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DAWN - Editorial; March 31, 2008

March 31, 2008

Challenge in NWFP

WITH the lawmakers having taken their oath and the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker of the NWFP Assembly elected unopposed, the Frontier Province enters once again an era in which the majority party is also part of the ruling coalition in Islamabad. This is an opportunity which the ANP-PPP coalition must not lose. They have been given this chance because the Feb 18 vote saw the Frontier people vote overwhelmingly for the moderates. Going by the assurances reportedly given by the JUI-F leadership, the coalition’s candidate for the top slot, Mr Amir Haidar Khan Hoti, is likely to be elected chief minister unopposed. He will thus be called upon to begin the gigantic task of restoring normality to a province parts of which have turned into horrendous battlefields. The confrontation between the militants and the army has served to worsen the plight of the province’s poverty-stricken people and added to their hardship. In Swat alone, the fighting between the army and Maulana Fazlullah’s militia turned thousands of men, women and children homeless in bitter cold.

ANP chief Asfandyar Wali and the provincial party leadership have indicated that they believe in a new approach to the insurgency in Fata and elsewhere and that they will rely on negotiations but in a way that does

not prove counterproductive. According to Mr Afrasiab Khattak, the ANP’s provincial secretary general, the party has already begun contacts with the militant leadership, but he made it clear that it believes in talking only to Pakistani militants and not the foreigners. Ending militancy in Fata and neutralising the bases where suicide bombers are trained are issues that deserve priority because the Taliban are on the verge of destroying tribal culture. Traditionally, the tribesmen have believed in solving their group problems through jirgas. But we have seen how the militants have attacked a peace jirga and bombed a funeral procession. There are also illegal FM stations which preach hatred and arouse people to violence. These constitute an affront to Pakhtoon values.

Mr Wali is right when he says his province needs tools for economic development and education rather than weapons. The effect of the dislocation caused by fighting in Fata and Swat can be undone if the federal government helps its provincial partners in beginning the task of economic development with speed. This also requires taking a fresh look at the quantum of provincial autonomy enshrined in the 1973 Constitution and amending it to meet the demands of the smaller provinces, while also taking Balochistan’s problems into consideration. Some other steps are overdue — like extending the Political Parties’ Act and the high court’s jurisdiction to Fata. Because of the absence of these laws, foreigners — and criminal elements within the country — take refuge in

Fata and thus create lawlessness that hurts the local inhabitants.

Who is being deceived?

THE prevailing euphoria in the political realm, where winds of change are sweeping across the country, has struck the chairman of the National Commission for Human Development as well. He told a seminar in Islamabad the other day that by 2015, Pakistan’s literacy rate would be more than 86 per cent. It takes a brave man to make such an assertion at a time when a recent Unesco report on its Education For All (EFA) initiative placed Pakistan among the 10 worst performers alongside Eritrea, Mozambique and seven other African countries. Also, the report has noted that Pakistan spends a little over two per cent of GDP on education as against Unesco’s suggestion of at least six per cent. Government officials have been making loud claims, but away from these hollow boasts lies the reality of inaccessibility, dropouts, ghost schools, mismanagement and chaos. With the country’s population growth rate being about two per cent and the literacy rate improving by one per cent, it does not take a rocket scientist to calculate that the literacy rate is actually falling.

Statistics aside, the definition of literacy is also a relevant marker to assess the sincerity of the official machinery. Globally, it is defined as the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute. On our part, we are still making do with the definition that Unesco coined back in 1958 according to which a person is literate if he can with understanding both read and write a short simple statement on his everyday life. There is reason to feel alarmed by the declaration of the NCHD chairman to the effect that it did not matter if people can or cannot write a few sentences. In his words, the ability to read a vernacular newspaper was enough for a person to be declared literate. This naturally is in clear violation of all international standards.

This is not to suggest that the country has done nothing to move towards EFA target. It definitely has, but it has not been enough. An honest statement makes people feel more confident in the system. On the other hand, blatant untruth and rhetoric to justify existence and continuation in office don’t sell in this day and age. But this is something that our politicians, bureaucrats and technocrats have yet to learn. In 2005, a member of the federal cabinet had talked of cent per cent literacy by 2015. Now the NCHD chief speaks of 86 per cent literacy. As 2015 draws nearer, we will soon get more realistic assessments.

