Shaheen Sehbai gets it wrong – again and again – and remains ShamelessSep 29th, 2009 | By Editor | Category: Uncategorized
By Shaista Sindhu
The Group Editor of the Jang group newspaper The News, Shaheen Sehbai, is well known for playing fast and loose with facts. Sehbai lets his opinions determine what he will describe as facts, not the other way around. So, it was not surprising when the U.S. Ambassador to Islamabad reacted strongly to Sehbai’s story claiming that the US does not trust the Pakistan government. But knowing Sehbai he will neither feel any shame not express any regret.
Just as background, let it be clear that Sehbai believes (possibly in all sincerity) that Pakistan’s direction should be set by “honest intellectuals” like himself. Soon after the 1999 coup by General Musharraf he wrote an article in Dawn listing what Musharraf should do to “clean up” the country. Musharraf didn’t (or couldn’t) follow Sehbai prescriptions so he went on a crusade against him. An online newspaper called South Asia Tribune was started only to be shut down and even pulled off the internet once Musharraf’s team started seeking advice from Sehbai again.
Sehbai himself brags that he wrote the ‘Charter of Democracy’ that helped Shaheed Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif bury the hatchet. But President Asif Zardari has not been sufficiently attentive to Sehbai’s advice so he has now been running a crusade against him and his government. From the day of President Zardari’s election, Sehbai’s line has been that Zardari should not be President and that it is only a matter of time before the army and the U.S. will force him out.
Now, we all know that is not happening so Sehbai has to create an environment to make it happen. Hence the crusade in The News to present every mistake of the government as a crisis and to present things in a manner that provokes tension between GHQ and the Presidency, the Presidency and the PM’s office, and the GHQ and the United States.
Sehbai’s recent effort was to try and set the U.S. against the President of Pakistan and it is this move that got rebuffed by Ambassador Anne Patterson. In an article titled, “US says no direct money to PPP government” on Sept. 13, 2009, Sehbai claimed that U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew had said the U.S. did not trust the Pakistani government and so could not give aid money to the government. Lew’s remarks are available online
And a plain reading of Lew’s remarks did not bear out Sehbai’s story. But since Sehbai is his own boss as editor, his newspaper carried the story any way.
No other reporter spun the story the way Sehbai did. The story alleged that the US made it absolutely clear that the money it will provide under the Kerry-Lugar Bill will not go directly to the PPP government but to specific projects and purposes for which it is intended. Mr. Sehbai quoted the briefing given by US Deputy Secretary of State Jacob Lew where he stated that the Pakistani government was “very anxious” to receive the aid directly and Washington had a lot of ifs and buts to remove these anxieties.
By September 17, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson had decided that this time she would not ignore Sehbai’s attempts to create rather than report news. We don’t know if Pakistani ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, played any role in getting Patterson to speak up but if he did that too would only speak of the Zardari government’s influence in Washington rather than its weakness. Any way, Ambassador Patterson clarified in a statement issued from Islamabad that the US government has already provided $3 billion since President Zardari was elected and will continue to deliver assistance to Pakistan through a variety of longstanding vectors as required by American law to ensure transparency and accountability, and is not depriving the Pakistani government of any degree of direct funding as a result of a lack of confidence or trust.
This is not the first time Sehbai has spun or simply made up a story to predict the Zardari administration’s demise, weakness or incompetence. Other occasions where he tossed journalistic principles aside for the sake of his desire to act as the decider for Pakistan’s fate:
1. In a story titled ‘PM Walks, lavish spending but no seats for media’ on July 30, 2008 Sehbai tried to trash Prime Minister Gilani’s visit to the U.S. The story alleged that senior journalists coming from Pakistan were not invited by Ambassador Husain Haqqani to the official dinner for the Prime Minister although more than 100 guests were there. He said lack of funds was not a valid reason as spending by the embassy had been lavish with huge floral bouquets delivered to all important members of the delegation each costing at least $150. The very next day, the Embassy of Pakistan clarified that all journalists accompanying the Prime Minister were invited to all the events including the dinner. The Jang-Geo-News Group was represented at the dinner by Mr. Mahmood Sham, Mr. Saleh Zaafir, Mr. Talat Aslam and Mr. Sami Abraham. Obviously Sehbai had been miffed at not being invited himself (as he was not representing his paper on the visit and just happened to be in Washington where he and his family live most of the time). As for the flowers, the floral bouquets in guest rooms were complimentary from the hotel and did not cost the Embassy anything!
