ISLAMABAD: The National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC), Pakistan’s central pandemic response body, on Wednesday approved a COVID-19 vaccine booster shot for healthcare workers, immunocompromised groups of people and those aged over 50 years as fears spread globally over a new coronavirus variant.
The discovery of Omicron has caused global alarm, with countries limiting travel from southern Africa for fear it could spread quickly even in vaccinated populations and the World Health Organization saying it carries a high risk of infection surges.
“Booster dose will be administered to three age groups including HCWs , over 50 years of age and immuno-compromised groups from 1st December,” the NCOC said. “Booster dose will be administered after six months of administration of last dose.”
The NCOC said getting a booster was not mandatory and would be free of charge, adding: “Selection of vaccine will be as per Individual choice / availability.”
On Monday Planning Minister Asad Umar, who also heads the NCOC, said it was “impossible” for Pakistan to block the Omicron coronavirus variant from entering the country and the only protection against it was to increase vaccinations.
On Saturday, Pakistan banned travel from six South African countries and Hong Kong following the emergence of the new coronavirus variant.
The Omicron variant spread around the world last week, with new cases found in the Netherlands, Denmark and Australia even as more countries imposed travel restrictions to try to seal themselves off.
ISLAMABAD: Pakistan's former prime minister Imran Khan on Sunday announced to launch a public campaign for media freedom next week, saying the government was cracking down against journalists and media houses which were disseminating his party's narrative among people.
Khan was ousted from power in a no-confidence vote in April after losing his parliamentary majority. Since then, he has repeatedly said his administration was brought down by the United States in connivance with his political rivals since he was pursuing an independent foreign policy.
The allegation has been denied by Pakistani and American officials.
Senior members of Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party have also expressed concern more recently after a private television channel, ARY News, was reprimanded by the country's media regulator for broadcasting a segment with a PTI leader which was described as "seditious" by officials.
"I want to warn our nation of an unprecedented crackdown campaign by Imported [government] & State machinery against media houses & journalists who are carrying PTI & my narrative to the public," Khan said in a Twitter post.
"In my mass public campaign across [Pakistan] from next week, I will take up issue of media freedom & freedom of expression," he continued. "If we allow these terror tactics, designed simply to target PTI & myself, to succeed, then we will be returning to the dark days of dictatorship when there was no independent media & no room for freedom of expression."
Khan named several journalists, most of them viewed as pro-PTI, in his social media posts, saying they had to face threats, violent attacks and arrests due to their reporting and analyses.
He added real independence could not "be achieved without a free media & freedom of speech as guaranteed in our Constitution."
& myself, to succeed, then we will be returning to the dark days of dictatorship when there was no independent media & no room for freedom of expression. Haqeeqi Azadi cannot be achieved without a free media & freedom of speech as guaranteed in our Constitution.
ARY News was taken off air in several cities of Pakistan last week after Khan's chief of staff, Dr. Shehbaz Gill, said military personnel should not follow the commands of their top officials if they were "against the sentiments of the masses."
The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) issued a show-cause notice to the channel, saying Gill's comments amounted to inciting mutiny within the army.
The channel's top management told Arab News on Friday its no-objection certificate had been revoked suddenly and unilaterally.
"What crime have we committed," its owner Salman Iqbal asked. "We are being punished for a statement by a politician which we have already disowned. But such stern action after a clarification shows that the government has made its mind to silence a critical voice."
The PTI chairman's Twitter posts also mentioned two ARY journalists who decided to leave the country after the Shahbaz Gill episode.
Khan's own administration was criticized for not upholding media freedom in the country since journalists critical of his government's policies were attacked or abducted on his watch.
ISLAMABAD: One man was killed and 23 others wounded in aerial firing in Pakistan's southern port city of Karachi, reported the local media on Sunday, as people started celebrating the country's Independence Day on August 14.
Aerial firing is not uncommon in Pakistan on joyous occasions where the practice has claimed lives on several occasions in the past.
Celebratory gunfire is also unlawful, though it is not always possible for the police and other state institutions to implement the rule across the country.
"As the clock struck 12 on the night between August 13 and 14, the city of Karachi erupted into Independence Day celebrations," Samaa, a local news network, reported. "However, some people resorted to aerial gunfire and left one person dead and another 23 wounded."
The local news outlet said the dead and the wounded included people of all ages, adding these individuals were moved to the main hospitals of the city after receiving gunshot wounds.
"Nek Mohamad, 50, was killed near Teen Talwar Underpass by celebratory gunfire." Samaa said.
In an unusual warning, Pakistan Air Force told people earlier this month not to indulge in the practice since it could damage its aircraft.
"Aerial firing during wedding ceremonies and joyous festivals like the independence day not only causes loss of human lives but also sometimes harm the aircraft, which can cause significant damage to the defence capability of the country," it said in a statement.
