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Dawn Columns: 10.07.2019

End of a glorious chapter

Zahid Hussain

{While telling us about the closure of Herald the writer laments restrictions being put on media}

The Dawn [10.07.2019]

THE closure of Herald marks the end of one of the brightest chapters in independent journalism in Pakistan. Over four decades of its publication, the magazine upheld the finest traditions of professionalism, objectivity and resistance, a fast vanishing legacy. 

It is a particularly sad day at a time when the space for free media is shrinking. It’s not only the coercive[threatening] force of the state in play but social media is also being used as a weapon to intimidate[terrify] journalists. Systematic smear campaigns [کسی کی ذات پر کیچڑ اچھالنے کی مہم] are launched to silence those who dare to raise their voice. 

Read: 'ArrestAntiPakjournalists' tops Twitter trends in Pakistan

A hashtag calling for the arrest of journalists recently became the top Twitter trend, indicating the growing intolerance in society. Professional ethics and objectivity are major victims of the deepening polarisation [دو مخالف پوزیشنز پر چلے جانا] that is also permeating[سرایت کر جانا] journalism. 

Hence there is a greater need to revive the proud legacy of resistance that Herald and other publications embodied. True, the media scene has changed tremendously over the period with the rise of electronic and web-based journalism but professional values must be preserved. 

Herald came about when Illustrated Weekly, a largely social magazine, was converted into a monthly political publication in 1977. The indomitable [بے باک] Razia Bhatti was its first editor. It was a period of great political turmoil when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government was in confrontation with the opposition following the controversial 1977 elections. Herald took on both the government and the conservative Pakistan National Alliance. 

The magazine’s candid and objective commentary on the political situation established its independent credentials. Herald provoked[اشتعال دلانا] the wrath of General Zia’s military government by challenging its harsh rule and oppressive laws. During the days of the toughest press censorship the magazine continued to voice its protest and maintained its independence with an unusual weapon — the blank space. 

With some pages of Herald remaining blank, the readers got the message. So did the military regime. And soon the blank pages were banned from publication. The ten years of military rule and its oppressive methods saw the noose [پھندا]around the press tightening. But the clampdown could not deter Herald and its team from telling the truth. General Zia once got so infuriated with the magazine that, waving a copy at a press conference, he said that he could not tolerate that kind of journalism. 

Herald went through another transformation under Razia Bhatti with the launching of its new format in January 1984. Like many other young journalists, I also learnt the ropes at Herald. I joined the magazine in 1983. I was the lone male on the all-female editorial staff at the time, though others joined the crew later. It was the best of times and the worst of times for journalism. The draconian laws [جابرانہ قوانین] had stifled [گلا گھونٹ دینا] freedom of expression but that also gave rise to a vibrant resistance media. 

The new look Herald with its formidable team of talented journalists gave a new dimension to investigative reporting and analysis. Introducing the new Herald Razia Bhatti aptly conveyed the fresh approach to journalism: “We will be hanging on to our punch but hope to add some clout. We’ll be playing by ear, but with an eye to the news and a nose for the trend.” That became the guiding line for the magazine throughout its publication. 

From 1984 to 1988, Herald published many explosive investigative stories despite restrictions under the military rule on issues ranging from political persecution in Sindh to the involvement of security agencies in drug trafficking. Razia would persistently push reporters like us to dig out more facts and clarify the minutest details. She would spend night after night editing stories to perfection. 

I remember her spending an entire night working on the intro of Herald’s 1986 cover story ‘The poppy war’, an investigative story I did on the firing on poppy cultivators in Gadoon district of what is now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Interestingly, the point that took the longest to clarify was the exact time of dawn in the area when the firing took place. The story went on to win the prestigious Asia-Pacific Award for best editorial writing. 

While fiercely guarding their editorial independence, there were some instances where editors were compelled to make some compromises with the management in order for them not to burn their boats. I remember one occasion when Benazir Bhutto returned home upon ending her two-year-long forced exile in 1986. The massive reception she received made headlines in the international media. 

It was indeed the biggest story in the world but the management insisted that she should not be put on the cover, though there was no pressure to change the editorial content. A compromise was finally reached whereby a collage of several political leaders with Benazir was put on the cover. The cover story remained unchanged with Benazir’s hard-hitting interview. 

In August 1988, Razia Bhatti along with several other members of the staff left Herald and founded a new magazine, Newsline, with the same approach. Heraldcontinued to publish under different editors — including Sherry Rehman, Arifa Noor and most recently Badar Alam — over the next two decades, carrying on its legacy and maintaining the highest standards of journalism. There was a healthy competition with Newline of which I was also a founding member. 

