Nov 8, 2008

World - Pakistan Journalists come under attack

Fasih Ahmed

The enemy must be fought. That seems to be the consensus in Pakistan, but who exactly might the enemy be? With the government led by President Asif Ali Zardari making no overtures of peace with armed militants, Pakistan's right-wing commentators are recklessly redirecting their anger against the few individuals who have either been raising their voice against those they see as being responsible for the country's tilt toward the Taliban, or who fail to conform to Islamic social conventions.

The latest salvo came at the end of October as a marathon two-week parliamentary session on what to do about the militants was winding to a close. A popular television talk-show host, writing in an Urdu-language daily, hurled accusations at Najam Sethi, a Cambridge-educated journalist who has won numerous awards, that could be construed as an incitement to his murder.

The columnist, Javed Chaudhry, tried to stoke suspicion of Sethi by referring to him as "the mafia lord" of Pakistan's NGO community—which champions human rights, gender equality and education—and the recipient of "Indian and American funding." But the most incredulous and dangerous allegations accused Sethi of "making fun of Islam" and instigating last year's military operation against Islamabad's Red Mosque, the militant stronghold. Charges of un-Islamic behavior can be fatal in Pakistan. "I am stunned by this unprovoked attack," Sethi told NEWSWEEK in Lahore.

The column is only the latest headache for Sethi and his journalist wife, Jugnu Mohsin, who run the Daily Timesand the popular weekly The Friday Times. He and his papers were described in a local newspaper in one of the tribal areas in September of being the "enemy of the Taliban and stooges of America," and in July, he received death threats after a flap over a cartoon about the Red Mosque, whose stick-wielding women students last year kidnapped Chinese masseuses. Last year, a little known jihadist outfit sent Sethi a letter calling him "an anti-Islam American agent" and attached a bloodcurdling picture of a man whose throat had been slit for the same sin. Since July, the government has provided Sethi with round-the-clock security.

Sethi is not the only recent target of intolerance. In September, the Red Mosque issued a fatwa against Zardari for his easy banter with Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York. In August, fashion designer Sheikh-Amer Hassan was murdered at his Karachi home; the press was dismissive, and one popular English daily carried a piece that openly sympathized with his killers. According to the Interior Ministry, Information Minister Sherry Rehman, a former journalist and aide to Benazir Bhutto who neither covers her head nor apologizes for her party's liberal positions, has also received death threats.

So frightened are people of the militants' wrath that on Oct. 10, storeowners reacting to an anonymous letter warning them against peddling "obscenity" burned pirated CDs and DVDs in a bonfire in Lahore's electronic mecca, Hall Road. The country's rampant anti-Americanism, which seems to dissolve seamlessly into support for the Taliban, continues to pose a challenge—and a danger—to prominent Pakistanis and to much of the country.

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