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Daily Times Editorials – 4th February 2016

Visa controversy

Bollywood veteran Anupam Kher has become the centre of a controversy after he was allegedly refused a visa for Pakistan, where he was invited to attend the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) starting from February 5. The actor was one of the 18 Indians invited by their Pakistani hosts to the four-day event. All the others, including Congress leader Salman Khurshid, director/actor Nandita Das, transgender rights activist Laxmi Tripathi and Indian journalist Barkha Dutt were granted visas. The issue rocked the social media as tweets continued pouring in regarding the visa snub to the Indian actor. Kher claims that Pakistan’s interior ministry did not send a clearance for his visa. Expressing his anger and disappointment, Kher has further alleged that he was denied the visa due to his being a Kashmiri Pundit and his views about the alleged terror nexus of Pakistan. On his part, the Pakistan High Commissioner to India Abdul Basit has responded by asserting that Mr Kher never applied for a visa so the question of issuing or denying him one does not arise. Reports quote Ameena Saiyid, Managing Director of Oxford University Press Pakistan and a key figure in the KLF that they were told after a delay Anupam Kher should not apply since he would not be granted a visa. The facts about these claims and counter-claims cannot be established. However, it is another sad episode in the wake of tense relations between both neighbouring countries. Anupam Kher is a talented actor but he has earned his opponents’ wrath for his controversial statements regarding intolerance in India. He may not be liked by others for his views on religion and his support to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but it is one’s right to have one’s own opinion and others must respect one’s views.

If the authorities in Pakistan have refused him a visa on these grounds, it is not a good policy. Inviting only like-minded people from the other side of the border will not help establish a harmonious relationship. Persons with divergent views should also be given a chance to speak their mind in order to develop a better understanding and dispel misconceptions. There should no restriction on the freedom of expression. As a BJP supporter, whatever his views regarding the tolerance and intolerance issue, it was his democratic right. Artistes and other scholarly figures can play an important role in easing tensions. Therefore there should not be any visa curbs on luminaries on the basis of their personal opinions. Both states need to promote people to people contacts that can be helpful in improving ties and establishing a lasting peace.

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Sounds of silence

Freedom Network, an independent Pakistani civil and media liberties monitor, recently released its annual report, ‘Growing Sounds of Silence — The Year of Censorship’, elucidating on the dramatic rise of severe restrictions imposed on journalists and media houses, suppressing dissent and freedom of expression in 2015. It stated that the number of journalists and media assistants killed in 2014 was 14, and led to Pakistan being named the most dangerous country in the world for journalists, but this number has gone down to seven in 2015. This is nevertheless a grim statistic and the apparent decrease is explained more by the fact that the media has been effectively silenced rather than being a reflection of a relatively safer environment. Those killed include four journalists, two media assistants as well as prominent media activist Sabeen Mahmud. In addition, 10 media personnel were attacked and injured this year, and nine were kidnapped from their homes or workplaces. Most of those abducted and later freed were tribal journalists, and in all these cases the army and paramilitary forces, such as Sindh Rangers and Frontier Corps, were involved. Despite the reduced number, the public sphere has become imbued with an ominous silence, most seriously emanating from the self-censorship that the media has been forced to adopt to survive. Measures have been taken to ensure compliance, including an additional clause to broadcasters’ licences disallowing airing content containing any ‘aspersions against the judiciary or armed forces’. A delay mechanism has been applied to live broadcasting for enforcement of such restrictions. Moreover, the electronic and print media both have had to toe the ‘official’ line, operating on the basis of ‘press advice’ from the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) and the Press Council of Pakistan (PCP). This ‘new’ practice recently included subduing of criticism against Saudi Arabia. The report also stated that during 2015, important steps were taken to counter crimes against the media, including the arrests of the murderers of Sabeen Mahmud and Wali Khan Babar.

While the civil and military leadership boasts of tireless devotion to the cause of promoting democracy day and night, it has proceeded with a tyrannical regime of inaudibly silencing all opposing voices. After the onerous struggle to overcome the draconian censorship that had engulfed the public discourse for decades, Pakistan had only in recent years begun to breathe a sigh of relief when another round of dilapidating blows have been struck against freedom of speech. The very questions with their unadulterated veracity that sting those in power, are the ones most needed for a thriving democratic system. Unless these questions are raised, crucial debates will not be triggered, and consequent conclusions imperative for betterment will never be reached. Historically and currently, a free press remains a necessary condition for the success of any democratic state and society. This style of governance needs to be revisited, because if hijacking the nation’s liberties does not backfire, the denial that this self-aggrandising narrative has pushed the leadership into certainly will.