The two magazines made a huge mark not only at home but also internationally. They became the face of the fiercely independent and vibrant Pakistani media. The two magazines produced a whole crop of brilliant investigative journalists and writers over the last four decades. Many of them have made their name in the international media. 

The closure of Herald also illustrates the fast changing face of media at home and globally. The importance of a monthly newsmagazine has diminished in the age of 24/7 TV news channels and news websites covering not only breaking stories but also carrying in-depth analyses. 

But the rich legacy of independent media left by Herald must be carried on. It has become more imperative than ever for journalists to seek the truth, spotlight injustice and fight for its redressal. It is indeed a tough time for independent media but freedom can only be preserved through resistance.

The writer is an author and journalist.
Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, July 10th, 2019


Behind closed doors

{Rafia Zakaria writes about the menace of domestic violence}

IT happened one summer evening last year, in a small flat in northern Moscow. In this two-bedroom dwelling lived the Khachaturyan family; a father and his three teenage daughters, aged 17, 18 and 19 years old. One would have expected it to be a lively household full of sisterly chatter, but this was far from the reality. That evening, their father, 57-year-old Mikhail Khachaturyan, had told the girls to clean the living room. However, when he walked into the room, he felt it was not tidy enough. Angry at his daughters, he took out a can of pepper spray (generally used to ward off assailants) and sprayed their faces with it. Revolting as it was, abuse was routine in the household; violent beatings and angry fights were the norm. Their mother, who had fled the family home a few years earlier, said she was regularly beaten by her husband. There was also suspicion of sexual abuse, and the crude words and insults he heaped upon them were a matter of course.

The evening of July 27, 2018, was different. The three daughters had had enough. They waited until their father was asleep on his rocking chair, in the same living room that had been the cause of the fight. When he finally did fall asleep, the sisters attacked him with a hammer and a hunting knife. According to reports, the father tried to fight the girls but they overpowered him. Within minutes, he was dead — a demonic presence that had ruled over their lives, installing surveillance cameras so that he could watch over their every move. 

The sisters’ ordeal was not over, however. Days after his death, they were arrested and charged with their father’s murder. Since then, their lawyers have tried to make a case for them, pointing out a long history of abuse and neglect that the sisters faced throughout their lives at the hands of their father. Other supporters have created an online petition and, in Moscow, advocates of domestic violence victims have argued that the girls, abused and afraid, should not be held responsible for the killing.

Unlike just about anything and everything else, domestic violence is an act without consequence.

Moscow is far away, but the complexities of the situation are not unimaginable in Pakistan. Only this past Ramazan, a news report from Pakpattan illustrates why. Gulzar Ahmed allegedly shot and killed his young daughter because she did not wake him up in time for sehri. The situation is not at all unusual. In Pakistani newspapers, news stories featuring men killing their wives, sisters and daughters are so commonplace that they do not get any mention save the bottoms and sides of inside pages. No one will remember that, in March this year, a man in Karachi’s Memon Goth beat his wife and daughter to death because of some argument. The alleged ‘honour’ killing that took place mere days ago on July 6, where a brother killed his sister, will similarly be forgotten. 

The Khachaturyan sisters in Moscow refused to be killed. Crushed by years of abuse, they decided they could not bear it anymore. According to lawyers that have met with them, the girls did not see any other option. As is typical with many abuse victims, they believed that if any one of them or even all three of them were to run away, they would have to bear the brunt of their father’s revenge. When interviewed after the incident, they were nervous and anxious, and did not even seem to understand what had happened in the short time span of that day.

There is no question that women should not set out to murder their abusers. At the same time, society, whether it is Russian or Pakistani, must confront the question of what they offer to battered women other than to suffer and bear the abuse until they die or are killed by their abusers. Everyone agrees that killing abusers is wrong, but there seems to be less of a consensus on whether abuse itself is similarly culpable. 

Nobody seems to have good answers, only shrugs and nods and expressions of regret. In the US, the ‘battered woman syndrome’ defence permits some women in particular cases to argue that the history of abuse coupled with imminent danger of harm from the abuser’s actions created a state of mind in which they had to either kill or be killed. Even these sorts of defences are under attack, if the abuser — as in the case in Moscow — was asleep, then the threat of imminent harm would be very difficult to prove. The defenceless condition of the abuser can instead be used to establish the premise that the murder was not something that took place in the heat of a crisis but was planned out in detail and then executed, making it an intentional rather than an accidental killing.

