Coronavirus delays CPEC projects for about eight weeks — official

In this file photo, Pakistani Naval personnel stand guard beside a ship carrying containers during the opening of a trade project in Gwadar port, some 700 kms west of Karachi on Nov. 13, 2016. (AFP)
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Updated 03 April 2020

Coronavirus delays CPEC projects for about eight weeks — official

  • Says thousands of Chinese workers have returned to Pakistan to resume work
  • Chinese workers dealing with corridor projects in Pakistan are quarantined at their project sites for fourteen days

ISLAMABAD: The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a delay of at least eight weeks in the implementation of the multibillion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects, a senior government functionary said on Friday, as he hoped that the problem would be fixed through effective mobilization of resources.
Thousands of Chinese workers have returned to Pakistan through special flights to resume work on different infrastructure projects after spending the Chinese new year holidays in their hometowns.
“We are estimating a maximum eight weeks of delay in different development projects due to the coronavirus pandemic,” Dr. Liaqat Ali Shah, CPEC’s Project Director, told Arab News on Friday.
The Chinese workers, who have been dealing with different CPEC projects, were stuck in different cities of their country when Beijing suspended the international flight operation in January due to the spread of the virus.
China has already developed a “double quarantine policy” for all its engineers and other workers in Pakistan.
“The Chinese travelling to Pakistan spend fourteen days in quarantine in China, and then they are also placed in quarantine for another fourteen days in Pakistan,” Shah said, adding that “effective measures” were in place to stem the spread of the virus in Pakistan's cities.
The project director said that the Chinese companies would place their workforce in quarantine at their respective project sites. “We don’t allow them to mix with the local population,” he said.
About the number of Chinese returning to Pakistan since February, he said that they were “in the thousands,” though he did not have the exact statistics.
Pakistan and China signed the $46 billion CPEC agreement in 2015 which later expanded to at least $62 billion. The infrastructure development projects include roads, railways, seaport, pipelines, industrial units and airports.
China plans to link its landlocked western region of Xinjiang to the Arabian Sea through the corridor project.
Shah said that Pakistan was mobilizing all the available resources to cover the time gap of eight weeks in different projects. “The work on all projects, including the transmission lines, roads and hospitals, is now in full swing,” he said.
The government has also constituted joint working groups and task forces to expand the scope of development projects by negotiating new schemes with the Chinese government.
In the next phase, Pakistan is planning to include development of agriculture, science and technology and petroleum sectors to boost its fragile economy and create job opportunities for both skilled and unskilled labor.
“At the moment, different studies are underway to include new projects related to agriculture and oil refineries in CPEC,” Shah said while dispelling the impression of any undue slowdown in the development schemes.


Pakistan, Turkey among nations subject to quarantine in Ireland starting April 15

Updated 22 min 4 sec ago

Pakistan, Turkey among nations subject to quarantine in Ireland starting April 15

  • Dublin joined neighboring Britain in bringing in the regime for people from countries deemed "high risk"
  • Strict lockdown in Ireland has turned one of the world's highest incidence rates of COVID-19 into one of Europe's lowest

DUBLIN: Ireland added Pakistan, Turkey, United States, Canada, Belgium, France and Italy to its list of countries where arrivals will be subject to mandatory hotel quarantine, tightening some of Europe's toughest travel restrictions to try to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Ireland, the only one of the European Union's 27 countries to introduce a hotel quarantine, announced it will also require all arrivals to have booked a COVID-19 test for five days after landing in addition to one taken in the days before travelling.

It followed neighbouring Britain in bringing in the regime for people from countries deemed "high risk" or those without a negative COVID-19 test. However, Britain has so far resisted calls for the inclusion of some European countries.

A strict lockdown in Ireland since late December has turned one of the world's highest incidence rates of COVID-19 into one of Europe's lowest.

Elsewhere in the continent, Norway requires a forced stay in a quarantine hotel for at least a week for anyone coming from abroad who does not own property, or can borrow the use of a property, in the country.

