TO anyone unfamiliar with the country’s mountainous northern and north-western areas, it would seem unlikely that there are any areas so remote that getting there requires first a helicopter ride and then several hours of a long trek through the wilderness.
Not so. That was the journey undertaken by a five-member team of human rights activists to ascertain the situation of five women from Kohistan who had been widely reported as having been killed on the orders of a jirga.
To the outsider’s mind, the story is preposterous: women ‘sentenced’ to death by a kangaroo court for the crime of having providing accompaniment in song while some men were dancing? But then, Pakistan is, to many, a preposterous place. So abysmal is our human and women’s rights record that many of us — most, perhaps — would have to concede that yes, it could be true.
In a region where a local cleric recently announced that female NGO workers would be forcibly married off to locals if they dared enter, yes it is possible to conceive of a jirga handing out such a ‘sentence’. Our track record is such that most Pakistanis have had to reach the conclusion that in this unhappy country, any act of barbarity is possible.
The controversy started with the surfacing of a video, apparently shot on a cellphone camera, of some women sitting on the ground singing, while some men are dancing (though as was pointed out by some sections of the media, there was no frame in which the men and women were actually together, raising the possibility that it could have been edited together. That, perhaps we’ll never know).
Then came the claim by a gentleman named Mohammed Afzal, a brother of one of the men in the video, that the women had been killed on May 30 on the orders of a jirga led by a local cleric. This prompted the Supreme Court to take up the matter, which resulted in the fact-finding team going to the village.
Thankfully, though, it seems that it was all a storm in a teacup and that the women are alive and well. There will no doubt be some speculation on what led to the claim that the women had been killed, and whether the video had been faked or not.
Yet the interesting thing is the manner in which, in Pakistan too, the Internet has become a platform from which to break news, and thus a player in shaping the public discourse. The Internet allows stories or videos to be easily distributed to a mass audience; what’s problematic in this is that the source can remain anonymous, the material unverified.
One method of examination can be the effect that certain noteworthy videos have had in recent years. The facts about the Kohistan video are yet to be ascertained — perhaps they will never be — but one certain result is the focusing of a great deal of public attention on a remote, neglected and underdeveloped area.
While the state of Pakistan is unlikely to suddenly start setting up schools and hospitals there as a result of all this attention, there may be some benefit in reverse: that the people of the area realise that the ‘outside’ is accessible (to some extent), connected and watching. (Of course, whether that will prevent jirgas or clerics from handing out mediaeval pronouncements and ‘sentences’ is a moot point).
Another piece of media that comes immediately to mind in this regard was the so-called ‘flogging video’, which surfaced in 2009 and contained footage of a girl being whipped by bearded men. Also apparently shot on a cellphone, it was believed to have been taken in Swat which was then under thrall of the Taliban. The veracity of that video was questioned (though only one newspaper challenged it, and that too in an article without a by-line), although the TTP spokesman Muslim Khan went on record to say that the Taliban were responsible.
Notwithstanding the question of veracity, what the video did achieve was to raise a storm of condemnation in Pakistan at large and to cause a shift in public opinion that the brutality of the Taliban had to be opposed.
Newspapers from those weeks show that until that video surfaced, in the public domain the discussion about the Taliban had revolved mainly around whether or not, or how far, the form of ‘Sharia’ proposed by the TTP was valid. That video, though, became the tilting point that smoothed the way for the operation against the militants undertaken by the Pakistan Army.
Some months later, a video was uploaded on YouTube that appeared to show soldiers of the Pakistan Army beating men under interrogation. This footage, unverifiable and uploaded by anonymous sources, brought into focus the concerns human rights groups had been raising for some time about the security forces using extrajudicial means in their anti-militant operations. The issue is now at the fore of public consciousness, but three years ago it was not.
And while today the security establishment is suspected of having a ‘kill and dump’ policy in Balochistan, the surfacing of a video last year that appeared to show soldiers carrying out summary executions caused a furore, and had quarters in the US referring to the Leahy Law which prevents that country from giving military aid to foreign military units involved in human rights violations. That video led to our military setting up an inquiry commission — though as is usual nothing further was heard about the investigation.
News released via the Internet by private, unidentified cases may or may not be true, but once it’s out there, the effect is not just strong it is also in many cases indelible. While in some cases the outcome may be viewed as being positive, such as the Swat video, there is also the possibility that the people and public opinion are being played.
More worryingly, such material can also be an attempt to frame or malign an individual or a group. As with everything else in the virtual world, it is primarily the consumers who have to learn to educate themselves. If Wikipedia is not a rock-solid source of academic research, neither is YouTube a source of verified news. If there’s anything with which to walk away from the Kohistan episode, this would be it.
The writer is a member of staff.