No one knows what takes place behind closed doors. In Pakistan, the impermeable nature of these closed doors permits all sorts of cruelties to be enacted on women and girls. Arguments with bosses, bad traffic, a messy living room, less than perfect rotis can all be diverted into rage against women at home. Unlike just about anything and everything else, it is an act without consequence — the perpetrator’s complete control over the life of a victim making it a crime without punishment.

At the moment, the Khachaturyan sisters are still facing murder charges. Advocates for domestic violence victims and human rights activists around the world, who have expressed support and collected signatures, have not been able to secure their freedom. Their situation poses an open question that everyone who wants such violence to cease must ask and answer — what must be done about these crimes behind closed doors, and how culpable is a victim who feels that there is no choice but to fight or die? 

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.


Do no Harm

Zahra Kamal Alam {The writer highlights the issues and problems of LGBTQ communities}

IMAGINE growing up feeling and identifying in ways that society does not expect you to. Imagine having to hide your identity or else be easy prey for bullies. Having to deal with your family’s disapproval and their constant need to ‘fix’ you — for something they either consider a failure in upbringing or a character flaw — can also be extremely overwhelming. A society that has limited or no understanding of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans-gender/sexual and Queer (LGBTQ) population can greatly impact the well-being of individuals who identify with this community. 

The mental health vulnerabilities of LGBTQ communities as a result of the stigma and societal discrimination are well documented in the West. Research shows increased suicidal behaviour, substance use, sexual and physical violence. Anecdotal evidence from Pakistan also shows similar trends. 

The LGBTQ community was long misunderstood by the mental health field, but much has changed in the last few decades. Homosexuality, once considered a psychological disorder, was removed from the US Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in the 1970s. Similarly, gender identity issues are no longer categorised as a disorder. Many mental health associations have discarded controversial practices such as ‘conversion therapy’ due to their potential harmful impact and ineffectiveness, and ethical guidelines of practice have been developed. 

Therapists must develop ethical, LGBTQ-friendly guidelines.

Just like the rest of the world, an LGBTQ community has always existed in Pakistan. Organised in both informal and formal groups, they have supported each other in navigating societal challenges. The legal environment remains a threat for the community, and is among one of the barriers to access of all forms of services. It was only in 2018 that the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act was passed. The right to health mentioned in the act stipulates that the medical curriculum be reviewed to meet the needs of transgender people, and that healthcare facilities provide a safe and enabling environment. Although the act does not cover the entire spectrum of the LGBTQ population, it is an encouraging step forward. 

Having worked on mental health issues in Pakistan, I have noted an overall upward trend in mental health-seeking behaviour, especially among young people — including the LGBTQ community. LGBTQ people seeking mental health services are aware of the social stigma and need for support to work through past traumatic [causing mental agony] experiences and current challenges in their lives. My personal experience has shown they display greater acceptance of their sexuality and identity, and some have been able to open up to their families or have learnt better ways of coping and developing protective support networks outside the family. 

However, unsupportive experiences with mental health professionals are often cited by LGBTQ clients and acquaintances. Being judged, not feeling respected or simply being told to ignore their thoughts, offer ‘repentance’ or get married as a ‘cure’ are some common details that are cited about these experiences. Breaking client confidentiality and disclosing information shared in therapy to their families without their consent is another unethical practice that is often brought up. One would not have to look too far to understand why this may be happening. 

The psychology and medical curriculum in Pakistan is somewhat silent about the LGBTQ community and the issues they face. Even if brought up during clinical training, cases are mostly discussed in the context of disorders and rarely from a social or human rights perspective. This lack of understanding of social context may affect an individual’s assessment, whose symptoms may be misdiagnosed as a psychological disorder whereas they may, in fact, be a normal reaction to their experiences. So­­cie­tal taboos and myths about LGBTQ people that are ingrained [ideas etc fixed in mind ]in the minds of mental health professionals (who have grown up in the same society) requires continued training that focuses on personal blocks and value clarification. A human rights-based understanding of their issues could also help deepen understanding beyond a medical disease-based model. 

We mental health professionals have a lot of work to do to bring our house in order. This may involve reviewing our medical and psychology curriculum, and training and supervision assessments, or developing LGBTQ-friendly standards of practice. If such steps are not taken, we may end up harming a community that is a misunderstood minority, and thus vulnerable to our own lack of sensitivity, personal barriers, and knowledge. 

Until the time we have such regulations, it is upon each of us to access information and connect with groups that work at sensitising professionals — and, if we cannot overcome our biases, let us adhere to the principle of ‘do no harm’ and refer our clients to those who are more open to LGBTQ issues. 

The writer is a clinical psychologist.

Published in Dawn, July 10th, 2019


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