Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Hawks Of South Asia

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh traveled to Kabul for the first time since 2005 , announcing $500 million in Indian aid, raising India's total contribution to $2 billion for developmental projects for Afghanistan and increasing cooperation on security issues between the two countries' governments, which share hostile relationships with Pakistan. A large contingent of Indian journalists filled the venue where Singh shared the stage with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Pakistan has been wary of the growing Indian influence in Kabul; in the past, Afghan and Indian officials have blamed the attacks on Indian establishments in Afghanistan on terrorist groups under the patronage of Pakistan's Inter- Services Intelligence directorate, which has long used the Taliban and other militants as a proxy for destabilizing India in its near abroad. Singh's pronouncements in Kabul were followed with great attention in Pakistan. An Indian journalist asked whether India would mount a covert action similar to the United States' Operation Neptune Spear to kill Osama bin Laden if it had credible evidence of fugitives wanted by India -- from leaders of the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba to underworld don Dawood Ibrahim, accused of masterminding the 1993 Bombay blasts -- living in Pakistan. "These are sensitive issues and we don't discuss strategies on terror in press conferences," Singh replied . But he proceeded to downplay the possibility of India conducting a military raid on Pakistani territory by saying, "Experience in the past has been rather frustrating and disappointing. One cannot lose hope. Let me say one thing: I would like to say India is not like the United States." Yet opinions vary within the Indian establishment. While Singh may sound quiescent notes, some Indian military chiefs and several senior leaders of the prime minister's Congress Party remain hawkish on the question of relations with Pakistan and the settlement of disputes like Kashmir. A few days after bin Laden's killing in Pakistan, reporters on tour with Indian Army chief Gen. V.K. Singh asked him the same question: Could India go after Pakistan-based terrorists? A similar question was thrown at Indian Air Force chief P.V. Naik. The answer in both cases: Yes, we can. Pakistan retaliated with counterwarnings. Pakistani Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir remarked that such "misadventure" could lead to a " terrible catastrophe "- - sending a quick reminder of his volatile country's nuclear capabilities. Yet some Indian television anchors and strategic- affairs hawks, who make Rush Limbaugh sound like Joseph Nye, continued egging on the Indian government for a raid into Pakistan to assassinate men like Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the chief of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, whom India holds responsible for the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. In a move characteristic of the country's competitive politics, India's main opposition party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, called on Singh to rethink his Pakistan policy and demand Ibrahim's extradition, noting that "talks and terror cannot coexist." Even within Singh's Congress Party, a majority of leaders were clamoring for an end to talks with Pakistan. "Singh is in a minority even in his party, but he resisted all the pressure to end talks with Pakistan," said an analyst familiar with those discussions. In the past seven years, Singh has been foremost an advocate of Indian engagement with Pakistan aimed at resolving their several disputes, including the future of Kashmir. A slow process of meetings between Indian and Pakistani officials has lumbered on since late 2003 , reaching its most fruitful moment in April 2005 , when the two countries agreed to allow a bus service for divided families across the Line of Control ( LOC), the de facto border between Indian- controlled and Pakistan- controlled parts of Kashmir.