2. An article headlined ‘Obama throws a ton of bricks on Zardari’ on May 01, 2009 attracted the most humiliation for Sehbai. While commenting on President Barack Obama’s 100th day prime time press conference (which he did not attend while being in Washington) Sehbai asserted that the Pakistani civilian government was very fragile, without any capacity to deliver almost anything of consequence. Sehbai also said that Obama made in the same breath several statements showing a superb degree of confidence in the Pakistan Army. His article claimed that Obama’s remarks dug deep into the credibility and future of the civilian set-up specially the fate of President Zardari himself, who he said “everyone in Washington knows, has been running Pakistan as a one-man show.” According to Sehbai, Obama’s criticism was meant to hit the Pakistani President right where it might hurt. The next day, US presidential envoy Richard Holbrooke went on the sister TV network of The News, Geo, and expressed the Obama administration’s full confidence in the ability of the democratic Pakistani government to deliver services for its people. Holbrooke rubbished media reports implying that Washington might be concerned about the performance of the elected government to the point of seeking change. He told GEO TV channel that “our support is for the democratically elected government of President Zardari. It’s simple as that. Who has President Obama invited to Washington next week? President Zardari.” About Sehbai’s story he said, “This is journalistic garbage. This is journalistic gobbledygook. It’s a story being hyped by journalists”.
3. That should have chastened any ordinary journalist but Sehbai is no ordinary journalist. He wants to be a mover and shaker, a maker and breaker of governments and the definer of Pakistani leaders’ reputations. So when President Zardari came and met President Obama, and Obama did not throw a ton of bricks at him, he decided to write about something else. On May 11, 2009, The News carried his article “Rs. 410,000 per night for a room in Washington.” The story alleged that President Zardari stayed in the $5,000 per night (approximately Rs 410,000) presidential suite, while his son PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari was given a separate suite, which cost $2,600 per night. When the facts came out, however it became clear that the Embassy of Pakistan had negotiated special rates for the stay of the delegation. The rate for the Presidential suite was US $ 2800 and not US$ 5000. Similarly the Chairman of the PPP stayed in the Federal Suite the rate of which was US $ 1500 and not US $ 2600 and his room was paid for by his father not by the Pakistani exchequer.
4. Having a ton of hotel rates thrown at his story still did not deter Shaheen Sehbai from trying to find something to embarrass President Zardari, his government or the embassy in Washington that had proven him wrong a few times by now. This time he surfed the internet and came up with what he thought was a great story. “Lobbying dollars flowing out at super speed” ran on June 28, 2009. Sehbai claimed that at least 11 big and small, known and unknown, lobbying companies have been hired by Pakistan and state-owned Pakistani organisations in the US, paying them hundreds of thousands of dollars every month, some of them having mysterious names and almost dubious credentials. The facts, however, resulted in more egg on Sehbai’s face (not that it makes any difference). His own paper carried the clarification on June 28, 2009 that currently, Pakistan has hired only two firms — Locke Lord Strategies-LP (Since May 2008 @ $75000/- per month) and Cassidy & Associates (Since May 2009 @ $58000/- per month). Sehbai had mistakenly found the names of every firm that had lobbied for Pakistan since 1991, failed to check out the termination dates of their contracts and assumed they were all currently at work.
Great work, Shaheen Sehbai! You keep us amused although it is a shame that your work causes disruption and instability.