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Digging its own grave

The crisis emanating from the government’s desire to steamroller the privatisation of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) is only getting worse, as the government’s inept and callous handling of the matter is akin to pouring oil on a fire. What was simply a peaceful protest by PIA employees in Karachi turned into a deathly conflict. As the workers chanted slogans outside the cargo terminal of the Jinnah International Airport, the police and Rangers subjected the advancing protestors to baton charges, water cannons, tear gas shells and rubber bullets. However, during the chaos some hitherto unknown members of the law enforcement agencies (LEAs) shockingly fired live rounds directly at the protestors. This highly condemnable and exasperating use of deadly force killed three PIA employees and injured several others. While neither the police nor the Rangers are ready to accept responsibility for the deaths, eyewitnesses put the blame on the latter. The news of this ghastly use of force quickly spread and enraged PIA employees throughout the country. In the wake of the killings, and despite the Prime Minister’s (PM) invocation of the anti-union Essential Services Maintenance Act, they announced a countrywide strike that has resulted in an indefinite suspension of flights. Consequent to this loss of life, the chairman of PIA Nasser Jaffer, evidently overcome with guilt, stepped down from his post. Small wonder, however, that the government’s response to this tragedy has been cold-hearted and callous. The PM, while visiting a coal-fired power plant, maintained a tough and uncompromising position vis-a-vis the protest and stated that striking PIA workers would be fired and jailed. In the same breath he employed the classic strike-breaking tactic of offering special rewards to scabs. High ranking ministers of the government went further than their PM. Minister of Information Pervez Rashid, in particular, first termed the strikers as “enemies of Pakistan” and later made allusions to a conspiracy being hatched against the government by claiming that “blood of innocent protestors was shed in Karachi to make the ‘failed protest’ of [PIA] employees successful”. The rhetoric coming out from the PML-N camp makes it painfully clear that the top brass of the ruling party has let its paranoia blind it to the ground realities. This myopia enables the PM and his top lieutenants to rationalise the logical upshot of their staggering missteps as a product of a coordinated sabotage being carried out by the opposition parties.

As things stand, there is a palpable risk of further (deadly) confrontation on the horizon. The mystery surrounding the deaths of the PIA workers reeks of a cover up. Even if, as the LEAs claim, none of their men fired the fatal shots, the competence of the forces present at the scene is to be questioned since they let shooters get away in broad daylight despite heavy deployment. A judicial inquest must be conducted to get to the bottom of this. In parliament, opposition parties stand united in condemning the government’s handling of the matter and are calling for a parliamentary inquiry. They upheld the right of citizens to hold peaceful protests and decried the government’s “dictatorial” approach and side-stepping of democratic procedures. The response of the government to this charge has been to cite Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s usage of similar tactics against PIA in 1976, which is a remarkably juvenile line of defence. Elsewhere, labour unions of other governmental organisations (WAPDA and Railways) have also begun to join in the protests against privatisation in solidarity with the PIA employees after the deaths. Leaders of labour movements, rights activists and opposition politicians have all been galvanised by the government’s tactics. In other words, the stage is set for an all out revolt against the government as the ruling party continues to dig its own grave by relying on heavy-handed devices and failing to evolve as a party sensitive to the mores of a democratic society, where voices of dissent are not only normal but healthy. It is another matter entirely that privatisation is not the panacea it is advertised as. Past experience tells us that privatisation as it is practiced in Pakistan is mired i lack of transparency and a lack of means to ensure private corporations abide by contracts. No one denies PIA is in need of an overhaul, but the smart strategy would not be ramming privatisation down the throats of PIA workers. There is an acceptable standard to these things, and it involves getting the consent of all stakeholders and assuring them their concerns will be addressed. The only way the government can get itself out of this hole is if it lets its stubborn obsession to privatise subside and gives the PIA workers the chance to turn things around.

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