So Much For Govt's Commitment To Freedom Of Speech

IN ANOTHER glaring example of contradiction with the Awami League-led government’s pre- election pledge to ensure freedom of speech and development of information technology, the home ministry on May 22 circulated a report to other ministries, suggesting that the government should monitor, round-the-clock, social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. According to a report front-paged in New Age on Wednesday, the report, titled ‘ Analysis of the impact of the political crisis in the Arab world on social and political situation of Bangladesh’, prepared by an intelligence agency, makes the suggestion ‘so that no evil axis can hatch conspiracies by campaigning against the government.’ If the government decides to act according to the report, then it can best be described as ominous. Firstly, trying to monitor the activities of individual citizens is a violation of the right to privacy as guaranteed by Article 43( b) of the constitution which states that ‘ Every citizen shall have the right to the privacy of his correspondence and other means of communication.’ Secondly, allowing state agencies to monitor the activities on the web goes against the very principles of the development of information technology, which, as its very history holds witness to, requires an unprecedented amount of freedom for it to grow rapidly through various forms of innovation. Facebook and Twitter are two social networking sites that have found incredible popularity around the world, as well as in Bangladesh, in which people, mostly the younger generation, not only exchange private correspondence, but use it as a platform to express views as well as branch out into numerous productive activities. A democratic government and its agencies cannot have any business snooping around such sites. Every good thing comes with its fair share of bad and social networking sites are no different, however, trying to monitor, regulate or censor them can have far worse consequences, and has the potential to stunt the development of information technology, as well as political and social awareness among the youth, in the country. Another revealing aspect of the report is the manner in which the government and intelligence agencies interpret the Arab Spring. True, the role of Facebook and Twitter in instigating the revolts has raised some eyebrows, but by and large, the world community remains in consensus that the uprisings were a result of years of economic deprivation, socioeconomic disparity and dictatorial rule. While the intelligence report rightly speculates that traffic congestion, price spirals, shortage of gas, power and water could be trigger points for public unrest, it shockingly describes them as ‘evil politics’. When these concerns are genuinely affecting millions in the country, how is that they can be described as evil politics? And moreover, why should citizens be held responsible for discussing problems facing their lives on Facebook and Twitter? Furthermore, we take exception to the use of the term ‘evil axis’ in the report, as quoted in the news item, because it is essentially a term coined by former US President George W Bush to describe forces, Muslim and others, who are opposed to global US hegemony, and which has now been swallowed up by our intelligence agencies. It further reflects how far our agencies have been contaminated by US imperialist propaganda. The intelligence report recommends the government to address issues plaguing ordinary people but, in certain cases, resort to suggestions, once again, that involve strong-arm tactics, such as making roads off-limits to rickshaws as well eviction of hawkers to reduce traffic congestions. If the government takes such reports seriously, as the circulation of the report to different ministries suggest, then it is indeed troubling. Trying to gag people’s rightful platforms to protest, instead of trying to address the genuine concerns for which they are voicing their protests, is indicative of disturbingly repressive tendencies. The government would be well- advised to abandon such tendencies, and take steps to address the ills plaguing people in general.

Persecution Of Journalists At Home And Abroad

THE prime minister’s hitherto inconspicuous and unobtrusive defence adviser, Tarique Ahmed Siddique, held a mind-boggling press conference recently. It was part of a concerted—some would call it concocted—high-level effort to denounce Limon Hossain and his father, with seemingly trumped up charges about the family’s criminal link. There also was a strong attempt to defend the Rapid Action Battalion. RAB members, in a raid to apprehend a top-notch gangster had shot Limon, who lost his left leg and has thus been disabled. The security/defence adviser, a retired major general of the army, described the damaging media reports as a conspiracy against RAB. He claimed that ‘the writers have involvement with militancy.’ He also stated that a newspaper editor was involved with the August 21 grenade attack, ‘We have enough evidence to bring the editor to justice… But we are not doing so as the prime minister does not believe in harassing journalists’ (The Daily Star, May 21). He, however, neither corroborated his assertions nor did he divulge any source or evidence. The ubiquitous home minister later declared that Tarique Siddique’s remarks represented the official government position. ‘The comment of the adviser should be treated with respect and taken as a government statement,’ she said ( bdnews24. com, May 22). Even though her remark was mainly about his comments about Limon’s criminal complicity, her categorical assertion that he represented the government stance would give credence and official seal of approval to his diatribe against the journalists and the media. Limon’s left leg unfortunately was amputated due to alleged cruel and callous actions of elements of the elite security force. Since then the government big shots seem to be suffering from the chronic foot in the mouth disease in a full throttle, insensitive yet futile attempt to misrepresent the facts, demonise the victim and defend an indefensible act. Without delving deep into the tragic and poignant Limon issue, the scathing and hostile comments by the defence adviser and validation by the home minister evidently suggests utter disdain and contempt towards journalists, especially critical press reports. The government bigwigs have grossly compounded the issue by blaming the media and lambasting reporters without substantiating the serious accusations. This negative posture towards the journalists, including coercion and persecution, is widespread in many places. According to Reporters without Borders, a global organisation that defends and protects press freedom, 20 journalists and 2 media assistants have been killed, and 152 journalists and 9 media assistants have been imprisoned all over the world this year. This includes the editor in-charge of the Bangla Daily Amar Desh who was released after a nine-month incarceration. A few foreign journalists were freed in Iran and Libya on May 18. This was welcomed as a positive development by the Committee to Protect Journalists, an organisation dedicated to protection of the freedom of the press and expression. ‘We are relieved these journalists are free. It is time for Iranian and Libyan authorities to review cases of dozens of journalists who remain imprisoned for attempting to report on historic events in the Middle East and North Africa,’ said the CPJ executive director, Joel Simon. Homa Dorothy Parvaz, an Al- Jazeera journalist, had disappeared from Damascus, Syria on April 29 , where she travelled in the guise of a tourist to cover the political agitation. Foreign journalists are prohibited in the country. The Syrian authorities, for inexplicable reasons, deported her to Iran. The Iranian foreign minister declared that Iran had ‘no information’ about the missing journalist. The smokescreen about her whereabouts had caused consternation and concerns among the journalistic community, well- wishers and near and dear ones. Her eventual release after being held incommunicado was thus a great relief. The journalists released from Libya on the same day are Americans Clare Morgana Gillis and James Foley, Manuel Varela of Spain and Nigel Chandler, a British citizen. They had been held since early April. According to Reporters Without Borders, the following journalists are still captive in Libya: Kamel Ataloua, a British journalist working for Al-Jazeera, held since the start of March; Lotfi Ghars, dual Tunisian and Canadian citizen working for Al-Alam TV, held since March 16 ; Matthew Van Dyke, American freelancer who has been held since March 12 , and six Libyan journalists held for varying periods. At least 34 journalists still remain behind bar in Iran. Roxana Saberi, an American journalist of Iranian descent, accused of spying for the United States, was imprisoned for 100 days in 2009. She was mentioned in a recent Seattle Times report as someone who can relate to Dorothy Parvaz’s Iran experience. For weeks, Saberi was not permitted to see an attorney. She was held in solitary confinement for considerable period and kept from contacting her family prior to her release. She stated that Iranian authorities treated her similar to many political prisoners in the country: ‘From detainment to solitary confinement to being cut off from the outside world.’ Saberi had been in Tehran for six years and was writing a book. Iranian intelligence officials arrested her supposedly for espionage in 2009 and interrogated her for several hours before taking her to Evin prison in Tehran. Her life would be in turmoil for more than three months after that. Saberi claims that during her imprisonment, Iranian authorities pressed her to tell lies. She would be released if she confessed to spying, they said. She confessed but later recanted. ‘When you’re in a situation where you can’t talk to anybody from the outside world, I think you become more susceptible to any pressures that you might be under,’ Saberi said. She was sentenced to eight years in prison. Iranian appeals court overturned the sentence, and Saberi was released in May 2009. After her May 18 release from Iranian jail, the Canadian journalist Dorothy Parvaz recounted her 19- day experience in detention, first in Syria, then in Iran. She recalled being taken handcuffed and blindfolded into a Syrian jail, where she heard screams of prisoners being tortured. She felt it was an attempt to frighten her. Many prisoners were young men arbitrarily pulled off the street by security forces. Seattle Times quoted Dorothy Parvaz as saying that in Iran she was held in solitary confinement in the notorious Evin prison, interrogated by the authorities and denied contact with her family. This part of her experience is identical to that of Saberi. But she did not mention being mistreated. Much of the oppression and subjugation of journalists in the region seem to be the direct outcome of popular struggle and street agitation for greater freedom, fundamental rights and political reform. Here is a short description of the plight of other journalists in a few countries in the turbulent Middle East since the inception of the so called Arab Spring: Bahrain: The officials have accused the international media of supporting protesters ever since they began demonstrating against the government in February. Many foreign