Two days before the Dawn Media group launched its new website on the dawn.com domain, an unusual scene unfolded in the web team’s office. Comprising a typical crowd of twenty-somethings, the web team can normally be found chomping down on cigarette butts or too-cold pizza, grappling over geopolitics with the fatalism of jaded pundits, or reveling in the anguish of being young and thoughtful in this City of Lights.
Hours before the new website launched, however, the team shed its cynicism to coo over a series of images envisioning a better Pakistan as drawn by school-going children from around Karachi. The colours were bright, the captions endearing, and the country depicted in the images a haven. Through awkward pencil strokes and clumsy swipes of colour emerged a Pakistan replete with subway systems, clean streets, sparkling sea waters, and state-of-the-art hospitals – a country in which children could play without fear and young lovers could hold hands in public. It was a vision of Pakistan that the team was hard-pressed to find in any of the other content commissioned especially for the launch of the website.
Weeks before, the web team had gathered to decide on a theme for the launch. The meeting was interrupted with jokes about how best to seek asylum in the West and prepare for a future of headscarves and handguns, so it seemed only natural to use the launch as an opportunity to speculate about Pakistan’s future. As the Dawn Media Group was ushering in a new era with its snazzy online presence, it seemed appropriate to consider what that era would bring for the country being served by the website. Analysts and academics, journalists and guitarists were thus invited to ponder the theme: ‘Flash Forward Pakistan: Where do we go from here?’
As the launch approached, our contributors responded with uniform despondency, their essays comprising a smorgasbord of the ways things might go wrong for Pakistan. In their arguments, our country became a nation on the brink of implosion – carved into secular and Sharia zones; hijacked by militants; embroiled in a stand-off with Afghanistan; further partitioned; at odds with its American aid donors; bereft of its historic Sufi Islam traditions; neglected by its diaspora; despised by the Indian middle classes.
Editing and uploading these essays, the Dawn.com team began to suffer a crisis of morale. ‘There’s got to be some good news,’ said one multimedia content producer. ‘All our content is so depressing – can’t we interview some fashion designers or something?’ asked another. Silver linings were sought in humorous blogs by sharp wits such as Mohammed Hanif and Tazeen Javed. But even their quips bore the eerie echo of the dystopias painted by the pundits. As a last resort, children were invited to draw a better Pakistan, the one they would like to inherit and inhabit as adults. And yet, the team continued to grumble: articles as they went up on the site were variously described as bleak, serious, scary, way out, out there.
But when launch day – Monday, February 16 – arrived, the pessimistic began to seem terrifyingly prophetic. After all, on that day, the government announced that it had struck a peace-for-Sharia deal with the militants in Swat. Under the guise of the Tanzim Nifaz Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM), the strong-arm tactics of extremists trumped national integrity and government writ. At our end, we uploaded an essay by human rights champion I.A. Rehman, in which he suggested that imposing Sharia law in FATA and PATA may be inevitable. His essay spoke of this eventuality occurring within a decade – no one expected it to unfold within a week. In fact, all the essays that looked forward to a darker tomorrow for Pakistan came into sharp focus as realistic renderings of today. As a result, brownies and cakes consumed to celebrate the launch of the site instead satiated the stress evoked at the thought of Sharia law spreading to other parts of Pakistan.
Since launching on Monday, our new website has run stories about operational US bases on Pakistani soil; Predator attacks on Taliban targets in the country’s tribal areas continuing apace; unending political grumblings between leading coalition parties; and the fallout of US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke’s assessment that the situation for Pakistan is ‘dim and dismal’. In that time, our website has repeatedly crashed, frozen, hung, and misdirected our readers. But how, we ask, was it expected to function properly under the burden of all the bad news it was carrying.
Thursday’s news that a fellow journalist, Geo TV’s Musa Khankhel, was kidnapped and assassinated while covering TNSM’s ‘march for peace’ feels like the last straw. He is the eighth journalist to have fallen victim to militancy and mayhem in the tribal areas and northern belt. More would have died in the explosion at the press club in Wana, North Waziristan, if they hadn’t already fled the area, fearing for their lives. Khankhel’s passing – and the death of others before him – signals the extent to which large swathes of Pakistan are becoming regressive and lawless.
The web team at Dawn.com is trying to take Pakistani journalism into the twenty-first century by making it multimedia, up-to-date, globally accessible, and community directed. Our mission seems inappropriate at a time when our country is taking two steps back, to a time when press freedom was an aspiration and good governance a dream.
Huma Yusuf is the Features Editor of Dawn.com