Speed monsters

DESPITE efforts by the traffic police to check rash driving on our roads, speeding continues to cause preventable accidents that kill and maim people. Speed monsters in Islamabad killed three more people and injured over 15 others last week in three accidents that occurred on consecutive days. In the first case, a speeding bus fell off the flyover connecting Islamabad and Rawalpindi killing one person and injuring at least 15. In the second incident, a speeding car killed a woman crossing a major road, seriously injuring her 10-year-old son as well; and in the third, a male pedestrian was killed by another speeding vehicle. If speed radars and fines are not enough to check accidents, we might have to consider introducing more concrete measures. One such measure that has been adopted in some countries with a measure of success is the mandatory installation of tiny devices called speed governors, especially in public transport and heavy vehicles, to limit their top speed and reduce the possibility of accidents.

Automobile accidents are not inevitable. Whether they are accidents caused by drivers not operating at a speed suitable for the existing conditions of road and traffic, or accidents caused by mechanical defect which the driver should have detected in making pre-trip or enroute inspection of the vehicle, they are preventable. The problem, apart from ensuring all drivers are properly trained, is how to educate drivers and those in the transport industry on the importance of accident prevention and adoption of accident countermeasures or safety devices. Another issue that also needs to be addressed is the setting of standards for the operation and equipment of buses. These should include specifications of standards such as the number of emergency exits on buses and other structural features. Unless we act accordingly to reduce and mitigate preventable accidents on our roads, speed monsters will continue to strike and kill.

Responsibility must anchor freedom

By Raza Rumi


IT is a truism that media freedom in Pakistan today has been earned after a long struggle which will perhaps continue in the years to come.

Deepening of democratic traditions and their permeation in society are sine qua non for a free media. Whilst there can be no two opinions on the independence of the media, the need for greater responsibility and professionalism has to be articulated in no uncertain terms. Such is the confusion and chaos triggered by an overgrown executive that the issue of responsibility has been sidelined by the overwhelming noises for media freedom especially since the tinkering with the text and application of Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) Ordinance.

We are now getting used to a television culture that imitates the life of Pakistani tharras, chai-khanas and drawing-rooms where politics is discussed ad nauseum. Rare exceptions include issue oriented talk-shows but they appear bland unless their all knowing hosts inject some political spice into them. Expertise is taken for granted; new-age generalists judge every subject under the sun and occasionally take themselves a bit too seriously. Yes, the commercial imperative of the media dictates programming patterns. But there has to be a method to this disorderliness.

The most recent occasion of electronic media wizardry was the announcement of the Pakistan People’s Party-led coalition candidate for the unenviable job of the prime minister. The moment the announcement was made, a leading channel played a popular Indian film song that lamented broken promises. In this case, the fabled promise of the prime ministerial cookie for Makhdoom Amin Fahim.

Admittedly, the party of the people and its allies were secretive about the process. The principle of transparency, ideally, is germane to elected institutions. However, this is neither an ideal world nor is it going to turn into one overnight. The way a momentous decision was trivialised was not in good taste. The news industry forgot that this was a party still recovering from the brutal murder of its omnipresent leader less than three months ago.

And then the vulnerable Makhdoom was grilled into a line of questioning by many channels anticipating that he would put the fissures within the party into the public domain. Much to their consternation, nothing of the sort came about. In fact, the icy Makhdoom, disappointed as he must be, maintained his dignity and decorum in the face of a media that desperately hoped for catchy breaking news.

Earlier, the guessing game on the PM nomination was played up into teacup hype, was also, to a certain extent, unwarranted. For instance, the delay in requisitioning the session of the National Assembly was far less analysed than why the PPP was unable to settle for Makhdoom. The discourse on the issue focused on ‘loyalty’, ‘honour’ and such other terms that may go well with the patriarchal-authoritarian society but not with the difficult task of inculcating democratic values.

Alas, the level of analysis was such that the ‘potential’ candidates were rarely compared in terms of merit, competence or likelihood of pulling together a difficult coalition. And no one bothered to check how this process was managed in the region especially India where coalitions are now a norm. Sadly, the chequered history of PPP media trials continues even when plural and relatively free voices abound.

Well, this is the beginning of a new journey. We have a mature political class that is willing to jointly challenge the historic ascendancy of non-elected institutions. This is something that is central to the future of all freedoms including that of the media. As the first speech of the prime minister proved, democracy —truncated as it might be — is the only way of ensuring the independence of the judiciary.

The release of deposed judges came about ironically through the parliament. The sweet irony of it all is that this was a scene not envisaged by those who were urging all and sundry to boycott the elections. That a president sans uniform had limits to his powers was a nuance not debated.

The channel gurus were more inclined towards the ‘purity’ of political positions. Considerable airtime was devoted to the Faustian ‘deal’ that was perhaps the last grand sin of Bhutto in the eyes of our puritans. She had of course to pay with her life for redemption.