Armenia, Bangladesh, Bermuda, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Curacao, Kenya, Luxembourg, Maldives and Ukraine will also be subject to quarantine in Ireland starting April 15, the health ministry said in a statement.

Israel, Albania and Saint Lucia were removed, having been added just over a week ago, meaning arrivals from more than 70 countries must quarantine for up to 14 days in a hotel room, or leave after 10 if they test negative for COVID-19.

The government initially stopped short of a recommendation by health officials last week to add a number of EU countries where large numbers of Irish nationals live, citing potential legal challenges around the bloc's freedom of movement rules.

Hotel quarantine rules are planned to be in place for only a few months, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said this week. Tourism groups have criticised the government for not providing an exit plan on how they would unwind the measures.

"We can see a permanent pathway out of this pandemic but can't allow variants of concern to set us back on the progress we have made," Donnelly said in a statement on Friday.


Pakistan appoints sixth revenue chief in less than three years

Updated 10 April 2021

Pakistan appoints sixth revenue chief in less than three years

  • Under IMF spotlight, country’s tax machinery is tasked with increasing tax collection by 27%
  • Tax collection is a perennial problem in Pakistan, where less than 1 percent of the population files income tax

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s government appointed its sixth tax chief in two and a half years on Friday, as International Monetary Fund (IMF) scrutiny increases on the country’s woeful tax collection record in recent weeks.
The new Federal Bureau of Revenue (FBR) chief, Asim Ahmed, formerly a grade-21 officer of the Inland Revenue Service, will take over a less than coveted job in a country where tax collection is a perennial problem, and where less than 1 percent of the population files income tax.
Since coming to power in 2018, Prime Minister Imran Khan made boosting tax collection a top priority for his government, appealing to overseas Pakistanis to invest in the country and urging the wealthy to pay more income tax.
But under the spotlight of a renewed IMF program, this is a critical hour for the country’s tax machinery as it is tasked with the impossible-- to increase the collection of taxes by a whopping 27 percent in the next fiscal year while focusing collection on the basis of people’s ability to actually pay up.
With his hands tied due to an agreement between Pakistan and the IMF on the broader contours of next year’s budget, a huge challenge for the new chairman will be to finalize a balanced taxation budget while achieving a tax collection target of nearly Rs6 trillion.
Ahmed will replace Javed Ghani, who attained the age of superannuation on Friday after remaining the FBR chairman for 100 days.

 

 


Pakistan says ‘happy to host’ SAARC summit subject to conditions

Updated 10 April 2021

Pakistan says ‘happy to host’ SAARC summit subject to conditions

  • Foreign Office spokesperson says onus now on India to create environment for Kashmir oriented talks
  • Says fate of this year’s summit ‘hangs in balance’

ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan foreign office on Friday said it was ‘happy to host’ Indian and other regional leaders at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) scheduled for October, but only if ‘artificial obstacles’ were removed, in a veiled reference to New Delhi.
The original 19th SAARC summit was to be held in Islamabad in 2016, but was boycotted by Indian PM Narendra Modi in the wake of the Uri militant attacks. Following this, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka also pulled out, which led to the regional summit’s postponement.
“Pakistan considers SAARC an important organization for enhancing regional cooperation. As we have ascertained earlier, whenever artificial obstacles created in the way of SAARC summit are removed, we will be happy to host,” Foreign Office spokesman Zahid Hafeez Chaudhry told a press briefing on Friday.
He further said the onus was now on India to create a conducive environment for result-oriented talks between the two countries.
“We believe that durable peace, security and development in the region hinge on peaceful resolution of the long-standing Jammu and Kashmir dispute,” the spokesman said.
India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir, and the disputed Himalayan region has been the focus of an increased flare-up between the two countries since 2019.
On Aug. 5, 2019, Modi’s government took away Jammu & Kashmir state’s special privileges, provoking anger in the region and especially in neighboring Pakistan.
Jammu & Kashmir was until then the only Muslim-majority state in mainly Hindu India.
“The spirit of the SAARC Charter is violated when a member state casts the shadow of its bilateral problems on the multilateral forum for regional cooperation,” Pakistan had said in 2016 in response to India’s pull-out from the summit.
For now, the FO spokesman said, the fate of this year’s SAARC summit ‘hangs in the balance.’


