Tag Archives: media

Tracking the Wild West in Pakistan

I had the pleasure of sharing a panel with Sinan Antoon last Saturday at the Page Turner literary festival. Sinan noted at that panel the dense, suffocating weight of western constructions of other places and peoples so much so that it begins to seep into our sense of ourselves so that it now, for instance, not uncommon to find casual reference to Pakistan’s Tribal Areas as a kind of “wild west” frontier  (or, alternatively, to hear about groupthink by classes of people as “tribalism”). The extension of that imagination –and therefore, implicitly of a network of related ideas: civilization, manifest destiny, noble savage– is both prelude and effect of the terror wars. I have been working on an article that touches on some of this.

Examples, in no particular order, of the use of the “wild west” trope in journalism writing and media about Pakistan:

The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) is Pakistan’s impoverished, wild west region, bordering Afghanistan, where the Taliban and al Qaeda have established a stronghold to plan their attacks on Kabul, Islamabad, and New York City. –Foreign Policy, Nov 04, 2009

Dara, a dusty, Wild West-type town, crawls with intelligence agencies, drug smugglers and gun-toting Pathan tribesmen. –The Telegraph, Dec 02, 2005

Dealing with Pakistan’s Wild West –The Globalist, Jan 24, 2008

“It’s the wild west of the 18th century,” says Imtiaz Gul, Pakistani journalist and author of “The Most Dangerous Place: Pakistan’s Lawless Frontier.”

“People are like the old time Wild West, adventurous creatures who grew up with guns, who grew up with a lot of adventurism and who are pretty partially alien to the culture of United States, or for that matter even the culture of Islamabad. –PBS NewsHour Jun 15, 2010

Darra Adam Khel, a small burg in Pakistan’s tribal areas, is the quintessential frontier town. Picture Wyatt Earp sashaying down the streets of Tombstone in a turban, and you begin to get the idea. –Washington Post, Mar 30, 2008

Pakistan’s Wild West – A Photo Essay –TIME

Waziristan -Pakistan’s Wild West (Video) –FORA.TV on Dailymotion

There are more guns for him to choose from in Darra Adam Khel, the nearest thing Pakistan has to a Wild West town.

In fact, guns are about the only things made and sold in this dusty one-street town near Peshawar, capital of the country’s unruly Northwest Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan. –LA Times, Sept 27, 1987

A Wild Frontier – It will take more than American missiles to bring order to Pakistan’s north-western border region –The Economist, Sept 18, 2008

If Peshawar is the Wild West with electricity, then Lahore is Southern California in the 1950s without the beaches. –Rug Review, Feb 1989

Rudyard Kipling described this dusty frontier capital near the Khyber Pass as a “city of evil countenances.” Other cities lived, Peshawar lurked. Even the shadows here had shadows. –LATimes May 12, 1986

Pathans Rule the Wild West –The Independent, Jun 03, 1999

Wild West Pakistan –The Age, Jan 29, 1980

It is an economy and society evoking an image of the American Wild West –Christian Science Monitor, Dec 06, 1982

Wild West Alive, Well in Pakistan (also on Darra Adam Khel) –The Lewiston Daily Sun, Nov 21, 1973

These two provinces, called the “wild west” of Pakigtan (sic) –NYT, Mar 29, 1973

Asked why many of his opponents suddenly find themselves up for murder, Bhutto said it was all part of the “Wild West” atmosphere of Pakistan politics –Lewiston Evening Journal, Mar 12, 1973

“Shooting started last Thursday,” he continued, “and all hell let loose Friday. It was just like the Wild West.” East Pakistan Refugees Tell of Mass Executions, The Milwaukee Sentinel, Apr 07, 1971

BOOKS

Warrior Poets: Guns, Movie-Making and the Wild West of Pakistan 2008

Among the wild tribes of the Afghan frontier: A record of sixteen years close intercourse with the natives of the Indian marches 1912

I had ventured into Pakistan’s wild west and I had the scars to prove it. Muslim Cleavage 2011

Peshawar is the capital of Pakistan’s “wild west” Three Cups of Tea 2009

Peshawar Pakistan is the archetypal wild-west frontier town Force Valor – Revenge (Vol 1) 2013

For Special Forces, Afghanistan was the wild wild West, and the new Ranchers reveled in it. –The Hunt for Bin Laden: Task Force Dagger 2003

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Upcoming Talks

Here’s an interview with me about life under drones. I’ll be presenting on the same topic at the Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference this Friday at NYU.