PAF also noted that aerial firing was a punishable offence, adding that as patriotic citizens it was everyone's duty to avoid it.
ISLAMABAD: Two Pakistani soldiers lost their lives and an officer was injured in an exchange of fire with militants in Khost, a small town in southwestern Balochistan province, an official statement released by the military’s media wing, ISPR, said on Sunday.
The sparsely populated province of Balochistan, which borders Iran and Afghanistan, has witnessed low-intensity insurgency for decades.
The government has launched full-scale military operations and carried out targeted interventions in the past to quell the separatist violence.
According to the ISPR, the latest incident took place in the early hours of Sunday after a group of militants raided a security post in the region.
“Having successfully repulsed the distant fire raid, the escaping terrorists were pursued into the nearby mountains,” the official statement said. “As a follow up, during an encircling effort to cut off fleeing terrorists, a heavy exchange of fire took place between [the] terrorists and a security forces' patrol as well. During the skirmish, two valiant sons of soil, Naik Atif and Sepoy Qayyum embraced Shahadat [martyrdom] besides Major Umer who got injured while causing losses to the terrorists.”
The ISPR maintained the security forces were determined to thwart any attempt to sabotage peace, stability and progress of Balochistan.
Earlier this month, an army aviation helicopter, with a top military commander, crashed in the province.
Hours after its wreckage was found, Baloch separatists said they had shot down the helicopter, though they could not provide any evidence to substantiate the claim.
A senior military official dismissed their statement as propaganda, saying the helicopter had crashed due to bad weather.
The anthem speaks of submission to the Almighty and features prayers for Pakistan’s continued prosperity and encourages brotherhood among its citizens. Since 1954, the official national anthem had not been re-recorded, until now.
“This never happened before in 68 years,” Senator Javed Jabbar, chairman of the Steering Committee for the Re-Recording of the National Anthem, told Arab News. “It was the first time that an initiative was taken to invite participation on an equitable level across all provinces, regions, religions and genders,” he added.
With major developments in music technology and the emergence of new singing talents across the country, Jabbar said it was only right to represent the entire population and not only 11 voices for a re-recorded national anthem.
Jabbar said the steering committee went all out to ensure the anthem was an inclusive one.
“To make the re-recorded anthem inclusive, all aspects such as regional, linguistic, cultural, and gender diversity were taken into account,” he said. “The anthem features both full-time professional singers as well as people who are gifted vocalists but not necessarily well known.”
To re-record the national anthem, Jabbar said he enlisted the services of some big names in Pakistan’s music industry, such as Arshad Mahmud, Rohail Hyatt and Ustad Nafees Ahmed.
This isn’t the first attempt to re-record the national anthem, though. The initiative was first taken in 2017 before the Pakistani military proposed to the information ministry to undertake the project in January last year.
The ministry issued a letter to release advertisements in both English and Urdu newspapers on August 19, 2017, when the idea was initially discussed.
“Musicians and filmmakers are invited to send their technical and financial proposals for redoing the National Anthem’s Audio and Video Recording in the highest possible production standards,” read the official advertisement.
“The Qaumi Tarana (national anthem) which was recorded with a symphonic orchestra of 32 hands is to be recorded in orchestral as well as vocal/choir versions using the latest electronic instruments,” it read.
Jabbar said a fair representation of various communities in Pakistan was ensured while constituting the committee, which also included non-Muslim members. “Finally, in June 2021, the cabinet formally decided, for the first time, to set up a steering committee,” Jabbar said.
A total of 155 vocalists were selected to re-record the national anthem. Some of these singers rehearsed at the National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA) in Pakistan’s southern port city of Karachi for weeks while 125 singers, representing all provinces and regions in Pakistan, were gathered in Islamabad to re-record the national anthem.
“This was something greater and bigger in the sense that everybody I met over there did not feel like leaving the auditorium we were recording [the anthem] in,” Haroon Shahid, Pakistani singer and actor, told Arab News. Haroon is from Lahore and is one of the singers who lent their voices to the national anthem.
Forty-eight musicians from Pakistan’s armed forces played musical instruments for the re-recorded version of the anthem while the entire process to release the track took 13 months.
“When Baloch [people], Sindhis and Pathans come together, it’s sheer happiness,” Abid Brohi, a Baloch rapper, said. “We usually don’t get this exposure, so being a Baloch I am fortunate and proud to be a part of [the initiative].”
ISLAMABAD: Sartaj Aziz, a veteran politician, bureaucrat and longtime observer of the vicissitudes of Pakistani history, said on the eve of the 75th anniversary of the country’s birth, that a major failure of the new nation’s democratic transition was the prevalence of a “military-managed system” in which political leaders had willingly provided a civilian facade to army rule.
