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Is Media under self-censorship or Enforced Muzzling?

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This year in August, torrential rains wreak havoc in the biggest city of Pakistan Karachi leaving 23 people dead and damaging city’s outdated infrastructure. The rains didn’t spare posh areas including Defence Housing Authority, commonly known as DHA, and extravagantly built Behria Town. Several feet high rainwater roamed on newly built wide roads and entered into the houses of the Behria town. Sorry tales of the posh town residents would have gone unnoticed had there been no social media accounts posting footages of rain water. Mainstream media, however, didn’t air awful footages of Behria Town instead kept televising urban flooding in parts of Karachi and Sindh.

This was not the first time that over 3 dozens of news channels ignored taking up issue related to Behria Town. Be it a National Crime Agency’s (NCA)£190 million settlement with Malik Riaz, owner of Behria Town, in 2019, or Riaz’s$2 billion settlement with government over illegal land occupation in Karachi, media keeps shameful silence.

The much touted town, built on all modern day standards and a luxurious place to live in, is owned by Riaz, who helmed to become real estate tycoon by allegedly illegal land grabbing and is known for buying anything. Channel owners, reporters and anchors are therefore of no exception. He feeds media with several minute long commercials during prime-time slots thus becoming a major source of channels’ revenue, gifts plots to anchors who then portray him as messiah and donates generously to needy families that helps him his image building.

Just when Karachi rains were occupying media screens, a story by Ahmad Noorani, an investigative journalist, drawn public attention when he revealed properties owned by Lt Gen. Asim Saleem Bajwa (retd). Noorani alleged that Bajwa, who is currently head of the CPEC authority, runs a parallel business overseas and how Bajwa’s assets witnessed massive growth in no time. The story, startling in nature and demining for military circles, didn’t get space on news channels rather a TV channel termed Noorani as traitor and Indian agent while leading anchors, through their twitter handles, also doubted Noorani’s revelations. It was not surprising that the news did not made rounds as Bajwa himself is overlooking media affairs.

In the third week of July, Islamabad based senior journalist Matti Ullah Jan was abducted in broad day light by unidentified men from a busy street. Jan, known for coming hard on military and critical towards judiciary, was released twelve hours later after mounting pressure on social media. Just as dozens of other such stories remained off-air, Jan’s abduction also appealed none. 

Renowned and veteran journalist Sohail Warraich’s Urdu book ‘Ye Company Nhi ChaleGi” (this company will not run) is a satirical take on ruling PTI’s governance style. The book underlines why PTI government is in limbo and the author predicts that the Khan led PTI cannot have acquaintance with the establishment and thus bound to fall in near future. The cover of the book had a cartoon depicting PM Khan sitting in the feet of COAS and playing with a balloon. Soon after the book was launched in market, the publisher had to pick it from all selling points amid unknown reasons. The author however, said that it is better to adjust the cover of the book and adjust all reservations as I want readers to have book read.

Considered as one of the pillars of state functionaries, media made inroads in Pakistan in early 2000s when the then President Pervez Musharraf allowed private channels to set up offices. In less than a decade, the media witnessed tremendous boom not only providing thousands of jobs but also initiating culture of debate in otherwise ‘controlled’ atmosphere. The spree went on until 2007 when media freedom was first curtailed after imposing emergency in the country. Pervez Musharraf banned several TV channels and tightened noose around media networks forcing many to comply in line with what is a greater ‘national interest’.

Desperate measures to put the media genie back in the bottle turned futile. Media had become resilient by then and played role in ousting one of the powerful rulers in Pakistan.

After Musharraf, Pakistan was lucky to have two consistent democratic regimes which, despite unbridled vile campaigns and at times factually incorrect reporting against the governments, tolerated media and didn’t restrain their rights. This made media fearless and it went to lengths in discussing range of topics except defence and security strategies. 