Last week I had the pleasure of presenting along side Sinan Antoon and Amitava Kumar at the PageTurner literary festival. I think an audio or video of that event will be available at some point.

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The headlines according to race

Thousands of police stops and searches were done without the legal justification needed to do so, a new study conducted by a law professor at Columbia University finds. According to its findings, force was 14 percent more likely when police stopped Blacks and 9.3 percent more likely when stopping Hispanics as compared to whites. And–again in comparison to whites–weapons and other contraband were seized nearly 15 percent LESS often in stops of Blacks and almost 23 percent LESS often in stops of Hispanics. Blacks were 31 percent more likely to get a summons.

And if you go to prison: Inmates and employees at 10 federal prisons were exposed to toxic metals and other hazardous substances while processing electronic waste for recycling according to a report from the Justice Dept. And in case giving health problems and killing a disproportionate number of non-whites within the US wasn’t enough, unspecified amounts of that toxic waste has been shipped overseas, possibly to third-world countries where it can leach into the groundwater and harm local populations.

A white woman, who is named, surrounded by a halo of brown kids who are unnamed gets the cover of NYT’s Sunday Magazine. Racism works by saving brown women, hunting brown men and making sure none of them ever come over here.

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Drone attacks: Evaluation of evidence & the making of experts

I just took a look at New America Foundation’s (NAF) report on drone attacks in Pakistan which concludes that the rate of civilian deaths from these flying killer robots (h/t High Clearing) attacks is 32 percent. Is it just me or is the report full of some fairly problematic stuff? The authors of the report Peter Bergen,  CNN’s “national security analyst” and researcher Katherine Tiedemann, compiled data on American drone attacks in Pakistan from “reliable” English language news media. The news organizations that made the cut include the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, CNN, and the BBC. They also used Pakistani English-language media: the Daily Times, Dawn, and the News—as well as those from Geo TV, the largest independent Pakistani television network.

Unstable Data. These are influential names to be sure, but reliable…? Remember the Iraq War? Remember Judy Miller? Remember the financial crisis? It’s no longer possible to simply assert the reliability of major news organizations especially when it comes to reporting on conflict areas. And, the news organizations in Pakistan, while aggressive in pursuing civilian politicians, are known to have a deep aversion to crossing the military which itself seems to be divided on the issue of the flying killer robots. They also have a practice–this is especially true of the English language media–of loosely following the western media line sometimes, even to the point of literally repeating the western media organizations. This often puts Pakistanis in the bizarre position of opening their newspaper and reading news about Pakistan that’s been filtered through, most often, the NYT. See for example this report in a national Pakistani newspaper on Mullah Baradar’s arrest which says: “The New York Times and other US media cited US government officials as saying that US and Pakistani intelligence services arrested Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Karachi.” Or, here’s a story about Pakistan’s nuclear production in the leading English-language daily, Dawn. The headline reads: “Pakistan Planning to Expand Nuclear Production: NYT”. Dawn took the story from NYT which in turn took it from a newswire, Agence France-Presse. And, here’s one by the English-language Daily Times which reproduced for their story, CNN’s entire script for the same story  about a fashion show in Karachi. Yes, the local papers have contacts and know what’s going on, but you’re unlikely to see it in print.

I’d take what these news organizations say with a glassful of salt. Here’s what B&T say about their rationale:

Our research draws only on accounts from reliable media organizations with deep reporting capabilities in Pakistan….As a whole, these news organizations cover the drone strikes as accurately and aggressively as possible, and though we don’t claim our research has captured every single death in every drone strike—particularly those before 2008, when the pace of the program picked up dramatically—it has generated some reliable open-source information about the number of militant leaders killed, a fairly strong estimate of the number of lower-level militants killed, and a reliable sense of the true civilian death rate. (p2, “The Year of the Drone”)

But from where are the news organizations getting their information given that much of the area is off-limits to reporters? A cursory glance at some of the articles B&T cite for their evidence shows a pretty common formula in the news reports. The beginning of the article usually says something like so: X number of militants were killed , a security official said. These security officials are, of course, nearly always anonymous, that is, they cannot be held accountable. We don’t know whether these are local folk or Army folk or, for that matter, the ISI. We know nothing about them, their interests, their position and thus can make no judgment about their claims. Now, while the word “alleged”–as in alleged militant–appears to have disappeared from the lexicon of said media organizations when it comes to attacks by flying killer robots on Pakistan, this is effectively how the news report ought to be read because it’s telling you: This is what the anonymous official said, but hey, we don’t know because there are no eyewitness accounts nor is it verified by an independent body. In fact, it’s usually only supported by another one or two anonymous “security” or “administrative” officials.

