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Cosmetic measures

Pemra’s recent notification on media coverage of banned organisations has become rather controversial

Cosmetic measures
FIF at work after the Sundar factory collapse.

We were deep within the heartland of southern Punjab. The flooding had been particularly severe in these parts. With most lowlands submerged, the population had trudged to higher grounds, with the water pushing them forward. It had all come together at one village, the highest in the area.

We had to hitch a ride on a speedboat with a Rescue 1122 team to reach the venue, weaving across submerged houses and over complete villages. A man, sitting defiantly on the roof of his house smoking a hookah, gave us directions.

“Thank God you’ve arrived,” shouted one man as we got off the speedboat and came to dry land. “You’re the first media crew to come here, nobody knows what we’ve gone through.”

The village was initially home to just 500 people, but now, with the migration, over 2,000 people were living here. The local school, hospital, playing fields… every free square inch had been taken up by the guests.

“This is a humanitarian crisis in the making,” I told one of my team members. We inquired as to how the village had been able to meet the needs of all the people who had come to the area. “It’s all because of ‘ABC’ organisation; they’ve been here every day, giving us tents and food, evacuating our sick, we are so indebted to them, we will never forget what they’ve done for us,” said one villager.

What about the government? I asked. “Hah, the Khaadim-e-Aala has flown by a few times in the helicopter. But that’s about it,” he added.

This was 2010, when the government’s paltry response to the devastating floods was fulfilled by massive relief operations by the Pakistan Army as well as by national relief organisations, both legitimate and banned.

Fast forward five years, and the situation is much the same.

In the aftermath of the October earthquake in northern Pakistan (which left over 300 dead) and the more recent building collapse in Lahore, relief organisations (and in some cases, extremist outfits) have been able to mobilise at a much faster pace than the government machinery and with better equipment and more focused personnel.

But for relief organisations with ties to terrorist groups, these efforts have a dual purpose. “Such operations serve as investments for the future,” says Tariq Parvez, former Director General of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and the National Counterterrorism Authority (Nacta). “Once the worst has passed, there are massive recruitment drives in the same area, and these locals, they do not forget the help afforded to them by these organisations.”

Having a charity or relief organisation as a front has been a strategy employed by many terrorist outfits. And it serves numerous purposes as well. From creating sympathy and thus potential recruits, it also works very well to undermine the government, as it cannot compete with these organisations at the grassroots level, especially in far flung areas.

It is under these circumstances that the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) recently issued a directive banning the media coverage of proscribed organisations, including the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation (FIF).  While it is widely believed that all these three organisations are actually one, this wasn’t always the case. The JuD was formed in 1985, whereas the Lashkar-e-Taiba, five years later, in 1990. The JuD’s aim was purely missionary work, whereas the LeT’s tilt was towards jihad.  Due to the overlapping of certain founding members, the two organisations soon merged into one.  For its part, the JuD claims no relationship with the LeT.

There has been some controversy regarding the Pemra directive, with the ministry of interior (MoI) distancing itself from the matter, although it was first reported that the directive had come from the MoI and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA).  “There seems to be a turf war between the ministries as to how to take this narrative forward,” says Adnan Rehmat, a media analyst based in Islamabad. “Regardless though, you don’t shoot the messenger, which in this case are the broadcasters, the trouble is in the message.”

While there has been some debate on the ‘real reasons’ for Pemra’s directive, and who ordered the ban itself, the FIF in particular has been merrily going about its business, as can be seen in this very telling picture, taken during the relief efforts in Lahore.

Earlier, the FIF was also busy providing relief services in the aftermath of the October earthquake as well.

Having a charity or relief organisation as a front has been a strategy employed by many terrorist outfits. And it serves numerous purposes as well. From creating sympathy and thus potential recruits, it also works very well to undermine the government, as it cannot compete with these organisations at the grassroots level, especially in far flung areas.

Related article: Shortcut to disasters

Tariq Parvez claims that numerous terrorist groups have ostensibly parted ways with their violent past so as to ensure their political futures. However, this parting is at best, cosmetic. This is a clear signal to the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). “Its always been a matter of will – if media coverage of these groups’ activities has been banned, how about first closing down their offices?”

A former interior minister who requested anonymity minced no words when he spoke of the JuD, and by affiliation, the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the FIF: “these are the good ones, they’re on our side, for the time being.”

This view gels well with the State’s go easy policy with respect to the LeT, which was clearly involved in the terrible events in Mumbai, 2008. As the former minister said: “there is a belief that just because they haven’t turned on us yet, why should we do anything. This cannot end well”.

And then there is the small case of the actual relief work being carried out by groups such as the FIF. Clearly the state is in no position to compete with these organisations that can mobilise in any portion of the country at a moment’s notice. Till the state has the manpower, reach and ability to compete with them, it shall always be playing catch up.

Pakistan’s relationship with India has been on the rocks since the Mumbai massacre of 2008. New Delhi’s ever blossoming ties with Washington has ensured that no meeting between Pakistan and the United States is complete without a call for decisive action against the LeT. Many claim that Pemra’s directive is yet another ill-timed, and ill thought-out flare to mislead the West as to Pakistan’s relationship with this globally accepted terror outfit.

Given the circumstances, it seems this claim has credence.

Aasim Zafar Khan

Aasim Khan
The author is a Lahore based journalist. He may be contacted at [email protected],

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