Since its birth in 1947, Pakistan has spent several decades under military rule: 1958 – 1971, 1977 – 1988, 1999 – 2008. And even when the army has not ruled directly, it has retained an outsized role in the country’s politics, foreign policy and national security.
Aziz, 93, passionately championed the cause of Pakistan as a student activist and was part of the election campaign for India’s 1946 provincial polls, which were won by the All-India Muslim League and are believed to have laid the path to Pakistan’s independence.
“Pakistan was created through a democratic process because of the vote that we won in 1946, but unfortunately, we could not sustain the democratic process,” Aziz, who has a storied career as a civil servant and politician, told Arab News in an interview earlier this month.
“The first general election took place 23 years after Pakistan was born in 1970 … in the first 28 years, there were only five years of civilian rule,” the former head of the planning commission and an ex-national security adviser said. “That is our main structural fault, that we have not been able to sustain democracy.”
Aziz lamented that political leaders in Pakistan were a “product of a military-managed system” and had provided the army a “civilian facade.”
“Obviously when you don’t have democratic institutions working, then the political parties or the political process does not take root,” the nonagenarian said, adding that no civilian prime minister or government had been able to complete its tenure in a “military-managed system” and Pakistan’s economic potential was subsequently “sacrificed.”
Another problem was a leadership vacuum in the country’s early years, including that the nation’s founder and first governor general Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah died a year after independence and Liaquat Ali Khan, the first prime minister, was assassinated in 1951.
“So, India made their constitution in 1950 but we could not agree on certain basic issues — how much provincial autonomy, parliamentary system or presidential system, and what’s the role of Islam — and it took us several years and in 1956 we got the first constitution,” Aziz said.
But in 1958, President Iskander Mirza declared martial law in Pakistan and abrogated the constitution of 1956. In March 1969, General Yahya Khan took over from Ayub Khan.
General elections were held in December 1970, with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto winning in West Pakistan and the Awami League taking nearly all seats in East Pakistan, giving it an overall majority. However, Yahya and Bhutto refused to allow the Awami League to form a government and subsequently in December 1971, India and Pakistan fought a war over East Pakistan, leading to the creation of Bangladesh.
Yahya then handed power over to Bhutto, who took over as prime minister in 1973. In 1977, another military official, Army chief General Zia-ul-Haq, seized power and Bhutto was hanged two years later on a disputed conviction for conspiring to commit a political murder.
“Bhutto’s hanging was a very big mistake … Zia-ul-Haq obviously knew that if Bhutto survived then he can’t survive,” Aziz said, counting off what he considered some of the major failures of Pakistani history. “And the judiciary also admitted later on that it was a biased decision.”
Another blunder was Pakistan’s support for the Afghan resistance after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
“That also is a question mark as to should we have done that or should we have not done that because we are still suffering from its consequences,” Aziz said, referring to Pakistan’s decades-old problem of militancy, which is believed to be a by-product of the Afghan war.
Speaking about the run-up to partition in 1947, Sartaj Aziz said the Pakistan movement was gaining steam when he joined Islamia College, Lahore, in 1944.
The new institute of learning had become a hub of politics and was frequently visited by Jinnah who wanted young students to help spread his demand for a separate Muslim homeland.
“He came to Lahore 15 times between 1937 and 1947 and 11 times he came to Islamia college in those 10 years,” Aziz, who became part of campaigning for Jinnah’s Muslim League in the 1946 provincial elections, said. “And I was lucky that three times out of those 11, I was present in the Islamia college.”
“The 1945-46 elections were very important because Quaid-e-Azam’s objective was to prove that All India Muslim League was the representative body of Indian Muslims,” Aziz added.
“We sent 1,250 students to different Punjab constituencies in the batches of 6, 8 and 10 to campaign for the Pakistan Muslim league. And as a result, we won almost 85 percent of the seats in Punjab and in the country, as a whole out of 484 seats, 87 percent of seats were won. So that election of 1946 proved that the All-India Muslim League was the true representative of Muslims.”
The victory led the path for Pakistan, Aziz said:
“After the 1946 elections, the British agreed that without dealing with the All-India Muslim league it will be difficult to find a solution.”
As a result of the successful election campaign, Jinnah awarded Aziz the Mujahid-e-Pakistan – or “Warrior of Pakistan” – certificate.
“Quaid-e-Azam said that you have received Mujahid-e-Pakistan, and now you become Memar-e-Pakistan, or builder of Pakistan, so that’s how I decided my future career.” Aziz said. “My father wanted me to become a lawyer but then I decided to become a development professional because Quaid-e-Azam wanted so. So, I went to Hailey College of Commerce, and my career was changed under Quaid-e-Azam’s instructions.”
“He [Jinnah] was very affectionate with the students and would sit on the grass with us,” Aziz recalled, smiling. “He had very informal contact with us and called us his selfless soldiers.”