Secondly, B&T can claim that they militate against error by citing multiple news sources, but that simply shows a deep ignorance about how reporting is done in remote areas of Pakistan, something they might’ve looked into before proceeding with their first grade arithmetic. Despite the multiple news media organizations cited, it’s highly likely that the stringers who get the information are speaking to the same anonymous source(s). It’s common for reporters/stringers to try and inculcate relationships with higher-ups to get information, and there are usually a few point people within bureaucratic institutions like the police who get called upon by journalists. So, it’s likely that it’s the same people giving information to several news organizations. All multiple citing does in this case then is to produce an echo chamber of the same official line, a line spoken by some anonymous official.

Generally speaking, there are fairly few stringers covering large swaths of Fata. These stringers often end up relying on personal relations in small villages and towns for their information. They are not usually able to ascertain the veracity of the figures given by officials. And, because nobody wants to get nailed, reporters generally arrive at some loose consensus about how many people were killed. (This is common practice and happens in other reporting too.) As a general rule, you might think of reporters and stringers as a kind of reporting tribe with a shared culture and interests. In the absence of statistics from eyewitnesses or on-the-scene accounts, media folk generally cleave close to the official account of what happened and who was killed. They are also more likely to stick to the “official” figures because of officialdom’s claims to authority. (Much of this is not particular to Pakistan either.) So, for a host of reasons, the reporting capabilities actually aren’t that deep, contra B&T’s claim. One of NAF’s own ‘experts’ made the same observation during a recent event co-sponsored by NAF, and Foreign Policy, where policy analyst Hassan Abbas said this (click on the icon to see relevant video):

The people of the region, especially Fata and NWFP will be more convinced about the effectiveness of US policy especially in terms of the drone attacks when they will routinely know who is the person killed…We often hear after the event that no 3 of Taliban or al Qaeda was killed and that’s often the first time we’re hearing the names of those people. There is a lot of controversy. Who is the neutral body which is giving a judgment?…So, I’m not ready to buy what the person who is shooting is saying or the person who are the parties [sic] related to that which have interest on the ground. Any third party will tell us out of 10 hits how many are working. I hope it is working. i hope Ayman al Zawahiri or Osama bin Laden are hit by these drone attacks, but that has not happened yet. And, related to this, then there is a political fallout.

I think a case was made belatedly that there are much less civilian casualties than projected in the media and because of that –we must also understand that in Fata, in that area, there’s no credible reporting. They have very few journalists on the ground. It is often from telephone from one person. You’ll not get a chance to really corroborate that story, but based on what we know from some of the credible journalists who get a chance to go there and come back –and then you have to decipher also from within the military briefings also and the civilian statements what the reality is: The people are really distressed. In that kind of –which I’d mentioned has a psychological impact–in that distress, I doubt if they are thinking in any positive terms about US or the US presence in Afghanistan or the Pakistan military’s operations in those area….(emphasis mine)

Now, on one hand, unnamed officials are calling nearly everyone who dies a militant; on the other hand Pakistani authorities have claimed that nearly 700 civilians died in 2009 in a separate study which B&T view skeptically. So, who are we to believe? Are these the same officials playing a double-game? More to the point for this post: why do B&T evince such healthy skepticism for one set of official figures but seem to swallow the other set once they’ve been printed up by “reliable” media organizations who carried out no independent verification? B&T reproduce opinion as fact by counting every unverified death as a militant simply because some unnamed official said so. You can’t do that and claim you have a reliable estimate of militant v. civilian deaths. Well, you can and they do, but they’re wrong.

Little by little, the reporting process has been building an archive written by the powerful that is now being accessed by think tanks to support official American policy. This isn’t an indictment of stringers who work for scandalously little pay especially when compared to the bloated bungalows of their English-speaking, superiors in Islamabad, but it is a critique of B&T’s analysis. The instability of the evidence should have been a key point of discussion. It’s also kind of basic social science. That it’s never thought out in the report nor been questioned since is a testament to a kind of control, following Bourdieu, of the social cognitive map. Reports like NAF’s study and think tanks whose work largely seems to involve attaching apparently objective numbers to official positions in order to lend them the air of disinterested truth reproduce this kind of social control. This is the role of experts: as arbiters of legitimate knowledge. They decide who counts and who doesn’t.

Militants, Civilians and Assumptions. What’s the definition of a militant for B&T? We never get one in this report. It appears to be a bit like pornography: You know it when you see it. This is the closest they get to clarifying it for us:

One challenge in producing an accurate count is that it is often not possible to differentiate precisely between militants and civilians in these circumstances, as militants live among the population and don’t wear uniforms. For instance, when Baitullah Mehsud was killed by a drone last August, one of his wives and his father-in-law died in the strike as well. (p3)

Let’s parse this a bit. Yes, it’s true that militants don’t wear uniforms and do live among the population. But then, so do soldiers much of the time. Does that justify a bombing say in the NYC subway or Fort Dix in NJ because hell, American soldiers do live there among the population. (To be clear: it doesn’t.) And in the Mehsud example that they provide, they’ve pretty clearly distinguished here between Mehsud, his wives and his father-in-law. In other words, this is not an example of inability to distinguish between Mehsud and his family members. It’s rather an example of not bothering to distinguish: The bomb struck his home. They intended to strike his home. (Unlike American soldiers, locals don’t have the luxury of fighting in other people’s countries where the collateral damage is borne by others’ families.) The problem now actually appears to be as follows: should the family members of of known Taliban et al be considered militants by dint of their association? And that gets to an underlying tendency in current imperial thought on this subject. A soldier is a soldier because of what he does. The uniform signifies his/ her duty or job. S/he sheds it as lightly as s/he does his/ her clothes. But a militant is not defined by what he does. It’s who he is. A soldier is a job; a militant is an ideology and that’s why it’s impossible to distinguish between Mehsud the Militant and his family who may have believed his ideology in their hearts even if they never picked up a gun. And that’s why bombing a home is perfectly ok. In fact, in several of the accounts, people were apparently killed while they were in cars or homes.

What is also striking in the report is how studiously–and ideologically–the authors maintain a separation between the violence perpetrated by killer robots and the violence perpetrated by militants. For example, take this:

Despite the sharp rise in drone strikes over the past year and a half, Afghanistan and Pakistan still face extraordinary levels of terrorist violence. In 2009, there were a record 87 suicide attacks in Pakistan, which killed around 1,300 people, 1,155 of them civilians. This was up from 63 suicide bombings the previous year (and only nine in 2006). Pakistani Taliban militants mounted a fierce campaign of attacks against military, government, and civilian targets throughout the fall after Pakistani ground operations in South Waziristan began in mid-October. (p4)

Why does this paragraph begin with “despite” especially since it notes that the figures for suicide attacks have gone up rather than down concomittant to the increase in American attacks? It could just as well make sense to write this paragraph as follows:

Despite [Because of] the sharp rise in drone strikes over the past year and a half, Afghanistan and Pakistan still face extraordinary levels of terrorist violence. In 2009, there were a record 87 suicide attacks in Pakistan, which killed around 1,300 people, 1,155 of them civilians. This was up from 63 suicide bombings the previous year (and only nine in 2006). Pakistani Taliban militants mounted a fierce campaign of attacks against military, government, and civilian targets throughout the fall after Pakistani ground operations in South Waziristan began in mid-October.

The “despite” functions as an ideological marker. Indeed, towards the end of their study, the authors themselves note:

Third, although the drone strikes have disrupted militant operations, their unpopularity with the Pakistani public and their value as a recruiting tool for extremist groups may have ultimately increased the appeal of the Taliban and al Qaeda, undermining the Pakistani state. This is more disturbing than almost anything that could happen in Afghanistan, given that Pakistan has dozens of nuclear weapons and about six times the population. (emphasis mine) (p5)