Pakistan’s Hazara women strike back with martial arts

Updated 10 April 2021

Pakistan’s Hazara women strike back with martial arts

  • In Quetta’s two largest martial arts academies, a majority of students are young Hazara women
  • Say karate makes them feel safe and confident amid the violence

Hundreds of Pakistani Hazara women are learning how to deliver side kicks and elbow blows as martial arts booms within the marginalized community.

Hazaras, who are mainly Shia Muslims, have faced decades of sectarian violence in the southwestern city of Quetta, living in two separate enclaves cordoned off by checkpoints and armed guards to protect them.

In this picture taken on January 31, 2021, students of the Hazara community take part in a martial arts training class at the Kazmi International Wushu Academy, in Quetta. (AFP)

Women must also contend with routine harassment from men, with groping commonplace in crowded markets or public transport.

“We can’t stop bomb blasts with karate, but with self-defense, I have learnt to feel confident,” 20-year-old Nargis Batool told AFP.

“Everyone here knows that I am going to the club. Nobody dares say anything to me while I am out.”

In this picture taken on January 31, 2021, female students of the Hazara community warm-up before a martial arts training class at the Kazmi International Wushu Academy, in Quetta. (AFP)

Up to 4,000 people are attending regular classes in more than 25 clubs in Balochistan province, of which Quetta is the capital, according to Ishaq Ali, head of the Balochistan Wushu Kung Fu Association, which oversees the sport.

The city’s two largest academies, which train around 250 people each, told AFP the majority of their students were young Hazara women.

Many of them go on to earn money from the sport, taking part in frequent competitions.

In this picture taken on January 31, 2021, martial arts student Fatima Batool of the Hazara community practices Shaolin Kung Fu during a self-defence martial arts training class, on a mountain on the outskirts of Quetta. (AFP)

It is still unusual for women to play sport in deeply conservative Pakistan where families often forbid it, but martial arts teacher Fida Hussain Kazmi says exceptions are being made.

“In general, women cannot exercise in our society... but for the sake of self-defense and her family, they are being allowed.”

The uptake is also credited to national champions Nargis Hazara and Kulsoom Hazara, who have won medals in international competitions.

In this picture taken on January 31, 2021, students of the Hazara community take part in a martial arts training class at the Kazmi International Wushu Academy, in Quetta. (AFP)

Kazmi says he has trained hundreds of women over the years, after learning the sport from a Chinese master in the eastern city of Lahore.

The 41-year-old offers two hours of training six days a week for 500 rupees ($3) but gives free classes to women who have lost a relative to militant violence.

“The Hazara community is facing many problems... but with karate we can begin to feel safe,” said 18-year-old student Syeda Qubra, whose brother was killed in a bomb blast in 2013.


Some Pakistani journalists find breathing room on YouTube as censorship grows

Updated 10 April 2021

Some Pakistani journalists find breathing room on YouTube as censorship grows

  • Information minister Shibli Faraz says no censorship in Pakistan, press enjoys “complete independence and freedom to report” 
  • In digital age, growing number of Pakistani journalists turning to Internet, particularly YouTube, to tap into platform’s ever-growing audiences

LAHORE: The last news channel renowned Pakistani journalist and TV anchor Najam Sethi worked for received several warnings from the country’s electronic media regulatory authority over the contents of his show, including one in April 2019 saying the show would be banned and the channel’s license revoked if Sethi did not apologize to Prime Minister Imran Khan for spreading “false news” about him. 

The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority did not specify what news it had found to be false but said Sethi was being served the notice over a complaint filed with PEMRA council of complaints by Prime Minister Imran Khan. 

