August issue 2006

By | News & Politics | Published 18 years ago

“Woman is defective in intelligence but Queen Saba had enough common sense to discuss Hazrat Sulaiman’s letter with her advisors and send a reply to the Holy Prophet (PBUH), after their consultation,” says Hafiz Siraj in one of his daily radio broadcasts on an illegal FM radio station set up in Masjid Habiburrahman in Mardan in the heart of the conservative NWFP, where illegal radio broadcasts have witnessed a mushroom growth.

“Woman has been created for man’s pleasure. She is inferior to man,” Siraj says in another sermon, while interpreting verses from the Holy Quran. He spews out dozens of similar outrageous anti-women views in his widely popular, daily broadcast in which he interprets the Holy Quran. A large number of people, particularly women, remain glued to their transmitters during the broadcasts. The broadcasts are so popular that they can be heard booming in the streets of Mardan.

“Forgetting the Holy Prophet’s (Peace be Upon Him) Sunnah of four marriages, is the main reason behind most of our present problems, because as some people believe, four marriages don’t bring poverty. Rather, it is a way to end poverty. We should earnestly begin contracting four marriages to revive this forgotten Sunnah and get rid of our problems,” says Siraj.

Maulana Saeedullah Jan, who has set up his station at his seminary, Madrassah Ijazul Quran, runs his FM channel in the evening. “My broadcast is relayed for only half an hour,” says Maulana Saeedullah Jan. “I broadcast the daily afternoon sermon and avoid politics.” There have been reports of tension over FM broadcasts in Mardan villages, but the situation has generally remained peaceful unlike the Khyber Agency, where dozens were killed over broadcasts between followers of two rival clerics who ran illegal FM channels.

Twenty-five people were killed and as many injured in gun-battles between the followers of Mufti Munir Shakir and Pir Saifurrahman in Bara on March 28. The clashes at Sur Dand area in Khyber Agency started when supporters of cleric Mufti Munir Shakir laid siege to the house of a staunch follower of rival cleric, Pir Saifurrahman. Mufti Shakir and the Pir used abusive language against each other, calling each other infidels. Though the rival clerics were ultimately evicted from the area to restore peace, Mufti Munir Shakir’s lieutant continues to run the channel.

According to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra), a total of 33 illegal FM channels are currently airing broadcasts in the NWFP, including four in Charsadda, 15 in Swabi and 14 in Malakand. The number of illegal radio channels in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) is 18.

Earlier, Pemra field officers detected 88 FM stations in various districts, including one in Peshawar, eight in Nowshera, 11 in Charsadda, 14 in Malakand, four in Mardan, 28 in Swabi, one in Bannu, nine in Buner, four in Hangu, one in Karak, two in Mansehra, two in Batagram, two in Swat and one in Kohat. When Pemra forwarded the list to the Inspector General of police for action, the police replied with a list of 87 channels that they claimed had closed down. “When we compared the police list with our list, only 55 channels out of our list had been shut down. That meant 33 channels were still on,” says Javed Iqbal, Pemra’s regional general manager.

According to the Pemra list, eight channels out of the 18 in the tribal area are running in Bajaur Agency. Seven are functioning in Khyber Agency, one in Aurakzai Agency and two in Mohmand Agency. However, the number of such illegal FM channels in the NWFP are actually far greater. At least two channels are broadcasting in Mardan that are not mentioned in the Pemra list. The exclusion of 32 channels, which the police claimed they have shut down, implies that Pemra has failed to make a correct assessment of all the illegal stations.

According to Pemra officials, the reason for this is lack of staff. There are only three field supervisors who look after illegal FM operations in the entire province. “There is a move from the President’s Secretariat to hand over jurisdiction of FATA, as well as the provincially administered tribal areas, to Pemra, but we have almost no staff,” says a Pemra official.

According to Pemra authorities, illegal channels distort army signals, air traffic, police security signals, and disturb the frequency of legal radio channels. Even more dangerous, however, are the social and political consequences of these channels. With diverse religious backgrounds, religious leaders are projecting a narrow, fundamentalist view to the people in the NWFP and the tribal areas. Already a conservative and backward region, these myopic broadcasts are sure to have far-reaching and detrimental effects. The Bara incident is a case in point.

Closing down these channels, however, has been a complicated process. The broadcasts have a large following and closing them down is a sensitive issue with the administration, as was proved in the Khyber Agency.

“It is a sensitive issue. Religious people react if we seize the equipment of these illegal channels,” says a Pemra official. “They start their operation in an adjacent house if we take their equipment away.”

Meanwhile, sureties from clerics or area notables that the channels would stop operations were accepted by the police as proof that the illegal channels had closed down. In very few cases did the police physically ensure that these illegal channels were shut down.

And since the cost of setting up an FM channel is modest — Rs 5,000 to Rs7,000 for the small box — it seems that new illegal channels will open as fast as they are shut down.