Well, that’s pretty damning and gets to a critical issue regarding the effectiveness of death-by-killer-robot which is the subject of their study. If the attacks are creating more militants, then um, isn’t that, like, a major problem or something? The authors, however, leave it at that. Part of the reason that there’s no follow-through on this issue of action and reaction is because they have to get to their conclusion (guess what it is!). But, it’s also because, as per my earlier point, a militant is what you are; there is no action and reaction because what the militant does is guided by his ideology or by a charismatic leader so warranting “leadership decapitation” (literally. see NAF’s Sameer Lalwani for this argument) or by his Islam or by his madness but whatever it is, it’s utterly divorced from anything the Empire is doing. (To be clear: I do not hold the position that the Taliban et al are anti-imperialists. I’m only discussing issues of causality here.) Marked as Muslim, (brown) and enraged, ‘the militant’ signifies the Orientalist racisms of western analysts. An angry Muslim is indistinguishable from a militant. They disappear into each other, the Muslim and the Militant. This Muslim-Militant is locked in its own world outside the history of the west. For an unsophisticated but refreshingly blunt version of this, read Bernard Lewis. And so, following suit, despite B&T’s concern for civilian deaths–they write “Trying to ascertain the real civilian death rate from the drone strikes is important both as a moral matter and as a matter of international law which prohibits indiscriminate attacks against civilians”–the categories in their data are divided as follows:

  1. al Qaeda/Taliban leaders killed
  2. al Qaeda/ Taliban killed (what they describe as “low level militants”)
  3. Others

Whither the civilian? There aren’t any because they are finally indistinguishable and inseparable. “Others” is not a legal category, but it is a telling moral one. Here, then is the apropos conclusion:

Despite the controversy, drone strikes are likely to remain a critical tool for the United States to disrupt al Qaeda and Taliban operations and leadership structures. Though these strikes consistently kill Pakistani civilians, which angers the population, and prompt revenge attacks from the militants, Pakistani and U.S. strategic interests have never been more closely aligned against the militants than they are today….

The drone attacks in the tribal regions seem to remain the only viable option for the United States to take on the militants based there who threaten the lives of Afghans, Pakistanis, and Westerners alike. (p6)

But, dear Reader, you already knew this was where they had to end up, didn’t you?

Meanwhile, having successfully laundered unnamed official opinion into a bright white fact, B&T can now reproduce their work as “expert knowledge” in an op-ed in the NYT today where they claim that despite the secrecy of the flying killer robot program, they’ve been able to get a “reliable” civilian casualty count. They then cite their civilian casualty rate for 2009 alone (29 percent) which is lower than the all time casualty rate that tops their report (32 percent). The 2009 figure is then seconded by an even lower estimate given by a US official. The Pakistani study is nowhere to be found because ultimately, in the context of current power-relations, it appears less authoritative and less truthful than what the American truthmakers produce.  Truth, as Foucault noted, is an “effect” produced by power-relations.

And every time a flying killer robot attacks, an expert is born.

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Why Revolutions Don’t Get Televised

ABC 7 happened to be at the local bar where I watched Obama deliver his drivel about continuing the occupation of Afghanistan. The channel was interviewing ex-marines who had gathered there about their reactions to Obama’s plan. This is the usual displacement of politics into the military domain that the American media, particularly television, carries out so dutifully. We don’t have debates about the politics of the issue at hand, but discussions about military tactics that foreclose any discussion of the occupation itself. All that’s left to argue about apparently is whether 30,000 troops is enough.

In an excellent report, NYT reporter David Barstow covered the Pentagon’s domestic propaganda program in his 2008 series. Today, a key figure from that program continues his post as Defense Department spokesperson in the Obama administration, according to Media Bloodhound.

The American media thus, turns, Clausewitz on his head: politics is simply war by other means.

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Field Notes: Fashionistas and Fanatics

saree_608Speaking of fashion shows, I got a call to cover the week long Pakistan fashion week that happened in Karachi last week for a European channel. While I didn’t write the pitch, I understood what it was. It began with “Under the shadow of the Taliban…” You get the point.

I took the assignment because I’m a broke freelancer trying to get started, and if nothing else, it makes for some field notes. I’m interested in the process of “professionalization” in the MSM and what that extracts. The question is this: Given the framing, how far can one go in reworking a story? It’s the master’s house and master’s tools question, the tension between individual agency and the discursive networks in which we become subjects and enact ourselves.

