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Dawn Editorial 31 January 2020

Indian bellicosity

OVER the past several months, there has been a steady, disturbing rhythm of war drums emanating from New Delhi. India’s top civil and military leaders have been making irresponsible statements where Pakistan is concerned, publicly rattling sabres mainly for domestic consumption — and vitiating the atmosphere in South Asia as a result.
On Tuesday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi while speaking at a gathering made the arrogant boast that his country could defeat Pakistan in a matter of days. Earlier, the Indian army chief had said that his troops could occupy Azad Kashmir if the Indian parliament asked them to do so. His predecessor — who is currently serving as chief of defence staff — made equally toxic remarks regarding Pakistan. It would be naive to assume that these are all coincidences; quite clearly, the Indian establishment has attained a threatening posture and such signalling from the top is designed to bully and browbeat this country.
Firstly, the Indian leadership should not be under any illusions. Pakistan can and will defend itself in the face of any adventurism; last year’s Balakot episode and its aftermath have proven as much. However, as this country’s leadership has made quite clear on numerous occasions, Pakistan desires peace in the region and has thus responded to Indian provocations with restraint. Unfortunately, even on a popular level in India the dominant narrative is a hyper-nationalist one — fuelled by a bigoted ruling elite and a mostly venomous media — with a section of that country’s citizens baying for this country’s blood. By comparison, the average Pakistani has shown little desire for conflict, preferring a more mature handling of regional crises, though the public mood is likely to harden if Indian jingoism and threats continue.
Earlier, it was perceived that the BJP, staying true to its Hindutva roots, was demonising Pakistan as an election gimmick to win over its traditional constituency, the Hindu hard right. However, now it seems that the Indian establishment is continuing its Pakistan-bashing to divert attention from its domestic troubles. There has been considerable resistance within India from right-thinking members of all communities to New Delhi’s xenophobic attempts to disenfranchise India’s Muslims through legal means.
The harsh rhetoric against this country from Mr Modi and company appears to be designed to reassure his fan base that he remains ‘tough’ on Pakistan. However, such warmongering can have dangerous implications for regional peace, and Pakistan’s restraint and measured behaviour should not be taken as a weakness. The international community, particularly those states who hold up India as a ‘model’ democracy, need to play a more active role in communicating to their friends in New Delhi that combustible statements can fuel actual hostilities. Pakistan wants peace, but it will not stand idly by as a bullying neighbour continues to threaten its sovereignty and dismiss all attempts at dialogue.


Pemra overreach

AS the space for freedoms of information, speech and expression continues to shrink rapidly in Pakistan, the internet is still seen as the last refuge for independent voices despite the arbitrary and ever-expanding censorship regime unleashed by the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act. Now, Pemra seems determined to deliver the final nail in the coffin. On Wednesday, Reporters Without Borders termed Pemra’s draft proposal to regulate online video content (uploaded on its website earlier this month) as a “draconian” attempt at censorship, and criticised the regulatory authority for its “crude ploy of pretending to seek civil society’s opinions”.
Reportedly, Pemra has circulated another version of the draft regulation to the federal cabinet, which contains even more stringent measures than the document available to the public. If true, it is difficult to not assume bad faith on the part of Pemra. If the authority is sincere in being open to feedback from the public, however, then it must heed the statement issued by a number of citizens groups and media bodies — including the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan — in which they unequivocally rejected the proposal in its entirety. The statement reminded the authority that its mandate “is to regulate the broadcast industry, not even regulate broadcast content, let alone online content” and that “attempts to self-expand its mandate to regulate the internet are dangerous by implication, and downright illegal, which will end up undermining Pakistan’s digital future”.
In essence, the draft proposal recommends that any entity within Pakistan uploading live or pre-recorded video content that it considers may potentially be a competitor to legacy broadcast media should fall under its purview, including licensing and content regulation. The licensing process alone — which includes an enormous upfront fee of between Rs5m-10m to register for one — would preclude most individuals from being able to create online video content. This represents a tremendous barrier to access, and is thus contrary to the spirit of a free and open internet.
Moreover, it is absurd for the authority to double down on content regulation by subjecting web TV and other forms of video content to a vaguely drafted code of conduct designed for TV channels, particularly when the also imprecisely worded Peca already governs that domain. This is a naked attempt to circumscribe citizens’ fundamental rights, which carries the imprint of the authoritarian mind that conceived it, and belongs nowhere except in a dustbin.


Polio workers

ONCE again, tragedy has followed Pakistan’s polio eradication efforts into the new year.
This week, two polio workers were gunned down in the line of duty in Swabi, KP. While one of the women workers died immediately from the bullet wounds she sustained, the other succumbed to her injuries later in a hospital in Peshawar.
Last year, following the spread of harmful rumours about the polio vaccine’s effects on children, several attacks were reported against polio workers. In Chaman, Balochistan, a woman polio worker was shot dead, while her colleague was wounded. Before that, there was a knife attack on a polio worker in Lahore by a parent who refused to have polio drops administered to his child.
That same year, two security officials who were guarding polio teams were killed in Buner and Bannu. Meanwhile, a string of other attacks on polio vaccination teams were also reported from other parts of Balochistan, Sindh and Punjab.
In the war against polio, Pakistan’s front-line workers continue to pay the price of a society teeming with religious extremism, paranoia and disinformation around the vaccine. Such dangerous propaganda not only endangered the lives of workers, but led to a massive spike in the number of refusals last year. As a consequence, the total number of new cases reported in the country has been steadily increasing at a time when other countries are close to being declared polio-free, or have long been declared polio-free.
In 2019, the number of new cases shot up to 140, which included several cases of the P2 virus that was thought to have been eradicated. And yet, despite all the odds stacked against them in what often feels like a losing battle, polio workers put their lives at risk every few months, with each new polio drive, for a meagre pay. They not only come face to face with hostile populations, but also brave extreme weather patterns and harsh terrains to ensure the vaccine reaches even the most isolated parts of the country.


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