Islamabad – From a mullah who wants a military operation against women wearing jeans to “uncircumcised” Islamic State fighters, a satirical Pakistani website is using humour to shine a light on current affairs in the turbulent nation.
And the public, though initially nervous, now can’t get enough of it.
Born a year ago, amid massive anti-government street protests, Khabaristan Times is inspired by satirical US news website The Onion and American comedian Jon Stewart, who retired last week after 15 years hosting the caustic “Daily Show”.
“You want to change something you have to criticise yourself, your own country, your own leaders,” said Kunwar Khuldune Shahid, one of the founders of the Khabaristan Times.
With its tantalising, entirely made-up stories, the Khabaristan Times — which takes its name from Khabar, meaning “news” and “stan” from Pakistan — cleverly shines a light on the country’s conspiracy theories and obsessions.
One piece, headlined “Pakistan will not tolerate any non-US drone”, mocks what most believe is the government’s position on America’s drone strikes against the Taliban and other Islamist rebels, denouncing them in public while secretly supporting them.
Another joke article said the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency had found that most Islamic State fighters were uncircumcised, “proving” the Middle Eastern militant group were not Muslims, but backed by the West — a common conspiracy theory in Pakistan.
And the Khabaristan Times’s humour has certainly been misunderstood, with both Indian and British media earlier this year mistaking a tongue-in-cheek article — clearly satirical to Pakistani readers — for fact.
The piece was about the head of one of the country’s main Islamist parties, Fazlur Rehman, calling for military intervention against women in jeans, dubbing them Pakistan’s “worst enemy”.
The “news” went viral, to the surprise of the staff of the Khabaristan Times.
Westerners “were commenting on the page: ‘we can’t tell this is satire because it didn’t say it was.’ They thought everything was true!” said Luavut Zahid, Kunwar’s co-founder.
Yet Western news satire has also proved an inspiration for the site, the bubbly 28-year-old said.
“Jon Stewart! I cried (during the last episode),” she said.
“He is so good, it’s impossible not to be influenced by that guy.”
“Unless you follow (current affairs) on a daily basis, you won’t get most of what Jon Stewart is saying or you don’t get most of what we are publishing,” added Kunwar.
– Religion and blasphemy –
While there is a long and rich tradition of caricaturists bravely defying the Taliban with their pens in Pakistan, written satire is more recent but very much alive.
A controversial law against blasphemy can see anyone who insults the Prophet Mohammed get the death penalty.
And while the constitution guarantees freedom of expression, it also imposes restrictions when it comes to “the glory of Islam” and the “defence” of the country.
“I am pretty sure that… people from the intelligence agencies have read the Khabaristan Times,” said Kunwar.
“They have seen what we have done but again they won’t treat it as if the same piece is published in a daily publication. They might not like it but they know it is nothing serious.”
The website also knows how to show restraint during difficult times. In December, it stopped updating for several days after the Taliban school massacre that killed 134 children in Peshawar.
However, apart from special instances like the massacre, in the Republic of Khabaristan no-one is immune from criticism — politicians, mullahs, religion, or even the army.
In another article, the Khabaristan Times joked that a local Islamist leader had praised Pope Francis for his statement against blasphemy after the attack on French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, calling the Catholic leader “the best of kafirs”, or non-believers.
The site again referenced the Charlie Hebdo massacre in a piece called “Je suis Mumtaz Qadri”. Qadri was responsible for killing a provincial governor who had advocated reform of the blasphemy law.
While the Khabaristan Times does not shy away from criticising high-profile targets, it has several red lines, such as publishing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. “Our point is not to hurt anyone,” Luavut said.
Kunwar admits that while the site’s staff impose some limits on their satire, “by other people standards it is still long way away from where they stand.”
Any threats, for now, remain virtual.
“There was some random dude saying these people should be hanged… But he is not actually going to do it,” said Luavut.
The site is gaining in popularity with about 100,000 hits per month compared with 400 when it started.
For Luavut, Khabaristan’s style of humour is a necessary respite from the daily anxiety in Pakistan.
“I think all of us sort of need that in this country. We need a break from actual news.”