Here’s a bit of what I wrote in a prior blogpost, funnily enough, before I knew that I would be covering a fashion show shortly:

So, for example with Pakistan, the story is quite simply, the Taliban. Now, the stories around that can be of basically two types: 1) follow the narrative straight. These are stories about the latest statements, advances, losses, and crisis instigated by the Taliban and the Army or government’s response to them, or the US aiding monetarily or militarily that fight -or- 2) seemingly disrupt the narrative. These are the stories that are about a brewery in Murree or a high-end fashion show in Lahore, or a sex toys factory in Karachi. The implicit story arc is: Yes, Pakistan has the Taliban and they’re all Muslim, but look, they’ve got fashion and sex and alcohol too! The story works by  juxtaposing the broader ‘truth’ of what is Pakistan with local exceptions (alcohol, fashion, sex). But, at heart, it’s a reinforcing maneouvre because really, they’re only newsworthy precisely because they function as exceptions to the larger rule, Taliban.

This story finally didn’t run. They wanted a “conservative” criticizing the event and well, the ubiquity of the story made it unnecessary for them to run it. But, as you can see in the video below, the framing is the key issue, and once the frame is the Taliban, there’s little room for maneouvring. The script you see here is the result of an initial script I wrote, that was re-written (not by me), and which I in turn, changed in places during the final voiceover.

CNN:

EuroNews (video)

Pakistan’s Fashionistas Defy Taliban -AP

KARACHI, Pakistan — Some women strode the catwalk in vicious spiked bracelets and body armor. Others had their heads covered, burqa-style, but with shoulders — and tattoos — exposed. Male models wore long, Islamic robes as well as shorts and sequined T-shirts.

As surging militant violence grabs headlines around the world, Pakistan’s top designers and models are taking part in the country’s first-ever fashion week. While the mix of couture and high-street fashions would not have been out of place in Milan or New York, many designers reflected the turmoil, contradictions and tensions coursing through the society.

Islamic robes? really? Oh wait, I get it. It’s an Islamic country (duh) and they’re wearing robe like things. Islamic + robe = Islamic robes! TaDA! The MSM is as sharp as ever.

AP is a newswire service, so this story is not a singular event. It was multiplied and amplified many times over. Some examples include: NYT, CBS, Boston.com, NPR, Forbes, and The Guardian. As an unscientific measure, there are 59,900 web hits for “Pakistan’s Fashionistas Defy Taliban,” the headline for the AP story, a veritable echo chamber reverberating with a singular message. Undoubtedly, not all of them are AP’s story,  but even if one accounts for that by taking out a few thousand, that still leaves the mass of repetitions. As Goebbels said, “The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is born in mind constantly: it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.”

But there is no singular propagandist here. It occurs on a technical plane. As Adorno and Horkheimer argued,

Interested parties like to explain the culture industry in technological terms. Its millions of participants, they argue, demand reproduction processes which inevitably lead to the use of standard products to meet the same needs at countless locations….In reality, a cycle of manipulation and retroactive need is unifying the system ever more tightly. What is not mentioned is that the basis on which technology is gaining power over society is the power of those whose economic position in society is strongest. Technical rationality today is the rationality of domination. (emphasis added)

The headline also topped stories written by others:

Pakistan’s Fashionistas Defy Taliban -Telegraph (UK)

Bare shoulders, backless gowns and pouting models are wowing Pakistan’s glitterati as Karachi fashion week shows the world a different side of the Taliban-troubled nation.

While women in much of Muslim, conservative Pakistan opt for headscarves over baggy shalwar khamis or even burkas, on the catwalks of financial capital Karachi, designers are exposing midriffs and flashing cleavage.

‘Fashion Week’ First for Pakistan -BBC

Pakistan is hosting its first ever fashion week in the city of Karachi against a backdrop of heavy security.

Around 30 Pakistani designers are taking part in the event which ends on Saturday.

The shows are taking place in the luxury Marriott hotel. Last year, the hotel’s branch in the capital Islamabad was devastated by a massive truck bomb.

Of course the truck bomb at the Marriott happened neither in Karachi -if we are going to be so concerned about being there and experience- nor did it have anything to do with a fashion show. But, kudos still to Elettra Neysmith of the BBC. It takes a full five paragraphs before we get to the obligatory ‘Pakistan is conservative’ line, and even here, the article attempts to dispel the idea that all of Pakistan is wearing a burqa:

While women in much of Muslim, conservative Pakistan wear headscarves and baggy shalwar-kameez (pyjama and long tunic), in the financial hub of Karachi, jeans and T-shirts are more likely to be seen.

Five Days of Fashion Show the Flip Side of Coin that is Pakistan -Daily Times (Lahore-based daily)

In a country fighting a bloody war against itself, Pakistan organised its first fashion week, with an elite segment of society scoring a “victory of sorts” – as CNN described it – to assert itself to Pakistan and the world in bold colours and striking poses. The international network’s description of the five-day celebrations of style sums up the organisers’ aim magnificently: “A model strikes a pose, shows a side of Pakistan the world rarely sees… with some of the attitude you may expect from the world of high fashion.”

The entire story is CNN’s video script for the fashion show. Note the circulation here: an international media outlet, CNN, reports the story which then gets mirrored back for local consumption in a national daily. We see ourselves as others see us?

A critique on Counterpunch: Moderns, Models and Martyrs.

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Faith. Unity. Brutality.

[screen grab]“You don’t want me to chop off your hands and feet,” says the Army officer to a Pashtun.  This horror-flick statement is part of a 10-minute video that, if authentic, would be the first time that proof of the brutality of the Pakistani Army will have been captured on tape. The footage shows Pakistani soldiers interrogating and then beating Pashtun men suspected of harbouring the Taliban. The soldiers kick, whip and thrash their victims who scream and agonize on the ground.

Authentic or not, the ruthlessness shown in the video is already real for the Pakistani media so much so that hardly a local media outlet dared report on it. Being beaten or having your hands chopped off is rather unpleasant business after all, and few reporters are willing to risk that for a story. The fear is pervasive, and the near pitch-perfect silence speaks volumes about the army whether the video is a real or a fake.

It was the BBC that first carried the story on October 1st after the video had been making rounds on Facebook. That was followed by a piece in the Guardian. Under pressure from stories being carried in the foreign press, the English language dailies, Dawn and the Daily Times finally ran pieces today available here, here and here.

Compare that to the coverage of the Taliban flogging video in April this year. Within a week, numerous articles had already been published. Justifiably horrified progressive Pakistanis took to protesting the Taliban in Karachi and Lahore. Then newly reinstated Chief Justice took suo moto action the same day calling the case to court. As a result, the man beating the girl in the video was arrested a day ago.

It’s one thing to criticize mullahs, militants or politicians like President Asif Ali Zardari, say local journalists, but quite another to probe “the establishment,” the term in Pakistan for the nexus of military and security agencies that run intrigues, kidnappings, undercover operations, and lately, the American war on terror.

Democracy may be transient in Pakistan, but the establishment is well…established. Cameramen know the areas that are off-limits for filming in the heart of Pakistan’s cities; reporters know which stories should go unrecorded. Otherwise, as one reporter explained it to me, “Accidents happen.” You may be hit by a car, or a container might fall on you. Or, you may disappear and a few hours later your brother will find your mangled body.

That’s what happened with Musa Khan Khel, the 28-year-old Geo Television reporter who was killed in Swat the day the Swat peace deal was signed with Sufi Muhammad. Only a few days earlier, Khel had told his reportedly told his employers, “I have been receiving death threats from a powerful force. They are after me. They want to kill me.”

Khan Khel never specified who “they” were. Veteran reporter and Khan Khel’s friend, Imtiaz Ali says he doesn’t know either, but  “The Taliban proudly declare when they’ve done something.” In this case however, they came to offer condolences to Khan Khel’s family after his death.

It is known that Khan Khel was on tenuous terms with the Pakistan Army officials and often barred from official press conferences in Swat, the region he was covering as a result.  He set out on the morning of his death to report with his brother. They were banned from covering senior minister Bashir Bilour’s press conference that day announcing the Swat deal between the government and local militants.

Khan Khel stated this fact in the last report he filed. It would run in The News a day after his death.

***
The Army is everywhere. When I was a child, we would watch a television show about young dashing Rashid, an Air force pilot who does kamikaze rather than be caught and divulge his secrets to the enemy. I wanted to be him. At six years old, didn’t we all?