reporters have been denied visa, detained or deported from the airport. Frederik Richter, a German journalist and Reuter’s correspondent in Manama, Bahrain since 2008 , left the country recently at the behest of the government, which has accused him of biased reporting. In his last dispatch before departing Bahrain, he described the country possessed by fear. Oman: Reporters Without Borders is very disturbed by the course of events in Oman, noting in particular journalist persecution and roadblocks in their professional work, removal of websites and blocking media sources. The authorities have been cracking down on the anti-government demonstrations taking place for days in several parts of the country including Muscat, the port city of Sohar and the southern city of Salalah. The protests and repression are now getting virtually no credible news coverage. Syria: Without international media access and banning of foreign journalists, a reliable picture of the suppression of local journalists is hard to uncover and may only be exposed anecdotally without details. Reporters Without Borders hailed the release of Syrian journalist and activist Malak Al- Shanawani on May 15. The tumultuous Arab countries are not alone in targeting journalists for simply performing their professional duty. China, along with Iran, is the world’s top jailer of journalists, according to CPJ research. Other countries are then jailers of lesser magnitude. There are plenty of examples of victimisation of journalists at the flimsiest pretext. Samy Mbeto, a radio journalist in the Republic of Congo, for example, was detained on April 9 allegedly for ‘insulting authorities’ and ‘defaming politicians’ and urging listeners to mistrust election campaigns prematurely started by politicians before the legally permitted date. Mbeto was arrested without any evidence to support the charges, according to Journalists in Danger, partner organisation in Africa of Reporters Without Borders. Mbeto, however, has since been granted bail. On May 31 , thirty-three members of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange, global network for free expression, condemned persecution of imprisoned journalists in Eritrea. In an open letter to the president of the country they expressed serious concerns about the continued detention of journalists and dissidents in Eritrea under inhumane and appalling conditions. This has just been a tip of the iceberg in terms of journalist bashing, repression and internment. From the numbers, mentioned at the start of this article, the atrocious practice is prevalent in many countries where the concepts of freedom of expression and press are not adhered to. There is no let up in extensive journalist persecution. Way back in 1852 , Wendell Phillips, orator, abolitionist and a columnist for Liberator said, ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty’ in a speech before the Massachusetts Antislavery Society. In countries such as ours, an elected government often acts in an authoritarian manner. In such a situation, the ruling brute majority often imposes the unsavoury will on the helpless people to fulfil narrow vested interests, the rule of law is missing or absconding, dissent, divergent and critical opinions are not tolerated and suppression and subjugation are common occurrences with professional and intrepid journalists specially targeted. The adage is more pertinent here than anywhere else and more appropriate now than ever before.


Where does one draw the line between a devoted journalist's right to sift the truth from fiction and report, and an assassin's bloodlust to silence him? The kidnapping and murder of Asia Times Online's Pakistan bureau chief, Syed Saleem Shahzad, only days after he had exposed a possible link between al-Qaeda and Pakistani servicemen [1 ], in the macabre but gory drama of Karachi's apparently well-guarded naval-aviation base, Mehran, invaded on May 22 by a handful of terrorists, raises that obvious question. I had written a piece for Hong Kong-based Asia Times Online on that incident and was informed that the article would appear on Thursday, May 26. But my take on the brazen development didn't   appear because on the same day Saleem had filed a copious, ***two- part*** story on what had actually transpired and who might have been involved in that obvious breach of security at a prestigious naval base in the heart of Pakistan' s largest city. I felt sorry that my story had been killed, but appreciated the editor's compulsion for doing it. Saleem was the man on the spot, whereas I was a distant observer from thousands of kilometers away. But how I wish, now, that Asia Times Online hadn't carried Saleem's no-holds-barred analytical expose of what is without doubt a cloak-and-dagger story of which we haven't, yet, seen all. Saleem, 40 , disappeared on his way to a television interview in Islamabad on Sunday evening. On Tuesday, police said they had found his body in Mandi Bahauddin, about 150 kilometers southeast of the capital. There were indications that he had been tortured. He is survived by his wife, Anita, and two sons aged 14 and seven, and a daughter aged 12. Those assassins who've silenced him forever may not have read what he wrote. But once a man makes a blip on their radar, he stays there, in their gun-sights, until they get him. Saleem isn't the first, nor will be the last, Pakistani or foreign journalist whose life flame has been put out by the merchants of death who have apparently been roaming the land and plying their trade with virtual impunity. Pakistan had the most journalist deaths in the world in 2010 - 44 - and not one killer has been brought to justice. Pakistan is "the world’s most dangerous country for journalists" the