Saleem Shahzad: the journalist who was not afraid of the ISI

Pakistan's intelligence services are prime suspects for silencing the journalist.

The death of Saleem Shahzad brings to three the high profile political assassinations in Pakistan this year. Like Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab, and Shahbaz Bhatti, minister for minorities, Shahzad also refused to bow to the ISI -- whom he named directly. On the cusp of revealing high level rogue military involvement in the attacks on the Mehran-Karachi naval base on Dunya tv he was taken into custody and killed.

Shahzad fought to show the real workings of the Pakistan military/ISI state which have been so obscured through a long-term programme to its citizens of state propaganda, jingoism, conspiracy theories and disinformation. He had evidence of their sponsorship of extremism and their involvement in the 2008 Mumbai bombings.

More pernicious has been the long drip of propaganda to the ordinary people in Pakistan through Urdu medium television and newspapers, a proportion of which are owned or have some journalists in pay by the ISI. A senior Pakistan editor tweeted in response to decades of disinformation: "We as a nation are so used to conspiracy theories, it sickens me. CIA/RAW/Mossad/Blackwater are NOT killing our people. WAKE UP" @mehmal. She continued: "No difference between the army/ISI/Taliban/al-Qaeda/jihadis/fanatics/bigots: they will all kill you whenever they want".

But there are signs after the Abbottabad raid that the ISI may be in disarray. The information on the cache of 100 memory sticks found at the Bin Laden compound is in US hands; the rogue elements of the ISI do not know to what extent it blows the lid on their involvement with al Qaeda and indeed their own networks. And they are facing a hostile press in Pakistan, although it has succumbed before to ISI sweeteners and the usual line that the army is protecting the country.

In any case, it isn't the English language middle-classes that need enlightenment. To bring change to the regime, the combined media will have to blow away decades of falsity and deceit to the ordinary and impoverished people of Pakistan . Most notably that the enemy is not without but within, and that the military has misled the state and its people over decades.

The lower ranks of the army in their assaults in north and south Waziristan were always told that India was sponsoring the Taliban. Anatol Lieven, who recounted this, also pointed out that in WW2 a troop of Breton soldiers were found to get a greater spring in their step when they were told that they were off to fight the British. India, which is not innocent of its own media-led anti Pakistani propaganda, is favourable to peace and improved trade, but with China putting pressure on its Himalayan borders, would probably settle over Kashmir and would welcome an EU type federation of subcontinental states.

Shahzad was an exceptionally courageous man because he was aware of the likely outcome of his reporting. He left a statement with Human Rights Watch that should he disappear, he had been receiving threats and the ISI was responsible.

In Pakistan the crucial state communication structure is creaking under the weight of disinformation the regime has put out and the fear and intimidation that they have used to keep it in place.

Syed Saleem Shahzad, like Taseer and Bhatti, were silenced because full-knowing the risks, they said no.

Catriona Luke is a freelance writer and editor.

 

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Mumslink shows how online parenting networks are coming of age

Women online are changing the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. 

The habit of “speaking as a mother” came in for its fair share of criticism this summer. Andrea Leadsom’s insinuation of superiority over Theresa May, her rival for the Tory leadership, elicited widespread scorn – not least from those who have done most to strengthen the voice of mothers as a group: internet mums.

Over the past 15 years, the ten million users a month who log on to Mumsnet have been courted by politicians in webchats and speeches alike. The 2010 general election was even named “the Mumsnet election” in their honour.

From the start, parenting networks attracted users interested in comradeship, as much as those after information. 

For Jo Williamson, a mother-of-two, the trigger was the day her second child left for school, a jarring experience. “I went into a blind panic, thinking: ‘Blimey, I’m going to be sitting in an empty house just waiting for everybody to come back.’” In response, Jo and her business partner Jane Pickard came up with the idea for a new site that focuses on the fluid nature of many women’s professional and family lives.

The resulting network, Mumslink, uses carefully edited news feeds to introduce readers to ideas, businesses and charities that complement all aspects of their lives – from recipe tips to volunteering. “There are so many women out there with a plethora of talents but most of the time, because you’re with your children, nobody asks you to get involved,” Williamson says.

Similar feelings of isolation led Siobhan Freegard to found Netmums, one of the UK’s largest parenting sites. Back in 2000, she had barely heard of “social networks”, nor of Mumsnet, which launched around the same time, yet she knew that mothers needed a place “to share their stories and maybe meet up in the offline world, too”.

Such identity-building led to divisions over “the right way” to be a mother. A tense rivalry developed between the slightly younger Netmums and the more educated and affluent Mumsnetters (Tesco and Waitrose didn’t sponsor different networks for nothing). Within the sites’ pages, differences of opinion over working v stay-at-home parenting sparked allegations of hostility and bullying. Still, the media researcher Sarah Pedersen says there’s an argument that these sites have helped produce a reduction in depression and anxiety, as well as greater opportunities for women to negotiate “the tension between themselves and their role as mothers”.

There are signs that this online culture is growing up. The perception of mums as “a bit insular and thick” is more easily countered, says Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, “now that so many mothers are able to express their individuality, their interests and their expertise in the public domain”.

According to Freegard, the very act of online sharing has helped begin to repair the rifts within the parenting debate. “With social media, we see working mums and part-time mums, and we see mums changing roles as their children change ages, and we understand that there are different angles to things – that everyone has their story.”

This is more pronounced in the world of video blogging, Freegard says. On her YouTube channel, Channel Mum, people talk calmly about controversial subjects that would have been a “bloodbath” on Netmums, such as ear piercing for very young children. “With video, you can see the person in real life and that helps you feel for their story,” she says.

Perhaps the greatest effect, however, has been on how the internet allows parents to work from home. As many as 160,000 part-time ventures have been started by British women in the past two years alone, self-styled kitchen-table start-ups. Sites such as Mumslink (similarly funded by Williamson and Pickard and run out of the former’s front room in Hertfordshire) aim to help this home-based workforce with new clients. One Mumslinker visits the site to write about her own line of natural nail varnish, another to promote her hot-tub business. The company Digital Mums uses it to encourage women to expand their digital skills.

Commercial savvy is something that Freegard is also keen to develop at Channel Mum – equipping her contributors with financial advice and small stipends. “I remember looking at mummy bloggers and thinking, ‘You guys didn’t get properly organised,’” she says. Freegard points out that most early mum bloggers never grew their audience beyond those already involved in parenting online, and struggled to become more professional as a result.

Quite what the future relationships will be between the brands, businesses and audiences for information on parenting has yet to be established. Some users will baulk at being increasingly cast in the role of consumer. At the same time, the networks’ names – Mumsnet, Netmums, Mumslink, Channel Mum – suggest that parenting is still a woman’s domain.

Yet a better balance seems to be emerging in the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. Greater gender equality in the distribution of start-up funding, more job vacancies that allow flexible working, and increasing numbers of prominent women in the tech industry are just some of the things the community is striving to promote. In Britain, which has an ageing population and an ever-growing community of carers, the rise of these networks seems sure to be a net gain for us all. 

For more, visit: mumslink.com

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser