Pakistan: Unpleasant Pleasantries
Media and Ethics
by Sadaf Arshad | Published: December 2, 2010, Pakistan Today
No less than 104 intercepted phone conversations, carefully selected out of 5,000, tapped by the Income Tax Department, has left India’s media in turmoil. Surprisingly, though, the decade’s most notorious scandal could not charm the Indian media which is always sniffing for “breaking news” and exclusive stories. Reason: it exposed two top pro-establishment Indian journalists – Ms. Barkha Dutt, NDTV diva of Kargil fame, and Mr. Vir Sanghvi, columnist and Editorial Director of the Hindustan Times– who were caught working as couriers or go-betweens Congress leaders and Ms Nira Radia, a corporate lobbyist and PR agent.
The revelations came against the backdrop of a recent 2G spectrum telecom scam which demonstrated how the then Telecommunications Minister, Mr. A. Raja, bent the rules to favour many top companies, especially those of tycoons Mukesh Ambani and Ratan Tata. Now we know why both Ambani and Tata lobbied for Raja to become the Telecommunication Minister after the last general elections. Radia has huge stakes in this ballgame because both Ambani and Tata are among her top clients.
When talks between the Congress and DMK broke down over a possible alliance in Government in May 2009, Radia got actively involved in opening channels between the two parties for reconciliation. It turns out that one of Radia’s interests was to get a certain gentleman by the name of A. Raja to become the telecommunications minister. This is the same Mr. Raja who, as the minister-in-charge, has recently been at the centre of the multibillion corruption scam. The taped phone conversations have now put the heat on the top dogs of the media who are said to have had a hand in helping make him a minister in the first place.
Another highlight of the tapes was the dispute over fixing the price of natural gas between Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries and his brother Anil Ambani’s Reliance Natural Resources (RNRL). Mukesh Ambani has cleverly used Radia’s PR in the media to win the legal battle against his brother and Sanghvi’s column in the Hindustan Times on the gas issue is proof of the latest media trend of “selling space”.
Mr. Sanghvi, it now turns out, was cajoled by Radia to write that column in the Hindustan Times supporting Mukesh. It emerges that both Barkha and Sanghvi agreed to convey “appropriate” messages to the Congress high-command to influence their decisions. After the backlash, Barkha immediately turned towards social media and defended herself through her tweets. One of her tweets says, “Barkha Dutt – Amazed angered and saddened at inability of some to distinguish between gathering info and ridiculous labels like lobbying/powerbroking”.
The irony here is that the Indian media is always in a frenzy about “sting operations” to expose corruption in the greasy world of Politics, Bollywood and Business. But this is the first time that the media has been trapped in a similar situation. The bigger irony is that the mainstream media has closed ranks and almost killed the news, confirming its close links with Corporate India.
N Ram, the editor of “The Hindu”, defended such accountability of media-persons as well. He said the media needs to be on the spot light. “It is embarrassing and unprofessional of them. Hats off to those who brought it to the public”, said Ram bluntly. S. Nihal Singh, a senior journalist, wrote that “a singular feature of the tape is how some journalists think of themselves as kingmakers…and revel in high-level political drama”.
In the plethora of news channels which compromise quality and now objectivity in pursuit of “sensational and juicy” news, such media gimmicks still shock audiences. The “breaking news syndrome” has led the media to violate ethics and professional integrity. Should journalists “lead-on” sources, as Barkha and Sanghvi have claimed in defense, or should there be clear red lines when something like this becomes an act for lobbying on behalf of sources?
These are serious issues. If they had broken the news that the DMK was using a top professional lobbyist, who was also working for the Mukesh Ambani and Tata groups, to influence congress, that would have been a true and sensational story. But they did the opposite. They connived in Radia’s efforts, with Sanghvi even publishing a scripted column in his paper in favour of Mukesh Ambani.
Feeble voices in support of both journalists are progressively being drowned out even more. Barkha Dutt’s “tweets” in defense show anger and frustration but are not terribly credible. Not so long ago, a Pakistani journalist, Hamid Mir, was also caught in a similarly embarrassing situation after his incriminating conversation with an unnamed terrorist was tapped. Now the decade’s worst media scandal has thrown a new challenge: how to hold the media accountable for its forays in politics and corrupt practices.
The Indian media has gone far in pursuit of fame and commercialism, in the process forgetting, for instance, the real issues that journalists in the north and north-east are facing where insurgencies are raging and human rights abuses by security forces are legion. Indeed, a powerful corporate culture has almost isolated and blacked-out those real heroes who are still facing censorship and death threats by state and non state actors.
This division of the Indian media into those who brazenly uphold corporate or government interests and those who stand for the public good and human rights is threatening the very fabric of media professionalism and ethics and codes of conduct. If the Barkha-Sanghvi scandal is a wake up call, then it is still not too late to reverse the trend. But if it is going to be swept under the carpet by owners and editors, then it is a sad day for India’s media and India’s democracy.
Sadaf Arshad is the Executive Editor of South Asia Media Monitor, published by South Asia Media Commission (SAMC) and a blogger.
If you’re a woman and want to cover your face, then be prepared to face a fine of 150 euros whenever you do so in France. And if you’re a man and force your wife to cover her face, then you’ll have to pay a stiff penalty of 30,000 euros plus suffer a year in jail. France’s enshrined values of equality and liberty received a mighty but controversial boost when the country’s lower house of parliament recently voted for a bill banning the full veil or burqa in public. The anti-burqa sentiment is led by President Nicolas Sarkozy whose anti-immigrant stance as home minister some years ago struck a popular note among right-wing conservative voters. He now quotes what he says is the “true spirit of French culture and secularism” which cannot allow this “oppression” and isolation of women in society anymore.
Why is such a bill needed when there are only 2,000 women out of five million Muslims in France who want to strictly adhere to this dress code? Indeed, the debate about assimilation versus integration has just begun in earnest in Europe. The critical positive signal came from the opposition socialists who abstained from voting due to internal disagreements. The month of September will decide the fate of this bill when the Senate debates and votes on it.
Still, the iron is hot across Europe. Spain and Belgium have already passed laws against the full face veil, the latter being the first to take such a step. But due to a change in government there, the Senate’s approval is still awaited. Earlier, in a controversial display of fear and Islamophobia, the Swiss people voted in a referendum against allowing mosques with minarets. The French apparently picked up cudgels against the full veil when a Tory backbencher, Philip Hollobone, broke the ice in the UK (which has a sizeable Muslim electorate) by tabling a private member’s bill to outlaw the veil.
We don’t need to go to Europe to understand the power of the image. Syria, a predominantly Muslim country, has just banned the full veil in public in order to protect its secular values. Not so long ago, we too saw gun-toting black shuttlecocks at the site of the Lal Masjid in Islamabad and we cannot forget the audacity of Maulana Abdul Aziz when he tried to flee in a head-to-toe burqa. A new anti-veil vocabulary has also sprung up in Europe. “Walking coffins”, “walking paper bags on your face” and “hiding your face” are some of the expressions that Europeans tend to share after looking at the burqa. Meanwhile, Amnesty has denounced the French ban saying that it “violates freedom of expression and freedom of religion”.
It is a bad move to single out any one religion and discourage cultural diversity. The ban is also likely to provoke a hard look at Europe’s liberal immigration policies of the last 30 years that have encouraged Muslims from former colonised lands to make a home in Europe. Images of gun-toting shuttlecocks in far away Taliban and al Qaeda enclaves refuse to go away. The fear is that would-be suicide bombers could exploit the burqa and use it to mount attacks inside Europe. Thus this security issue seems to be one of the primary reasons for the ban. The other, of course, is European pride in an open society in all aspects of life.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 26th, 2010.
Green lobsters, democracy and EU-Pak relations
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
The joint statement following the second EU-Pakistan Summit in Brussels attended by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was full of diplomatic niceties, signifying little. But that is hardly surprising.
The EU wants Pakistan to focus on eliminating the sources of terrorism and it acknowledged “the great sacrifices being made by the people and the security forces of Pakistan”. However, the EU isn’t prepared to commit greater number of men and more military materials to the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Waziristan.
Pakistan wants the EU to give it greater access to its markets. But it is not able to diversify its textile exports or improve the quality of its food and fish products to comply with the EU health standards. Pakistan is 45th in line among the EU’s 200 trading partners. But its contribution is just 0.3 per cent of the total EU trade, despite the fact that the EU does not charge Pakistan full duty rates – a concession the EU gives to boost trade with this conflict-ridden country.
“We are stuck,” one EU official commented on the 2007 ban on fish products from Pakistan on the grounds that the popular green lobsters were packaged for export in unhygienic conditions. When the EU sent food inspectors to Pakistan, the government was so irked that it responded by temporarily withdrawing their visa facilities. The ban is still in place and the Pakistan government has done nothing to improve and regulate the export environment of the fishing industry.
Textile exports is the other major issue. One official said the solution for Pakistan is to “diversify” because the competition is tough. Also, there is the problem of relatively poor EU member states such as Portugal, Greece and Italy which are competing for the same home market as Pakistan in textiles. Needless to say, India has adjusted to the new market needs and is now producing mobiles, cars, software, and films for export to the EU. It ranks as the EU’s 7th top trading partner with over 50 billion euros in trade every year. When Pakistan demanded a zero per cent import duty regime like the one allowed to Bangladesh and Afghanistan, it was told that it was not “such an underdeveloped country”. On the other hand, Sri Lanka enjoys a Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) Plus because it has signed all the required international treaties and conventions, unlike Pakistan whose case will be considered in 2013 when the FTA is reviewed.
The EU is also part of the Friends of Democratic Pakistan (FoDP) network. But it hasn’t coughed up any significant amounts of money to help revive Pakistan’s economy whose slump is among the causes of increasing alienation and anger among the unemployed youth of the country. This is mainly because the EU (and the Euro) is in an acute financial crisis itself following the collapsing economies of Greece, Spain, and Portugal owing to irresponsible fiscal spending. Therefore, one should not expect too much of the next meeting of the FoDP which will held in Brussels in August this year.
Under the circumstances, talk of strengthening the “strategic dialogue” for peace and development through a five year engagement plan to be drawn up in due course may turn out to be a lot of hot air.
Still, there is some good news. The EU remains committed to the Malakand Development Programme and Pakistan welcomed the launch of an EU ‘Civilian Capacity Building for Law Enforcement’ programme to support the government’s counter-terrorism efforts. This programme aims at capacity building in the field of civil law enforcement by supporting the newly established National Counter-Terrorism Authority (NACTA) under former FIA boss Tariq Pervez in the PM’s secretariat in Islamabad in becoming a fully operational and effective agency. It further supports Pakistan’s authorities in the development of provincial capabilities, by working on law enforcement and criminal justice.
The EU and Pakistan have also started to work jointly towards further liberalisation of trade in goods and services in order to mutually enhance market access in accordance with the World Trade Organisation’s rules and obligations. The proposed dialogue will focus on “a possible free trade agreement” while the EU explores ways to amend its preferential tariff regime (GSP+) in the context of the preparation of the next GSP Regulation, thereby allowing new beneficiaries, including possibly Pakistan, to take advantage of this scheme.
The EU is already assisting Pakistan to resume its exports of fishery products and will carry out the necessary inspection on a priority basis. The EU also says it will increase the funding for trade-related technical assistance to Pakistan.
But the proof of the pudding will be in the eating of it. EU funding under the
Development Cooperation Instrument (DCI) for the period 2011-2013 is expected to rise by 50 per cent to 75 million euros per annum. This enhanced engagement – a drop in the ocean for Pakistan – is part of the EU Action Plan for Pakistan which sets out priorities such as capacity support to the rule of law sector, support of the Malakand Development Strategy and the Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa/FATA/Balochistan Multi-Donor Trust Fund managed by the World Bank (the EU is participating as a major partner in a Post Crisis Needs Assessment).
The joint statement talks about EU’s support for the Indo-Pak peace process but there is nothing concrete on offer. There is also talk of setting up an independent National Human Rights Commission in Pakistan and the EU’s appreciation of Pakistan’s signing of the instruments of ratification of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention against Torture (CAT).
The EU-Pak dialogue has now been extended beyond official levels. A small group of Pakistan’s journalists from the print and electronic media was invited to Brussels for a special four-day seminar prior to the summit. Its aim was to remove confusions and misunderstandings regarding the EU’s policies and to try and reach a better understanding of what makes Pakistan tick, or not. It included many meetings and briefings with senior European Commission officials who are particularly involved in EU’s relations with Pakistan, along with the representatives of the Council and European Parliament.
This was also an attempt to counterbalance America’s role in Pakistan and establish an EU policy footprint in the Pakistani mind. Of course, this isn’t an overnight development. The EU has been a soft player all along as evidenced by the frequent stopovers of Richard Holbrooke, the special US-Pak Envoy, in Brussels in the past two years. The UK government is also seemingly keen to add the weight of the other EU countries behind its own diplomatic efforts to engage Pakistan and Afghanistan directly. Hence the nomination of special Af-Pak envoys by the UK and the major EU countries in the last year or so. “This is a new phenomenon,” explains Shada Islam, an expert on EU-Pak relations, “Pakistan has been de-hyphenated with India, and simultaneously hyphenated with Afghanistan.”
More ominously, there is a consensus among the European Commission officials that the developing EU-Pak relationship could be seriously undermined if democracy and human rights are derailed in Pakistan. That should give the government, the Pakistan Army, the Supreme Court, the media and the opposition pause to reflect on the increasing instability in the country.
Green lobsters, democracy and EU-Pak relations