After Channel 24 was taken off air at least four times between 2019-20, Sethi knew it was time to move his talk show, Sethi Se Sawal, to YouTube where he now has over 250,000 subscribers. 

Explaining why he switched over to YouTube, Sethi told Arab News in a phone interview: “After various TV channels were restrained from hiring me in 2019 because of pressure from the government or establishment.” 

“YouTube is a breath of fresh air to avoid censorship,” he added. 

Indeed, Sethi is among a growing number of Pakistani journalists who have turned to the Internet, particularly to YouTube channels, amid what editors and reporters call a “widening” crackdown on the media. 

Journalists’ complaints range from direct edicts to editors and producers not to air opposition voices or publish news critical of the government or the military; pulling TV stations from transmission or newspapers from circulation; and targeting the advertising revenue of dissenting media. In 2018 alone, over 3,000 journalists and media workers were laid off. Thousands more have been dismissed since, according to the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ).

Muhammad Usman, Director News at Neo News, a mainstream TV channel, said government advertisements to news channels had decreased by more than 50 percent since the government of Khan came into power in 2018. Two other journalists, part of senior management at top-tier news channels, also confirmed this. 

“For mainstream channels a big chunk of their revenue came from government ads,” Usman told Arab News. “Due to cuts of ad revenue, there were layoffs … In the coming days things will only get worse.”

In 2019, responding to criticism over the government reducing ad revenue for the media, then Information Minister Chaudhry Fawad Hussain said Pakistani media houses needed to revamp their revenue models to reduce reliance on government advertising. 

The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority did not reply to text messages seeking comment for this story. But Information Minister Shibli Faraz denied there was censorship in Pakistan. 

“There is no concept of media censorship in the country, whatsoever,” he told Arab News. “Media in Pakistan enjoys complete independence and freedom to report, be it politics, economy or any other sphere.” 

Journalists like Matiullah Jan disagree. 

On June 4, 2018, then Pakistan military spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor, held a press conference and showed a graphic linking a number of prominent journalists to an alleged troll account on Twitter through which he said they had shared anti-state and anti-army propaganda. The journalists featured on the graphic included Jan, then an anchor with broadcaster Waqt News. 

In October that year, Jan left his job amid speculation he was forced to resign over his critical views of the military. The Pakistan army vehemently denies it censors news outlets. 

Shut out from the country’s mainstream media, Jan started a YouTube channel. 

“The reason I started the channel was that at the time I had left Waqt TV; I could not write in any publication,” Jan told Arab News. “There was no job for me.” 

“What we can say on our YouTube channels would be difficult for anyone to say on a TV channel today,” he said. “In this crisis of censorship, YouTube is like a ventilator for us journalists.” 

But censorship is not the only factor pushing journalists toward platforms like YouTube; in the age of digital media, many have launched YouTube channels to tap into the platform’s ever-growing audiences. 

A 2019 profiling study by YouTube showed 73% of Pakistanis who were online watched YouTube every month and 78% of YouTube users in Pakistan said the platform was their first stop when looking for any kind of video. ‘News’ is among the top eight categories of content Pakistanis watch on YouTube, the study said. 

Journalist Imran Shafqat said YouTube had become a viable option for many Pakistani journalists, especially in an environment of censorship, because it gave them access to large audiences. 

That’s why, Shafqat said, he had rented out a small studio in Lahore and started making YouTube videos after the news channel he worked for folded due to financial constraints in 2019. 

“I have no other job right now,” he said. “I am making more money on YouTube than I ever did at any media channel.”

But authorities are beginning to keep a close eye on social media content as well now, journalists say, increasingly using laws such as the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (PECA) to crack down on those who had gone online with criticism of the government and the military. 

Sethi also said he had received numerous calls about the content of his YouTube channel, with authorities warning him to “be careful, please.” 

“To which I reply: ‘Sir, when we were talking on mainstream media you pushed us here [to YouTube]. This is not how it will work now.’”