DAWN - Editorial; June 19, 2007

Published June 19, 2007

Palestinian trauma

WHATEVER else Hamas and Fatah might have achieved or destroyed, between them they have done incalculable harm to the Palestinian cause. Little do they realise that a Palestinian fratricide suits Israel because the real issue — Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories — is lost in the flow of Palestinian blood. The Hamas-led government is dead; it cannot be resurrected, at least not in the foreseeable future, because the Quartet has come out categorically on the side of President Mahmoud Abbas for his dismissal of the Hamas government. However, Mr Abbas knows that even a non-Hamas government has no chance of securing freedom for the occupied territories. Traditionally, it is Fatah that has been the Palestinian people’s representative and was recognised as such by Israel, the US and the European Union, leading finally to the signing of the Declaration of Principles (DoP) in Washington in 1993. Yet Israel with full American backing sabotaged the DoP, and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the occupied territories has remained a dream. Even when Yasser Arafat was alive, the US and Israel came up with the condition that the peace process could be resumed only if Arafat gave up some of his powers, had a prime minister and introduced reforms in the Palestinian Authority. Arafat did all this, but talks never began. In fact, when Ariel Sharon became prime minister, he reoccupied the vacated areas and destroyed Arafat’s headquarters, and talks never began.

When Hamas formed a government, Israel and the Quartet got a ready-made pretext for refusing to resume peace talks by saying that Hamas was a terrorist organisation and did not recognise Israel’s existence. Hamas surprised everybody by accepting the two-state solution, but Israel, the US and the EU responded by freezing all non-humanitarian assistance, the ultimate aim being to sabotage the elected government. Finally, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniye chose to form a government of national unity with Fatah and independents in it, but Israel still showed no flexibility. Now matters have reached a stage where Hamas and Fatah have made their enemies happy. By fighting it out, they have proved that the Palestinians are incapable of running a democratic government and, therefore, there is no reason why Israel should withdraw from the occupied territories. If gunmen are to rule Gaza and the West Bank, then why not Israeli gunmen?

On Sunday President Abbas named Mr Salam Fayyad, an independent, as prime minister, and swore in a new cabinet that has no Hamas members in it. Mr Haniye has declared the Fayyad government illegal, because Mr Abbas, knowing that Hamas has a majority in parliament, issued a decree which does away with the need for the cabinet to take a vote of confidence from MPs. Mr Haniye may have said that he has no intention of declaring Gaza an independent state, but for all practical purposes Gaza and the West Bank have turned into two autonomous and hostile cantons, because it is highly unlikely that the Ramallah-based government will be able to enforce its writ in the Hamas stronghold. Mr Abbas is right when he says that western aid will start pouring in, but that will not advance the cause of Palestine’s independence; in fact, the fratricide and the subsequent developments have pushed the Palestinian cause into the background, and it will take extraordinary will and a spirit of sacrifice to bring the occupied territories under one administration.

The NWFP budget

WHILE presenting the NWFP budget, Finance Minister Shah Raz Khan attributed most of the financial difficulties faced by the province to the non-payment of Rs110 billion in net hydel profits. He censured the centre for backing out of its commitment to implement the award of an independent arbitral tribunal and for letting Wapda challenge the award in a lower court. That no doubt is a big amount but the province too has failed to broaden its own tax base, currently standing at a negligible six billion rupees. With such a narrow resource base, the NWFP will continue to be constrained in making good choices. This should be a cause for concern for any finance manager who has to fund a Rs114.5 billion annual budget.

It is against this background that the province qualifies for the highest 35 per cent share in poverty-related grant-in-aid from the centre as part of the interim National Finance Commission (NFC) Award. Of the total Rs109 billion revenue receipts, the provincial government will receive about Rs64 billion during 2007-08 from the centre. This includes Rs47.6 billion from the federal divisible pool, Rs12 billion as subvention, three billion in straight transfer and Rs5.8 billion as GST share. As expected, the MMA government, like the centre, also offers some populist measures to take along its voters in an election year. A 100 per cent increase — from Rs10 to 20 billion — in financial assistance for seminaries, regularisation of hundreds of mosque khateebs and exemption of widows from property tax are cases in point. The budget, however, carries limited programmes for poverty reduction. One only hopes that the NWFP gets its due right in hydel profits to distribute 50 per cent, as the budget promises, among the districts where backwardness and poverty are common. The decision to spend five per cent of royalties on natural resources — water, oil and gas — towards infrastructure development in areas producing these resources is a welcome initiative. It should be a good idea not only for other provinces but also for the centre that has been facing resistance in launching mega projects, particularly big dams. After all, it is inclusive development that makes the difference in a federation.