Quite recently though, the media in Pakistan has once again come under consistent pressure by the government. Leading news channels went off-air, circulations of top newspapers disrupted, unusual delays or edits in print articles and stories, while many anti-establishment anchors were forced or they preferred to resign. The irony of the situation is that the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf(PTI) perhaps would not have been able to form government had the media not given all-out coverage to its 126 days long sit-in, political rallies and violent statements which it now cannot let go on-air. Furthermore, anchors who rendered PTI as the savior, now face censorship on many of subjects they want to cover, let alone ‘no go areas’. Consequently, Pakistan now ranked 145 out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index, six places lower than it was in 2018.

And guess what, the ruling government is not learning at all. List of instances that underline besieged press is quite long under the aegis of PM Khan‘s government, ranging from sedition charges on a former Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) Chairman to arrest and release of daily English newspaper news editor and a FIR against Islamabad based producer.  

Curbing media freedom has ostensibly caused two major problems. There is hardly any space left for voice of dissent and healthy criticism. This has compelled many critical journalists to establish their own YouTube channels where they can express views more frantically. The absence of guest who can cross check details made them believe that their analysis stands paramount. Furthermore, curbing media has brought international shame for the country with many of global media watchdog voicing concerns over media freedom in Pakistan.

Secondly, junior media workers bear the brunt more in case channels downsize their staff or impose salary cuts after they face revenue shortfall. A number of social media accounts shared pictures and sob stories of media technicians who previously were employed in TV channels but are now doing menial jobs to make both ends meet.

Media’s self-imposed censorship e.g. not to air news about tycoons and departments that are source of revenue for them is another problem. Owners at times, either keep mum about certain issues fearing from revenue loss, or they run smear campaigns against opponents, putting fact-check behind.  

Pakistan has had a tainted history with media censorship, military rulers and politicians alike imposing strict rules on what could be reported, often citing national security.

Healthy criticism doesn’t bring harm to the state rather it underpins loopholes in policymaking. In the past we have seen states that granted media freedom have done well than of the states who tried to take freedom away. Likewise, self-censorship can please a cult of ‘financers’ but it undermines quality content and balanced reporting. Attempts to threaten and muzzle media are destined to be ineffective. The world has changed, technology provides alternative ways e.g. Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and smartphones to access information. Pakistan, a nurturing democracy, cannot afford to suppress freedom of speech as the suppression cannot work for long.

Ameena Tanvir is a PhD scholar at the South Asian Center in Punjab University Lahore. She tweets at @AmeenaTanvir and can be reached at ameenatanir20[at]gmail.com

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Rohingya crisis: How long will Bangladesh single-handedly assume this responsibility?

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Photo: IOM/Mashrif Abdullah Al

At least 8,60,000 Rohingya FDMNs, mostly women and children entered Bangladesh fleeing unbridled murder, arson and rape by the Tatmadaw in Rakhine, what the United Nations has decried as textbook example of ethnic cleansing and genocide, beginning on August 25, 2017. The latest influx of Rohingyas brought the number of undocumented and registered Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to more than 1.1 million. Not a single Rohingya returned home to Rakhine when the Myanmar government blocked the repatriation process in various ways. Owing to critical socio-economic, environmental and security concerns, the Bangladesh government launched a project of relocating one-tenth of the Rohingyas to Bhashan Char on a voluntary basis. So far 18,334 Rohingyas have been relocated to Bhashan Char and they expressed “high satisfaction” over the existing considerable safe, secured and crime-free environment compared to the mobbed camps in Cox’s Bazar.

Bangladesh government invested more than US $310 million from its own funds to develop the 13,000-acre island with all amenities and facilities of drinkable water, electricity, sanitation, agricultural plots, 120 cyclone shelters in each cluster, two hospitals, four community clinics, mosques, warehouses, telecommunication services, police station, learning centers and playgrounds which is far better than the facilities in the Cox’s Bazar camps. From the outset, the initiative was called into question by some human rights organizations and NGOs. However, in the wake of recent visits by high officials of the international community and donor states, it has been proven that the allegations against Bangladesh were merely political and propaganda.

Delegates from the EU, the OIC and the UN all demonstrated their prima facie satisfaction by seeing the facilities and living conditions of the Rohingya refugees in the Bhashan Char. Previously, a few INGOs and interest groups disseminated that the conditions in Bhashan Char are inhabitable and the relocation plan is a wrong decision of the Bangladesh government. But now all the foreign delegates and human rights proponents agreed that the decision to relocate some 100,000 Rohingyas to Bhashan Char under the Ashrayan-3 project was a timely decision for the well-being of the Rohingya community itself. Since the massive influx of Rohingya into Bangladesh in August, 2007, Bangladesh has actively carried out its humanitarian role. But, has the international community fulfilled its duty, apart from criticizing Bangladesh’s initiatives and raising funds for refugees for the time being? Bangladesh has done its part, and it is now time that the international community shares the burden and puts pressure on Myanmar to repatriate the Rohingya refugees.

Bangladesh is trying to solve the crisis with its utmost efforts using all of its diplomatic maneuvers in the bilateral, trilateral and multilateral levels. Acknowledging the outstanding assistance in hosting 1.1 million Rohingya in Bangladesh, the US special envoy for climate change John Kerry during his recent visit to Bangladesh said that the global community must hasten its efforts to resolve the crisis as it is not merely responsibility for the country. Bangladesh in every multilateral forum has been desperately raising the issue of the Rohingya crisis as it has a far reaching social, economic, environmental and security concerns not only for Bangladesh but also for the South Asian region. For instance, Bangladesh raised the Rohingya issue at the 10th D-8 summit held in Dhaka and sought international support.  But it is ironic, due to lack of goodwill of the concerned parties, the situation is protracting. All the international community including the UN, the EU and the OIC members should work in a coordinated way to find a comprehensive and durable solution to the Rohingya crisis.

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Covid19 mismanagement in India

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© UNICEF/Vinay Panjwani

The writer is of the view that the pandemic in India would have been less virulent if the Indian government had been more truthful and egalitarian in its preventive policies. India prematurely claimed a “victory” against the virus. It vowed to export vaccines to other countries while its own states groaned under shortage of vaccine, drugs and oxygen. The government called the foreign Muslim preachers “super spreaders of the virus” and “terrorists” while allowing elections rallies and  Kumbh congregation. The pandemic brought home one truth. Lies do not always fructify.

India is struggling to contain the spread of the new ‘double mutant’ Covid-19 variant which has turned out to be quite lethal. The positivity peaked with 3, 82,315 new Covid-19 cases pushing the country’s overall caseload to over 2, 06, 65,148. With fresh infections, the total active coronavirus cases in the country has mounted to 34, 87,229, according to the data released by India’s health ministry. The New York times reported, ‘The sudden surge in recent weeks, with an insidious newer variant possibly playing a role, is casting increasing doubt on India’s official Covid-19 death toll of nearly 200,000, with more than 2,000 people dying every day (New York Times April 24, 2021). However some reports indicate death of 2, 26, 000 to 3, and 23,000.

How the virus ran amok

White House chief medical adviser and America’s top pandemic expert Dr Anthony Fauci says, `India’s home-grown COVID-19 vaccine (Covaxin), has been found to neutralise the 617 variant of the deadly virus’. The mounting deaths are apparently due to India’s failure to inoculate its whole population. India’s prime minister Modi had declared a premature “victory” against the virus. India announced that it has enough vaccines to export to over 76 countries. The government looked the other way when police carried out a witch hunt against the foreign Muslim preachers when they visited India. They were labeled “corona super spreaders” and even “terrorists”.  However, the courts exonerated most of the preachers of the charges.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party fumed and fretted about the preachers. But, it allowed a Hindu religious congregation of naked or semi-naked pilgrims (Kumbh) to be held without any let up or hindrance. The BJP chief minister of Uttarkhand declared that faith and the purifactory power of the Ganga River would suffice as a Covid shield, though it did not. The mounting deaths are apparently due to India’s failure to stop congregations and inoculate its whole population. India’s prime minister Modi had declared a premature “victory” against the virus. India’s health minister, Harsh Vardhan, audaciously claimed that India’s fatality rate is still “the lowest in the world”. Two months back, he declared that his nation was “in the endgame” of the pandemic.

