It's an old gripe that foreign journalists focus only on the
narrow dramas and fail to notice that, for the majority of people,
life just goes on.
The problem in Pakistan is that there is so much bad news. Much
of it is important to all of us - arrests of al-Qaida masterminds,
nuclear bomb intrigues and, sometimes, assassination attempts on the
president or prime minister.
But, of course, my friend has a point. I've just returned from the
northern Chitral Valley. Although it is near the Afghan border and
was a hub of weapons smuggling in the 80s, there was nary a hint
of either trouble or terrorist.
In fact, the place was fabulous - great people, majestic
scenery and a particularly rough game of polo. Frankly, I can't
wait to go back.
President Pervez Musharraf is particularly keen on promoting a
"soft" image of Pakistan abroad as proof that his policy of
"enlightened moderation" is succeeding. But try as he might, the
chocolate on offer often has a bitterly hard centre.
This obsession with external image took a sinister turn last
weekend when the government placed Mukhtaran Bibi on its notorious
exit control list - an effective prohibition from leaving the
The move was shocking because Ms Mukhtaran is a genuine
Pakistani heroine. Three years ago, the uneducated Punjabi
villager was gang-raped on the orders of her local council of
elders, who held that the vile attack was suitable retribution for
a sex crime allegedly committed by her 12-year-old brother. That
charge later turned out to be hogwash.
Instead of keeping quiet, Ms Mukhtaran confronted her accusers
in court, and six men were sentenced to death. In a country in
which most rape victims have to produce four witnesses to secure a
conviction, her tear-drenched testimony was practically
But this year, the case started to unravel. In March, an appeal
court overturned the convictions of the six men. Furious, Ms
Mukhtaran launched a supreme court challenge and vigorously
publicised her plight in the international media - which was where
the ham-fisted government stepped in.
Officially, it said the exit control order was for her own
good. "It is a security measure," one official said. "We want her
case to be processed and resolved first," the junior interior
But the real reason, it would seem, was to prevent Ms Mukhtaran
from attending a human rights meeting in the US where she could
presumably have highlighted the scandal of an embarrassingly
slanted judicial system.
Neither moderate nor enlightened, the crude gagging order has
confirmed suspicions that Mr Musharraf pays lip service to human
rights but often fails to deliver.
There were earlier warning signs. After Time magazine nominated
Ms Mukhtaran as one of "Asia's heroes" last year, he told a
meeting of newspaper editors that he was furious at the inclusion.
He would have liked to "slap the reporter on the face", he raged.
Then when the prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, a former Citibank
executive, met Ms Mukhtaran this year, he apparently whispered
that she might tone down her embarrassing campaigning on the rape
This tactic of silencing the awkward truth is nothing new. Last
February, Shazia Khalid, a junior doctor whose alleged rape at a
government-protected gasfield sparked a bloody battle with local
tribesmen, invited me to interview her.
But when I reached the Karachi safehouse at which she was being
held, the policemen on the gate refused to allow me in. "It's for
her own good, you understand," one officer said.
The authorities have tried to use same approach on Ms Mukhtaran.
Just in case she might make a dash for an international airport -
even though the nearest is hundreds of miles away - 40 policemen
and women were dispatched to surround her farmhouse.
It was a grimly ironic image: the victim found herself locked
up while the rapists walked free. But after an outcry in the
press, Ms Mukhtaran was taken to meet the provincial chief
minister yesterday, followed by Mr Aziz.
It all seems a terrible fuss over one person, and I agree with
my friends who say Ms Mukhtaran's tribulations are not
representative of all of Pakistan.
But her case has become a symbol, and symbols count. And it
doesn't matter whether that involves good news or bad. It must be