Safety at the beach

THE prospect of the approaching monsoons might be a refreshing one, but it brings with it the seasonal warning of rough seas and high tides. Already, the first cases of drowning have been recorded as Karachi residents bathe in the sea to get some respite from the intense heat. Considering the rush of visitors — the majority of them non-swimmers — to the beach, precautionary measures should be in place to dissuade people from bathing in the rough waters. These should include rescue equipment and the presence of a sufficient number of trained divers. While there have been attempts in recent years to beef up the strength of lifeguards on the beach, besides demarcating hazardous stretches of the shore, these have clearly not been enough as indicated by the large number of deaths caused by drowning. It is not all the city government’s fault. The public, too, must be blamed for not heeding advice about their safety at the beach.

Signboards spelling out the dangers to beach-goers must be placed at several points along the coast to warn reckless bathers. Many such signs have been defaced and need a fresh coat of paint. At the same time, stretches that are generally considered safe for bathers should be marked clearly. Each year, from the months of June to August, there is a ban on bathing in the sea. Unfortunately, this is routinely flouted, leading to several incidents of drowning. Unless the government takes action against those who violate the rules, beach-goers will continue to disregard monsoon warnings, thus endangering their own lives and of those who attempt to rescue them from the raging waves. This requires a number of law-enforcement personnel to be present at particularly hazardous points, especially during weekends and holidays when the beaches are crowded, to restrain those who venture out too far.

Changing role of the media

By Mohammad Waseem

FIRST, it was the bench, then the bar and now the media. The insecurity of the Musharraf government has pushed it in the direction of throttling the freedom of expression. By one stroke, it has destroyed what it incessantly claimed to be its source of pride in the form of a free media.

The viewing public is several times more in number than the readers of the print media. While newspapers require a literate public, television does not need that. The Pemra (Amendment) Ordinance of June 4, 2007, could have the effect of blindfolding millions of viewers accustomed to witnessing dialogues in the form of talk shows.

Fortunately for the nation, the enforcement of the ordinance was suspended by Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz after a tremendous show of protest by media men, lawyers and civil society in general.

Indeed, the talk shows became so popular that they gradually and imperceptibly slackened the decades-old monopolistic hold of the prime time family drama over people’s hearts and minds. The lean sentimentality of the romantic TV plays has been overtaken by the far more meaningful, interesting and intriguing characters of the real drama of political life unfolding before the public eye.

Cable TV pulled viewers out of the age of innocence into full awareness of the dramatis personae active on the political stage.

On the one hand, the Pemra Amendment Ordinance denied people their right to participate in public life through exposure to a variety of opinions, policies, approaches and worldviews. On the other it handed down a ‘cause’ to civil society whereby the latter was obliged to struggle for regaining the lost space in the sphere of communication. The amendment had the potential of sharpening the conflict between the government and the communication fraternity.

It is the journalist community which was directly and most tragically hit by the new ordinance. The negative impact of such acts and provisions would have been felt in the institutional and professional context, which was the target of the new measure.

The provisions of seizing a broadcast or distribution service equipment, sealing the premises and suspending the licence of a broadcast media made horrendous reading.

These provisions could have pushed the electronic media into its dark ages if these were not promptly and rightly withdrawn.

While the media was the focus of the new text, the current agitation of lawyers in support of the Chief Justice of Pakistan provided the real context. The combined strength of the bar and the bench put the Musharraf government on the defensive.

The latter had limited options. One of the options was to defuse the situation. Unfortunately, the government has shown neither flexibility in its standpoint vis-à-vis the presidential reference nor willingness to enter into a comprehensive dialogue with activists on the ground.

This situation led the government to the default option, i.e. tightening the noose around expressions of dissent. This is the classic scenario for the emergence of an alternative social movement, for which Eastern European societies in the 1990s provide an impressive model. Barring a few individuals with high stakes in the preservation of the prevalent system at any cost, the articulate sections of the population are expected to display a condemnatory attitude towards the aborted crackdown on the electronic media.

