ISLAMABAD: Audio and video recordings belonging to Lok Virsa that were alleged to have been stolen and moved to the United States are still in place, it has emerged.
Uxi Mufti, a former executive director at Lok Virsa who headed the institution for more than 30 years, had filed a complaint with Prime Minister Imran Khan alleging that the archives of Lok Virsa were robbed by former Lok Virsa executive director Dr Fouzia Saeed.
He had also sent a communication on similar lines to Minister of Heritage Shafqat Mehmood.
Dr Saeed, who is presently heading the Pakistan National Council of Arts (PNCA), had served a legal notice on Mr Mufti and filed a complaint against him with the cybercrime wing of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) for allegedly spreading false allegations about her.
But interviews with several relevant individuals, including incumbent Lok Virsa Executive Director Talha Ali Khan Kushyaha, reveal that most of them are confident that the audio and video materials are present in the archives and nothing has gone missing.
“This matter is an old one.... A couple of years before I had joined.... it is about digitised content of the original archives at Lok Virsa. I do know the ministry had conducted an inquiry into this matter and did not find any problem or any wrongdoing,” Mr Kushvaha told Dawn.
Ali Rashid, the IT expert who had designed search engine and had uploaded videos, audios and documents stored in the data feeder for the digitalisation project, also said there was nothing missing.
He said he was ready to go to Lok Virsa with Mr Mufti to show to him that all the originals were there.
Simon Fatima, who was a coordinator of the project, refused to offer any comment when contacted.
In background interviews, many people said there were some complaints a couple of years ago regarding this issue by a former employee, leading to the initiation of an inquiry.
A formal and comprehensive inquiry was initiated by the Ministry of Information and the final report concluded in May 2019 that the complaints about the stolen archives were baseless and Lok Virsa could investigate who made the frivolous claims.
An official from Lok Virsa revealed that as one of the archival room, with the server for the database, was locked and to be opened after the inquiry, in Feb 2020 all the stakeholders, representatives of the Ministry of Heritage, former and current directors general of Lok Virsa and others joined for the unlocking of the archives to make sure all the materials were present.
They all witnessed and signed off on a report stating that all the data was in the server and that no data was missing.
Mr Mufti said he had been collecting precious folkloric materials for the archives for 40 years and built the archives himself, constituting thousands of hours of audio and video material. He also started the initiative of digitising the archives with Norwegian aid but after his term ended in 2007 the process stopped.
Later, Dr Saeed as executive director began the process again in 2016 with support from the US embassy and the Smithsonian, a credible cultural institute in the US.
Mr Mufti has claimed that Dr Saeed used the project fund in which an NGO and the Smithsonian were partners. He said the NGO received all the funds and Lok Virsa received nothing, adding that Dr Saeed replaced regular staff with NGO staffers to get access to the archives and then conspired to take away the archival data, which was then sold to the US.
He also shared with Dawn a copy of a letter written by him to the Smithsonian seeking help in the return of ‘stolen archives’ alleged to have been transferred to the US. He declined to share the response received from the institute.
“You are referring to a project I worked on with Lok Virsa, but the information you seem to have received about it needs some correction or clarification. One small part of our grant was to help them create their database of the sound archives, as part of Lok Virsa’s own digitisation process for their sound archives. So we did help put together the database for record-keeping and indexation of the digitised archives.
“However we do not have and never had any copies of the actual sound archives -- that is, the contents of the archives, like original recorded music or video, after they were digitized,” a copy of a response from the Smithsonian’s Paul Taylor, which is available with Dawn, reads.
When contacted, Dr Saeed said she led the organisation for three years and did not need such a complicated exercise to gain access to its archival materials. She said the complaint was initiated by incompetent and disgruntled staff after she left Lok Virsa.
She added that the purpose of digitising the archives and uploading them onto a searchable database was to create access for people to use these archival materials. She explained that the archives that are not accessible are of little use, and the search function and digital material was to give access to the public, scholars and students.
She added that Mr Mufti’s insistence on going into detail about the US-funded project only served to create confusion. She said all the work was done by Pakistanis hired by Lok Virsa while guidance and equipment came from the American grant.
She explained that it was her choice not to take funds, as the EAD process of approval is long and also because there were many scandals related to the Norwegian grant which was terminated because of misuse and she did not want to take any funding whatsoever.
The main issue, she said, was that the materials were very much there in the archives and “if I had to make a copy for myself it is not difficult to transfer it through the internet or get it on the iCloud in a few minutes.”
“The whole story of first transferring the regular staff out, then putting in contractual staff and then clearing the arena to steal the archives in scores of hard drives is absurd,” she said.
Advisers from the Smithsonian confirmed that they provided Lok Virsa with guidance and were pleased with the outcome. They also confirmed that although they recommended preparing a backup and offered their facility to keep it safe for the government, this was not done.
They insisted that Lok Virsa should keep a backup somewhere outside its premises for safekeeping.
Board of governor documents also make it clear Dr Saeed had the approval of the board and it was aware and pleased with the progress of all the project-related tasks, including all the works being done on the archives.
Mohammad Farooq, an expert on digitisation and intellectual copyright who runs a studio and a consultancy on filing intellectual copyright cases in Lahore, said it was important to first settle the value of what was claimed to be missing.
He said that Lok Virsa does not have copyright to the material it has in the archives, as it has never produced any original material of its own. The recorded songs were already produced by others or those that are folk musicians and are already people’s property.
For example, he said, if a musician performs at Lok Virsa and the performance is part of their archives, the song was still written and composed by someone else and not by Lok Virsa. They could only have the rights to that recording, not for any of the songs they are reproducing.
He said most of Lok Virsa’s recordings are already in the market and are being sold, as they published their archives throughout the past decades. Since the material is already out there, he said, there is no question of stealing it.
He said that because of its video quality, the old material is only good for research and not for broadcast. People should have access to such material for research in any case and that is why a searchable database is needed, he said.
A study of the detailed project documents showed that the US Embassy gave a grant to an NGO, IRC, with Lok Virsa and the Smithsonian as partners. There were several objectives, but the main one seemed to be to provide technical assistance to Lok Virsa to digitise and document its archives.
A major chunk of the grant was spent on the travel and support of Smithsonain to Lok Virsa, a second chunk on purchasing equipment for Lok Virsa and a third on a diversity festival with cultural experts from Pakistan and the Smithsonian participating in culture-related sessions. The grant was only for civil society, but government institutions were allowed to be partners.
Several people from the project explained that one of the expected outputs was to place a backup of the archives at a safe place as per international practice so that in case of fire, a bomb explosion or any other calamity, it could be protected.
The Smithsonian did offer to keep a back up with full rights reserved for the country as they are the keepers for several other countries’, however that never happened and to date there is no backup of the archives saved anywhere else. The current head of Lok Virsa plans to do that and keep it in the national archives.
Published in Dawn, October 19th, 2020