In a similar vein, television debates on suicide bombings and war on terror reinforce the populism that endangers critical introspection, and reduces the discourse to a level that, simply put, is simplistic. We all know that the demons of extremism have been nurtured for decades. They existed prior to the American invasion of Afghanistan and our frontline status. But discussions about the slow Talibanisation of Pakistan being a reality are taboo; as the overwhelming majority of ‘experts’ consider this a ‘reaction’ thereby according a subtle legitimacy to the gruesome acts perpetrated in the name of religion.

Unwittingly, the agenda of the suicide brigades gets a helping hand when TV channels relay images of human limbs, severed heads and trucks ramming into security guards. I recall the ugly evening when bombs exploded prior to the chief justice’s arrival at a rally in Islamabad last summer. This was the first time that at least I experienced the disturbing visuals betraying lack of scrutiny. As violence is always gripping, it attracted the attention of my five-year-old and eventually we had to turn off the television.

Popular channels ran notifications urging parental guidance as if this would gloss the evident dearth of punctiliousness. However, this continued as a trend — entrenched, sensational — sadly when Pakistan was witnessing the worst spate of suicide bombings in our recent history. Chopped heads metaphorically are embedded in our histories: from the Baghdad tales of minarets out of severed heads, to Mongol invasions of Delhi and Lahore and the famed anecdote of Emperor Aurangzeb sending the head of Dara Shikoh to Shah Jahan.

But a modern, progressive Pakistan has to overcome this legacy of medieval barbarity and a free, mature media needs to assist in this process and condemn what is utterly condemnable.

Thus emerges the urgent need for self-regulation, codes of conduct and internal accountability. Let the media shun all ‘advisories’, this should be done of their own volition. Globally, there are several examples to follow and the capable ones within the media are well aware of them. There would be no point in listing them here. Suffice to say here that we, the engaged TV viewers, want a free media that is equally responsible; and challenges the stereotype and half-truth instead of reinforcing it.

A glorious future lies ahead for the electronic media — for we have a powerful agent of change, when we had almost given up on the hope for a change.

The writer edits the Pak Tea House and Lahore Nama blogs and blogs at razarumi.com

OTHER VOICES - North American Press

More flimflam on warming

The New York Times

ON April 2, 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the Clean Air Act clearly empowered the Environmental Protection Agency to address greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks. The ruling instructed the agency to determine whether global warming pollution endangers public health and welfare … and, if so, to devise emissions standards for motor vehicles.

One year has passed, and despite repeated promises from President Bush and the EPA administrator, Stephen Johnson, nothing has happened. And it seems increasingly likely that nothing will happen while Mr Bush remains in office. Last week, Mr Johnson notified Congress that he had discovered new regulatory complexities and decided against immediate action….

… Mr Johnson appears to have tried to do the right thing. He ordered his staff to write an endangerment finding and craft regulations limiting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from vehicles. In December, according to Congressional testimony from senior EPA officials, he sent the whole package to the White House.

There it fell into a black hole. It does not much matter who pushed it in … What matters is that the administration has again refused to do anything about the problem. Congress is losing patience, as well it should…. [The] Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming is scheduled to vote next week to subpoena agency documents in an effort to find out what Mr Johnson and his staff members really wanted to do before the White House lowered the boom….

One must hope that Mr Bush will eventually run out of places to hide from his obligations, but it hasn’t happened yet. — (March 29)

A snub for Syria

The Boston Globe

A SUMMIT meeting usually brings together heads of state. But when delegations deplane in Damascus this weekend for an Arab League summit, a dozen or more of the 22 Arab leaders will express their displeasure with Syrian President Bashar Assad by staying home. And Lebanon, whose current political crisis was to lead the summit’s agenda, will snub the Damascus event entirely.

… This gesture is a sign of growing exasperation — most of all over Assad’s ties with Iran.

The most immediate source of discontent is with Assad’s role in preventing the Lebanese government from voting for a new president to replace outgoing Syrian puppet Emile Lahoud. As the price of permitting a presidential vote, Syria’s Lebanese allies, led by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement, are demanding enough cabinet seats to give them veto power in the government.

Such veto power could be used to protect Assad’s ruling group from a United Nations tribunal looking into the 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafik Hariri. A preliminary UN investigation of Hariri’s murder incriminated Syria’s security services, which are commanded by Assad’s brother and brother-in-law.

If there is a remedy for the Arab angst over Syria, it lies in American and Israeli engagement with Assad’s regime, however distasteful that may be. The strategic aim would be to pry Syria from the clutches of Iran. Assad wants the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights returned to Syria and an end to Washington’s hostility. This would be a price worth paying for Lebanon’s emancipation and a diplomatic rollback of Iran’s destabilising encroachment on the Arab world and Israel. — (March 29)