His boss, Modi, boasted to the World Economic Forum in January that India had “saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively”. Narendra Modi’s claim was preceded by the announcement that he was bringing a “message of confidence, positivity and hope from 1.3 billion Indians amid these times of apprehension”.

He looked the other way when police carried out a witch hunt against the foreign Muslim preachers when they visited India. They were labeled “corona super spreaders” and even “terrorists”.

White House chief medical adviser and America’s top pandemic expert Dr Anthony Fauci says, `India’s home-grown COVID-19 vaccine (Covaxin), has been found to neutralise the 617 variant of the deadly virus’.

The new variant ‘B.1.618’ is a major immune escape variant. India hit the world’s highest single-day tally when it recorded more than 300,000 active cases in a day. Hospitals in the country are running out of oxygen supply, resulting in a sharp rise in the number of deaths. Viral videos showed desperate people exhaling into mouths of their dying kins. Wood became short to cremate dead bodies. While patients kept dying for want of a bed or oxygen, par-medical staff kept minting money by stealing medicines from hospital stores, allocating and re-allocating beds, or charging exorbitant price of about Rs. 3000 a kilometer.

Situation in occupied Kashmir

The situation in occupied Kashmir became particularly gruesome. Oxygen cylinders from the disputed state were “bought out” for other states. Vaccinations centres soon vanished as no vaccine was available. The viral videos indicated that Kashmiri leaders were languishing in jails without medical treatment. Kashmiri women mourned deaths of their relatives outside hospitals. Simultaneously,

cordon-and search operations continued to kill innocent Kashmiris.

For a population of nearly 1.2 crore, there are only 600 ventilators. In Srinagar city, there is an availability of only 13,000 litres of oxygen per minute which, the medical experts say, was too low to cater to the ongoing rise in the cases. Several doctors said that each patient requires between 5-10 litres of oxygen per minute and the existing supplies at Srinagar hospitals are sufficient only for 2,000-3,000 people in a given time.

The work on the oxygen plants at the government hospitals is either stalled or has been going on at a snail pace. Although two more plants were opened in the northern Kashmir areas of Kupwara and Sopore on Sunday and another one was ready for use in southern Kashmir’s Shopian. The plants with their capacities of 1,000-litre per minute could cater to a few hundred people in a given time only.

Hospitals have no drugs, not even  Remdesivir. A court observed, ‘Death of Covid patients due to non-supply of oxygen not less than genocide’. Another court asked people to register murder charges against the election commission for allowing election gatherings.

Taking advantage of abrogation of special status, the Indian government is bringing people affected by the Corona epidemic into the Kashmir Valley.

Covid19 exposed limitations of propaganda

Modi’s gung-ho announcements of victories against the virus did not end the pandemic. He owes many of his electoral victories to the power of propaganda. He blamed Pakistan for bomb blasts in India and Kashmir. A self-styled businesswoman Madi Sharma (RAW surrogate) arranged a guided tour of far-right members of European parliament to the occupied Kashmir (October 30, 2013) through a fake International Institute for Non-Aligned Studies. The Institute paid for the travel and accommodation of an unofficial far-right delegation of 23 European Union parliamentarians to Srinagar on. The delegation’s shikara (boat) ride in Kashmir Lake (dal) pictured Kashmir as a heaven in serene peace. Some members however smelt a rat and abandoned the free joy ride. The aim was to convince the world that it was all hunky-dory in the occupied Kashmir after abrogation of the special status and age-old hereditary-ownership law.

Modi acted on Hitler’s propaganda playbook

It appears India has meticulously implemented Hitler’s propaganda theorems: `The bigger the lie, the better the results. The success of any propaganda campaign ultimately depends on the propagandist’s down-to-earth understanding of the “primitive sentiments of the popular masses”. Mein Kampf (pp. 179-180).  

