Pakistan: Facing the awkward truth

The Guardian
Pakistan's obsession with its external image must not prevent coverage of its many problems.
My Pakistani friends have been hassling me again. "I know there's so much bad news in our country," one said over dinner recently. "But why can't you write about the positive things for once?"
It's an old gripe that foreign journalists focus only on the narrow dramas and fail to notice that, for the majority of people, life just goes on.

The problem in Pakistan is that there is so much bad news. Much of it is important to all of us - arrests of al-Qaida masterminds, nuclear bomb intrigues and, sometimes, assassination attempts on the president or prime minister.

But, of course, my friend has a point. I've just returned from the northern Chitral Valley. Although it is near the Afghan border and was a hub of weapons smuggling in the 80s, there was nary a hint of either trouble or terrorist.

In fact, the place was fabulous - great people, majestic scenery and a particularly rough game of polo. Frankly, I can't wait to go back.

President Pervez Musharraf is particularly keen on promoting a "soft" image of Pakistan abroad as proof that his policy of "enlightened moderation" is succeeding. But try as he might, the chocolate on offer often has a bitterly hard centre.

This obsession with external image took a sinister turn last weekend when the government placed Mukhtaran Bibi on its notorious exit control list - an effective prohibition from leaving the country.

The move was shocking because Ms Mukhtaran is a genuine Pakistani heroine. Three years ago, the uneducated Punjabi villager was gang-raped on the orders of her local council of elders, who held that the vile attack was suitable retribution for a sex crime allegedly committed by her 12-year-old brother. That charge later turned out to be hogwash.

Instead of keeping quiet, Ms Mukhtaran confronted her accusers in court, and six men were sentenced to death. In a country in which most rape victims have to produce four witnesses to secure a conviction, her tear-drenched testimony was practically revolutionary.

But this year, the case started to unravel. In March, an appeal court overturned the convictions of the six men. Furious, Ms Mukhtaran launched a supreme court challenge and vigorously publicised her plight in the international media - which was where the ham-fisted government stepped in.

Officially, it said the exit control order was for her own good. "It is a security measure," one official said. "We want her case to be processed and resolved first," the junior interior minister explained.

But the real reason, it would seem, was to prevent Ms Mukhtaran from attending a human rights meeting in the US where she could presumably have highlighted the scandal of an embarrassingly slanted judicial system.

Neither moderate nor enlightened, the crude gagging order has confirmed suspicions that Mr Musharraf pays lip service to human rights but often fails to deliver.

There were earlier warning signs. After Time magazine nominated Ms Mukhtaran as one of "Asia's heroes" last year, he told a meeting of newspaper editors that he was furious at the inclusion. He would have liked to "slap the reporter on the face", he raged.

Then when the prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, a former Citibank executive, met Ms Mukhtaran this year, he apparently whispered that she might tone down her embarrassing campaigning on the rape issue.

This tactic of silencing the awkward truth is nothing new. Last February, Shazia Khalid, a junior doctor whose alleged rape at a government-protected gasfield sparked a bloody battle with local tribesmen, invited me to interview her.

But when I reached the Karachi safehouse at which she was being held, the policemen on the gate refused to allow me in. "It's for her own good, you understand," one officer said.

The authorities have tried to use same approach on Ms Mukhtaran. Just in case she might make a dash for an international airport - even though the nearest is hundreds of miles away - 40 policemen and women were dispatched to surround her farmhouse.

It was a grimly ironic image: the victim found herself locked up while the rapists walked free. But after an outcry in the press, Ms Mukhtaran was taken to meet the provincial chief minister yesterday, followed by Mr Aziz.

It all seems a terrible fuss over one person, and I agree with my friends who say Ms Mukhtaran's tribulations are not representative of all of Pakistan.

But her case has become a symbol, and symbols count. And it doesn't matter whether that involves good news or bad. It must be written.

Declan Walsh
Originally published on 14 June 2005 in The Guardian
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