Wednesday, January 21, 2009

resolution against the taliban?

As Barack Obama turns his attention towards Afghanistan, it is looking more and more uncertain that he can count on any real support from Pakistan in fighting the Taliban. According to many reports, the Pakistani army has all but ceded control of the Swat valley (which is only about 160 kms from Islamabad) to the extremists. And whereas for the first time in months, there is something like a public outcry in Pakistan against Taliban practices such as the closing of all girls' schools, the actions by the government and the army are half-hearted at best. Dawn writes:
The National Assembly on Tuesday unanimously adopted a resolution condemning the ‘ban’ imposed by militants on girls’ education and destruction of schools in Swat. The resolution, moved by Information and Broadcasting Minister Sherry Rehman, called for rebuilding the schools and protecting schoolgoing children. Observers, however, noted that the resolution contained no plan to combat extremists, who have destroyed more than 200 schools so far.

It became clear soon after the Mumbai attacks in India that, once again, something went seriously wrong in Pakistan. Reports came out that the sole surviving terrorist was from Pakistan. The Pakistani daily Dawn's reporters visited the village of Faridkot in Punjab and managed to trace down the family. The paper wrote:
the man who said he was Amir Kasab confirmed to Dawn that the young man whose face had been beamed over the media was his son. For the next few minutes, the fifty-something man of medium build agonized over the reality that took time sinking in, amid sobs complaining about the raw deal the fate had given him and his family.“I was in denial for the first couple of days, saying to myself it could not have been my son,” he told Dawn in the courtyard of his house in Faridkot, a village of about 2,500 people just a few kilometres from Deepalpur on the way to Kasur. “Now I have accepted it.“This is the truth. I have seen the picture in the newspaper. This is my son Ajmal.”

And yet, the Pakistani government continued to obfuscate the matter. A "Washington Post" reporter visiting the village found that every movement was closely monitored by Pakistani intelligence agencies. Why, if they had nothing to hide? When a report by GEO TV confirmed the Dawn story, a politician filed a case against the TV channel for "anti-state activity". Only when it was really no longer possible, the government accepted that Ajmal Kasab was from Pakistan.

So what about the so-called Pakistani "crackdown" on Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, aka Jama'at-ud-Dawa - the extremist groups said to be behind the Mumbai attacks? Just an eyewash again, according to media reports. It is safe to assume that ever since 9/11, the vast majority of the so-called "clampdowns" on extremists in Pakistan were at best symbolic, and often enough those to be "attacked" were warned beforehand. In a recent detailed article about why the US remains worried about Pakistan's nuclear weapons, New York Times reporter David E. Sanger narrates the example how Pakistan's Prime Minister Gillani intended to impress his hosts with the news of an attack against an extremist madrassa when he visited the US last summer:

Though Gilani never knew it, Bush was aware of this gift in advance. The National Security Agency had picked up intercepts indicating that a Pakistani unit warned the leadership of the school about what was coming before carrying out its raid... When the “attack” on the madrassa came, the Pakistani forces grabbed a few guns and hauled away a few teenagers. Sure enough, a few days later Gilani showed up in the Oval Office and conveyed the wonderful news to Bush: the great crackdown on the madrassas had begun. The officials in the room — Bush; his national security adviser, Stephen Hadley; and others — did not want to confront Gilani with the evidence that the school had been warned... Indeed, Gilani may not even have been aware that his gift was a charade: Bush and Hadley may well have known more about the military’s actions than the prime minister himself.

Pakistan's military and political establishment is still playing silly games with the extremists instead of fighting them. Unfortunately, all indications from Swat, the tribal areas and other places are that these tactics have made the Taliban too strong already - and it won't be possible to get rid of them any time soon.

Friday, January 16, 2009

balanced reporting on gaza?

The current war in Gaza raises a couple of tricky questions about "balanced" or "objective" coverage. It has been noted by many observers that the war is being reported differently by the media in different countries. And whereas some certainly have a pro-Palestinian bias, The Independent's Middle East expert Robert Fisk has accused almost the whole Western media of ignoring the real story - which, he argues, is "the dispossession of the Palestinian people". In an article on, media analyst Habib Battah observes that the US mainstream media are "prioritising Israel's version of events while underplaying the views of Palestinian groups". He points out, for example, that US media tend to give equal coverage to Palestinian and Israeli victims although the Palestinian casualties outnumber the Israeli one by a hundred fold:
However, such comparisons were rare because the scripts read by American correspondents often excluded the overall Palestinian death count. By stripping the context, American viewers may have easily assumed a level playing field, rather than a case of disproportionate force... When number of deaths did appear - sometimes as a graphic at the bottom of the screen - it was identified as the number of "people killed" rather than being attributed specifically to Palestinians. No wonder the overwhelmingly asymmetrical bombardment of Gaza has been framed vaguely as "rising tensions in the Middle East" by news anchors.
The coverage appears "balanced" in a certain sense by giving equal coverage to victims on both sides of the conflict - but is it really balanced? Battah poses some simple questions:
If an Israeli woman had lost five daughters in a Palestinian attack, would The Washington Post run an equally sized photograph of a relatively unharmed Palestinian woman, who was merely distraught over Israeli missile fire?...would the paper have ever considered balancing a story about a massive attack on Israelis with an in-depth lead piece on the strategy of Palestinian militants?
Battah exempts CNN International from his criticism, and it might be mentioned that The Washington Post did run an article by former US President Jimmy Carter which was highly critical of Israel's war - but this doesn't invalidate the main points he is raising, nor the criticism by Robert Fisk. Does this mean, then, that one should give up the ideal of being "balanced"? Or rather be more careful about its meaning?
Another important issue related to balanced reporting is the ban on journalists who want to enter Gaza for coverage. As the Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel has argued in a very interesting article, this is to some extent counterproductive, as it leaves Palestinian journalists with a monopoly on reporting from Gaza and influencing world opinion. But apparently, the reasoning in Israel was that it would be easy to dismiss such reports by Arabs as "biased", whereas critical coverage by media organizations with a reputation of being "balanced" would be difficult to handle. Which seems to indicate once again that being balanced is important...