The Arnab Goswami transcripts exposed Modi’s fake “surgical strikes”. Goswami referred to the Pulwama attack on 14 February 2019. Three days before the Balakot air strike on 26 February 2019, Goswami purportedly said India’s response would be: “Bigger than a normal air strike. And on the same time something major on Kashmir (abrogation of Special Status)”.

The leaks of the WhatsApp messages of Arnab Goswami (Republic TV) brought into limelight some bitter truths. One bitter truth is that the general public is a ‘bewildered herd’ (to quote Noam Chomsky) who could easily be made a fool of.

The leaked WhatsApp chats revealed that the Balakot ‘surgical strikes’ were conducted to shore up Narendra Modi’s image as a `strong man’, a Brobdignagian among the self-centered Lilliputian Indian politicians. The ‘strike’ helped Modi win elections with a thumping majority.

Though Modi is educated only up to high school, he understands the power of propaganda. He has done a three-month course in the USA on Image Management and Public Relations. His campaign blitz cost about $700 million. Modi is considered the most techno-savvy leader of India as he is very active on various social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

The WhatsApp chats between Republic TV Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami and former Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) CEO Partho Dasgupta run into 500 long pages. They revealed the nexus between the media and politicians to hoodwink the masses.

Modi considers Indian people a “herd”. Modi owed his electoral victory to the power of propaganda. He made a fool of not only the Indian masses but also the world around until the West Bengal debacle.

History tells that the people, even the Americans, are gullible. Propaganda deeply influenced even independent-minded Americans who laid down a constitution, beginning with the words ‘we the people’. Chomsky says even the American masses are like a “bewildered herd” who have stopped thinking. He asserts that, in a “properly functioning democracy”, there are a “small percentage of the people”, a “specialised class of citizens” who … “analyse, execute, make decisions and run things in the political, economic, and ideological systems”. Chomsky reminds, ‘Woodrow Wilson was elected President in 1916 on the platform “Peace without Victory”, right in the middle of World War I.  The American population was extremely pacifistic and saw no reason to become involved in a European War. The Wilson Administration established a government propaganda commission, called the Creel Committee, which succeeded, within six months, in turning a pacifist population into a hysterical, war mongering population which wanted to destroy everything German, tear the Germans limb from limb, go to war and save the world…. After the war the same techniques were used to whip up a hysterical Red Scare…’.

Conspiracy theories exposed

One of the first conspiracy theories that came to light was that China created COVID-19 as a biological weapon in a laboratory in Wuhan (Jaaved, 2020). Another widespread conspiracy theory is that 5G technology is the primary cause of the highly contagious virus or even the amounts of deaths. Without enough evidence there are two sides to this theory: it is the direct cause of the virus because it has a very high level of frequency or it uses these high levels of frequency to weaken people’s immune systems and that way causing a lot of damage and fear. But this 5G theory also comes back to China. China has a very impressive technological security that uses 5G technology, and some traces show a connection between 5G hotspots and the first COVID-19 outbreaks (Thomas, 2020).

According to “The WHO terms the conspiracy theories as “infodemic” that “spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous”.

Concluding remarks

The pandemic has proved that propaganda does not always succeed. Abraham Lincoln was right in saying “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”

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The World Biggest COVID-19 Crisis: Failure of India’s Vaccine Diplomacy

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Health workers pose with a vial of COVID-19 vaccine after receiving their shots at a hospital in India. UNICEF/Vinay Panjwani

As over 100 million people in the U.S. are fully vaccinated and the world’s daily count of new cases is falling, India faces healthcare system collapse as a second coronavirus wave is devastating. In accordance with the recent statistics of the WHO, in the past week approximately 2 million new confirmed cases were reported worldwide – almost half were from India. Interestingly, India is one of the main producers and exporters of coronavirus vaccines in the world and since mid-January, the federal government has approved a British-made Oxford-AstraZeneca, and a locally developed– a national pride Covaxin (both are being produced in India) for the massive immunization drive that has set the ambitious goal of fully immunizing 300 million people, particularly healthcare workers by the end of summer. Meanwhile, India had initially been planning to set the world record for mass vaccination but they ended up with the world record coronavirus cases, surpassing 400.000 daily COVID-19 cases for the first time.