Paris-based press-monitoring group Reporters Without Borders said last month. Human Rights Watch cited a " reliable interlocutor" who said Saleem had been abducted by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). " This killing bears all the hallmarks of previous killings perpetrated by Pakistani intelligence agencies," said a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in South Asia, Ali Dayan Hasan. He called for a " transparent investigation and court proceedings". In mid-October last year, Saleem sent an e-mail to the editor of Asia Times Online, Tony Allison, which contained part of an exchange between Saleem and an official of the ISI. It read, "I must give you a favor. We have recently arrested a terrorist and recovered a lot of data, diaries and other material during the interrogation. The terrorist had a list with him. If I find your name in the list, I will certainly let you know." Saleem told Allison that he specifically interpreted this as a direct threat. He had been summoned to ISI headquarters over the publication of an exclusive report that Pakistan had released the supreme commander of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, so that he could play a pivotal role in backchannel talks through the Pakistani army with Washington. ( Pakistan frees Taliban commander October 16 , 2010.) The ISI demanded that Saleem reveal his sources, and also write a rebuttal. Saleem refused, to the obvious displeasure of the ISI officials who included Rear Admiral Adnan Nawaz and Commodore Khalid Pervaiz, both from the navy. At this point, Allison suggested to Saleem that he lay low for a little while. His response was abrupt and summed up the man, "If I hold back and don't do my job, I might as well just make the tea." Saleem began his journalistic career as a bit-part reporter in the early 1990 s in the southern port city of Karachi covering the municipal beat. He began writing for Asia Times Online 10 years ago and through a doggedness and burning desire to get to the truth that became a hallmark of his career he became internationally recognized as a leading expert on al-Qaeda and militancy. His book Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11 was released by Pluto Press last week. United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commented on Saleem's killing, "The United States strongly condemns the abduction and killing of reporter Syed Saleem Shahzad. His work reporting on terrorism and intelligence issues in Pakistan brought to light the troubles extremism poses to Pakistan’s stability.” Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has expressed sorrow and ordered an immediate inquiry. Saleem's journey took him into the badlands that span the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the mountainous region that is home to militants of all shades. In November 2006 he was held captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan for six days, but within days he was back in business, literally sweating, as he would joke, up and down the valleys of North and South Waziristan. (See A 'guest' of the Taliban Asia Times Online, November 20 , 2006.) He interviewed some of the most notorious militant leaders, including Sirajuddin Haqqani, a major player in the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, and Ilyas Kashmiri, a Pakistani militant who heads 313 Brigade, the operational arm of al-Qaeda. (See Al-Qaeda's guerrilla chief lays out strategy October 15 , 2009.) Killing, in cold blood a man of letters like Saleem amounts to an open declaration of war against the fundamental principles of Islam and defiance of the teachings of its Messenger, Prophet Mohammad, who bestowed the greatest honors on a seeker of truth by intoning that " the ink of a scholar's pen is holier than a martyr's blood". The core problem in the context of Pakistan is the failure of the state as a whole - which includes its ruling elite, the military brass and civil society in general - to come to grips with the challenge of fundamentalists and their soul- comrades, the terrorists. Except for a small segment of the intelligentsia bemoaning the debasing of Pakistan's moorings, there is hardly any backlash in evidence against the corrosive damage the fundamentalists are doing to its social order. The silence of the clergy against the defacing of Islam is simply deafening. Those few voices that articulated against terrorists have been brutally silenced. The ruling elite has become almost irrelevant to the country's crying need for wise and enlightened leadership to arrest the inexorable slide into anarchy. Their sole concern is with remaining in power by any means, even if it means subcontracting Pakistan to a United States agenda. The military leadership, on its part, has failed to check the spread of the festering cancer of fundamentalism and radicalism in its ranks - a damning legacy of General Zia ul-Haq's 11 years at the head of Pakistan, and then General Pervez Musharraf's rule until August 2008. Saleem's last contribution to Asia Times Online focused intently on this "black hole" of Pakistan. And he paid for it with his life. Pakistan's military brass remains hopelessly mired in its infatuation with parity with India in military hardware and it must therefore stay on the right side of US to keep its arsenal well stocked. Its latest decision to sign on to Washington's demand for military action in North Waziristan - a central piece of Clinton's visit to Islamabad on May 27 - is evidence of the US agenda in the region ruling the roost in Islamabad. A blitz in North Waziristan will, inevitably, lead to a more virulent terrorist backlash in the rest of the country and more spilling of innocent blood like Saleem's.