”, a role he won’t be able to fulfil from behind bars. This could be cited as evidence of Cheney’s diminished clout during Bush’s second term, but it would be unwise to underestimate him just yet.

Meanwhile, as Hollywood ponders who should be cast as the glamorous blonde CIA agent in the film version of the Valerie Plame saga, there can be little question that democratic accountability in the US would entail a lot more trials on a variety of infinitely more serious charges, ranging from electoral fraud and corporate corruption to the sort of crimes that were successfully prosecuted at Nuremberg.

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007