The development and deployment of an effective and safe vaccine against the coronavirus was a key pillar in the authority’s current strategy to break down the chain of transmission. However, despite a promising start of a vaccination campaign at the beginning of this year, one of the largest immunization programs across the globe, it turns out there is not a sufficient amount of vaccine supplies in a number of states across the country. As cases continue to surge, many across the country have rushed to register for shots but most states are running out of doses and a large number of vaccination centers across India turned away people due to chronic shortages or complete lack of availability of jabs. While India is one of the major producers of COVID-19 vaccines with a monthly capacity of 70 million doses, now forced to import jabs, as local manufacturing facilities are facing challenges to meet growing demand. As India’s expansion of its immunization campaign has been failing badly, it makes a disastrous situation even worse. On the other hand, the current devastation leads to a depression in global vaccine supply and consequently, it hits the low and middle-income countries, as they rely on the Indian pharmaceutical industry.

The second devastating wave was hitting the country since mid-April and apparently, India’s poorly funded public healthcare system is not capable enough to overcome the world’s largest surge in COVID cases. Health facilities overwhelmed as infection rates explode; therefore, many hospitals in the large cities already suspended admitting even the critically ill coronavirus patients as all beds were full and medical equipment, particularly oxygen concentrators, ICU beds, test kits, PPEs and ventilators in short supply, while corpses pile up at morgues and crematoriums. As a death toll rises sharply, additional crematoriums are being built in order to deal with the grim situation, especially in the hardest-hit cities and states. Furthermore, in the midst of a big surge Indian government also launched a vaccination drive for anyone over the age of 18 starting 1st of May.  Ironically, along with China and Russia, India was a country that had begun exporting home-grownCOVID-19 vaccine doses to foreign countries, but only less than 3% of its population has been fully vaccinated so far. During a global pandemic, thanks to its massive production capacity, India actively donated locally produced Coronavirus vaccines to the Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern and African low and middle-income nations under the “Vaccine Friendship” program. The initiative was launched in early 2021 and it sought to promote cooperation and cement ties by distributing a dozen of jabs through the Vaccine Diplomacy. In reality, in the battle to gain political influence across the developing world, India shipped millions of doses to poorer countries before managing to secure an adequate amount of vaccines for its own people.

India’s infections keep surging due to the unavailability of medical resources and thus the crisis also affecting the global vaccine and medical supply chains, as over 40 countries, including Russia, European Union, China and the United States and numerous international charities are proactively providing a range of humanitarian aid and emergency assistance.

Many events marking religious festivals and cultural events across the world have been banned because of Coronavirus; on the contrary, despite the high risks of infection several crowded religious festivals and gatherings have been taking place in India’s various holy sites and places of worship with a thousand of unmasked pilgrims and devotees. Additionally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s total23campaign rallies that brought tens of thousands of incautious supporters together caused the spike in coronavirus cases. Hence, the federal government acted reluctantly to impose major restrictions for containing the virus by relying on local authorities to take action.

Indeed, India is the third country with over130 million doses administrated in the world, the highest figure just behind the United States and China respectively, but even the large-scale vaccination process was insufficient to prevent the second wave for a population of more than 1.3 billion people. Although international flights are being suspended to and from India by many governments, a more transmissible India COVID variant, formally known as B.1.617has already been detected in multiple countries and territories worldwide. India’s COVID -19 crisis warns that the risk of infection remains high and many countries could face a strong resurgence of COVID-19similar to India. Health experts concern that a new and more contagious strain spreads more easily and it could even evade vaccines. The current outbreak shows that every country remains vulnerable and could find itself in dire straits unless the adaptation and implementation of strict anti-pandemic measures and policies. However, strengthening the public health system, enhancing safety protocols and sanitary measures, ensuring transparency and accountability, and initiating a successful immunization campaign will be seemingly crucial to combat the pandemic, otherwise, a similar crisis could soon become a common tragedy for the entire world in the foreseeable future.

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