Talk shows provide ‘exit’ from the street. Blowing hot and cold on the TV screen took the anger away, brought extreme views to some kind of a middle ground and shaped the contours of the national discourse.

Watching the spokesmen of the JI, MQM, PML-N, PML-Q, PPP, ANP, BNP and other parties as well as NGOs and public intellectuals engaging in argument and counter-argument has been fun and much more. People from across the political spectrum talked to each other and established a political idiom. It was conflict resolution par excellence, at least potentially and eventually. A democratic culture seemed to be brewing.

Then the ordinance struck. In the global village, this certainly did not go down well. The credentials of Pakistan in the world as a democratic state have been far from satisfactory.

During the last three months, the government’s legal and political measures have added up to a huge baggage of moral deficit. That is characterised by a lack of imagination and the vision to rebuild public institutions and norms.

The world of diplomacy is not as far from the shores of the country as the government would like it to be. It is right next door. The need to cultivate a good profile of Pakistan in the world is absolutely essential for moral and diplomatic purposes. The world is too closely networked and integrated for any country to continue to dabble in draconian laws to control the media.

The ordinance could demonise the profile of Pakistan, which is not what the nation wants. It was a diplomatic disaster in making.

At home, the issuance of the Pemra Ordinance preceded the National Assembly session only by one day. Obviously, the government planned to bypass the lawmaking body in the process of the formulation of the law. The old practice of indulging in legislative activity from outside the legislature continued unabated. Respect for autonomy of institutions is the need of the day.

The lawmaking body should make the law through the designated process of committee deliberations, discussion on the floor of the parliament and agreement on the provisions of law. Arbitrary lawmaking must end.

The global media is no more confined to information gathering activity. It has assumed an agenda-setting role.

That is why it is understood to be the fourth wing of the state despite official denial. It is supposed to project an autonomous body of opinion and analysis of the current and not-so-current events and developments. It must give guidelines, directions and opinions to lead decision-makers and their critics. It has assumed a life of its own. It does not necessarily represent others. It represents itself as a profession and, more than that, as a calling.

The issuance of the Pemra (Amendment) Ordinance instantly led to protest by journalists, lawyers and civil society. The government responded by filing cases against journalists and arresting political workers and sought to look firm in its resolve to curb the freedom of expression.

A meeting between the channel operators and the government seemed to give the impression that the provisions of the controversial law could be amended by parliament in the process of passing the act.

Cases were filed in the higher courts against the ordinance for being in violation of the freedom of expression provided in the Constitution. The government felt obliged to suspend the enforcement of the ordinance.

Why did the government make a move which had the potential to boomerang? Did it make sense to gag the electronic media at a time when the legal and judicial communities were already unhappy over the presidential reference against the Chief Justice and would have been even more so in the wake of new curbs on the media? How could the government not visualise the possible impact of its action on the general public, which would not countenance any attempts to stop it from watching the progression of events throughout the country?

It can be surmised that the president’s plans to continue to be in office have gone awry in the presence of the rapidly changing public mood. First, the government failed to take notice of the gravity of the situation when the lawyers took to the street. Then, it chose to go to the street itself in a grand show of strength, which was impolitic and, therefore, unwise. Later, the corps commanders meeting led to the issuance of a statement which was widely criticised for being ‘political’ in nature and, therefore, unconstitutional.

Subsequently, the NSC meeting promised tough action against those who were perceived to be perpetrators of disorder. The net effect of the government’s action seems to be further alienation of the public. The government has still not been alerted to the fact that large political, social, cultural, professional, religious and ethnic groups and communities have been alienated over the years. It has still not realised that the media has been providing an excellent analysis of the situation on the ground.

All around, the public seemed to be making a political statement that the time was ripe for respecting the civil institutions of the society. New curbs on the media showed that the nation’s message was being ignored. The suspension of the enforcement of the ordinance showed, instead, that the government at least partially realised that the time for such draconian laws had gone.


IN the third last paragraph of Mr Javid Husain’s article ‘Public welfare and democracy’ published yesterday, the figure should have been Rs380 billion instead of Rs80 billion as printed. The error is regretted.

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007



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