Karachi monument

Karachi monument

Now, returning after 19 years, the symbols are everywhere. Unity. Faith. Discipline. The Army motto haunts the country in oversized and often fairly ugly sculptures. A sculpture of Jinnah along with the army motto lay carved on a grassy hill in Islamabad. Three phallic marble swords pierce the sky in Karachi. At their hilts, the army motto. In Lahore at the Wagah border between Pakistan and India, thousands throng to watch the Army ritual on Independence Day. There is no room for everyone inside the enclosure. The crowd runs thick. It surges forward. Soldiers on horseback lathi-charge, beating at random. A man screams in the crush trying to turn his car back around in the human sea. His daughter is bleeding from her head. He needs to get out.

We all need to get out. In its latest operation in Swat, the Pakistan Army has already been accused of human rights violations by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). After being so unceremoniously tossed out of their homes and livelihoods, the nearly 3 million internally displaced Swatis are being handed 500Rs per adult head and returned on buses, packed off for journeys scheduled to be as long 35 hours, which if one is familiar with “Pakistan standard time” actually means more like 45 hours. One bus fell into a ditch this week. Fifteen people were killed.

Islamabad monument

Islamabad monument

The public indignities which the Pashtuns have suffered are the result of the “army better than the Taliban” mentality. But for whom exactly? Caught in that abysmally narrow-minded refrain are all the calumnies, indignities, horror and violence of what has happened in Swat. In the name of destroying the Taliban, the Pakistani elite cheered on an army that razed villages and collectively punished Pashtuns. That is what is going on in that video: collective punishment. And the groundwork for what is geographically and mentally in the periphery was laid in the heartland of Pakistan. Stories of the “Talibanization” of Karachi smack of cold racism against the immigrant Pashtun population against whom the MQM, the party that rules Karachi, has long held a grudge. They are the underclass in Pakistan, our cooks, our car drivers, our chaukidars.

And what will follow in Waziristan?

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Chaos Theory: The Press on Pakistan

I’ve just published a media critique of Pakistan coverage by the American press:

Chaos Theory: How Pakistan was Cast as a Failed State Columbia Journalism Review 4.24.09

An excerpt:

Pakistan is on the clock. “A fast-expanding Islamic insurgency…threatens to devour the country,” wrote The New York Times this month. The 175 million-strong nation has been on deathwatch since at least February, when The Atlantic Council sounded the alarm that Pakistan was headed for turbulence within twelve months. Recently, General Petraeus’s advisor shortened the time frame to within six months. “We could see the collapse of the Pakistani state,” said David Kilcullen. “Al Qaeda acquiring nuclear weapons, an extremist takeover—that would dwarf everything we’ve seen in the war on terror today.”

Tick tock. Boom.

It would be difficult to know from recent articles that Pakistanis scored a stunning mass-political victory only a few weeks ago. Instead, the press has been parroting Washington’s conventional wisdom on Pakistan as a country coming apart at the seams. There is no civil society here, only loons and goons that need to be bombed. The U.S. has based its actions on this decades-old story, and that has now helped produce the very realities Washington claims only to describe.

And shortly following my piece, it appears that other commentators have also noticed the breathless tone of the MSM with regard to Pakistan. Here are some:

  1. Commentary: Pakistan Isn’t Falling Peter Bergen, CNN 4.27.09
  2. Time Magazine’s “Reporting” on Pakistan Drone Attacks is Pentagon Propaganda Jeremy Scahill, Rebel Reports 4.29.09
  3. Pakistan Crisis and Social Statistics Juan Cole, Informed Comment 4.26.09


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Pakistan: A Primer for the New York Times

These are a couple of reminders for the paper of record:

  1. It’s the social forces, stupid.
  2. When writing editorials, making sense is a Good Thing.

Let’s start with the first. Here’s the lede to the NYT story announcing the reinstatement of the Chief Justice:

LAHORE, Pakistan — The Pakistani government agreed early on Monday to reinstate the independent-minded former chief justice of the Supreme Court, a stunning concession to the opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, who had been heading toward the capital in a convoy threatening to stage a mass protest over the issue after he broke free from house arrest at his residence near here.

This is just wrong. The concession was not to Nawaz Sharif; it was to the lawyers’ movement, you know, those thousands who have been marching in the streets defying government repression and getting their heads bashed in by the police.  Those people. The concession is to them. And while Nawaz Sharif and his party have been pushing for the reinstatement of the judiciary, the movement does not belong to them. They belong to the movement. The Sharif brothers know this. In fact, they’ve glommed on to the movement in a shrewd political manoeuvre to polish-up their tarnished image, and it’s a tenuous alliance.

Click here for more

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