Shaheen Sehbai gets it wrong – again and again – and remains Shameless

Sep 29th, 2009 | By | 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.

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  1. ‘Crying Babies’ of the Pakistani media
    The screaming headlines of certain Pakistani newspapers and prophecies by the some participants of TV talk shows suggest that President Asif Ali Zardari must quit the president house—dead or alive.

    Such demands are outrageous as President Zardari has not done anything for which he should be kicked out of the office before completing his term. On the contrary, Mr. Zardari is the only President in the history of Pakistan who has demonstrated an extreme level of tolerance in the face of a brutal character assignation campaign that is full of smear and slender. Orchestrated by discredited politicians and a section of the media the campaign seems to have no limits.

    A self-proclaimed largest media group of Pakistan, the Jang and the Geo TV, positions itself as the custodian of democracy and press freedom. It is hypocrisy. Throughout the General Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamic dictatorship, the Jang group supported the dictator. I started my career as a journalist from Daily Jang’s Peshawar bureau in the 1980s. At that time the Jang group was the main beneficiary of government-controlled advertisement. News and articles were censored and the pro-democracy groups were presented negatively. We were told not to oppose the military government policies. In fact the Jang group has been using journalism to promote its business interests and when a government or a leader refuses to bow to the pressure of this media group, it lunches character assassination campaigns like the one that has targeted President Zardari.

    No wonder that the majority of ‘crying babies’ on our TV screens and on the newspaper pages work with daily Jang and Geo TV. Some of these ‘crying babies’ were trained by Jamat-i-Islami, others by the military establishment, especially intelligence agencies of Pakistan. Consequently, the so-called ‘independent’ journalists only target politicians.

    Military, judiciary, religious parties and the media have done greater harm to Pakistan but they are untouchable. Patriotism is a business in which military and its secret services, mullahs and a section of the media are partners. It is them who decide if one is patriotic or not. In 1970, the military and Jamat-i-Islami invented an ‘ideology of Pakistan’. It was based on a distorted interpretation of Islam. The ‘ideology of Pakistan’ also provided reasons for the creation of the country. Till date, this ‘ideology’ is a standard against which one’s loyalty to Pakistan is measured.

    President Zardari’s father-in-law prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto ‘failed’ the test of loyalty under the manufactured ideology of Pakistan as a result the military hanged him with the collaboration of Jamat-i-Islami. Same is true for Bhutto’s daughter and Mr. Zardari’s wife, Benazir Bhutto, who was a security threat in the eyes of the military and its allies in the media and politics. Ms Bhutto was killed near the GHQ (military’s headquarters) in Rawalpindi in the daylight. Circumstances suggest that the murder of Benazir may have the blessing of the some in the GHQ. From the stand point of the military and the crying babies’ of the media, President Zardari is guilty because he is committing the same crimes.

    Regardless of what military, mullahs and some in the media think of President Zardari, it is a fact that since assuming the office of the President, 15 months ago, Mr. Zardari has promoted reconciliation and forgiveness in a divided society where political disagreements amount to bloody feuds. Mr. Zardari was victimized for 11 years by his political opponents such as former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who initiated false cases against Mr. Zardari, however, the President has not sent no one to prison because he/she disagreed with the President or criticized him.

    Mr. Zardari is the only president who was elected with a clear majority in the National Assembly, Senate and in all the provincial assemblies. He represents the federation legally, really and truly. He is the first president who agreed to give NWFP a name. There was no horse-trading in the Senate elections, a routine in the Pakistani politics since 1985. From Gilget-Bultistan to Baluchistan and from the signing of the NFC Award to the elimination of the Kalabagh Dam project, all signs indicate that at last the process of bridge building has started in Pakistan and winds of reconciliation can blow in this country. But some do not feel comfortable perhaps peace and stability is not in their interest. Perhaps this is the reason that the ever smiling, humble and modest Mr. Zardari is presented as a monster, an evil person who has no moral right to be the President of Pakistan.

    Mr. Zardari was a faithful and responsible husband who stood by his wife (Benazir Bhutto) in all weathers and at all times and yet in the media he is depicted as reckless and irresponsible. The ‘crying babies’ on TV and their counterparts in the print media imply, in a subtle way, that Mr. Zardari is somehow linked to the murder of Benazir Bhutto and that he has found the death of Ms Bhutto an opportunity to hijack the Pakistan People’s Party. Well, Ms Bhutto’s children are grown ups. My daughter Saba is only 14-year-old and she lives in the UK. I have observed that Saba and her friends have an excellent understanding of human relationships. They are intelligent enough to detect if there is a problem between their parents and, if so, who should be blamed for the trouble in the family.

    If Mr. Zardari was a ‘bad guy’, as the ‘crying babies’ want us to believe, Ms Bhutto’s children would have avoided him. Instead, after the tragic death of Ms Bhutto, all the three children are even closer to their father. They use every opportunity to appear in the public with Mr. Zardari to show how much they love and respect him. If Balawal, Asifa and their sister had a slight doubt about the love and dedication of Mr. Zardari towards their mother they would never gather around him. But the ‘crying babies’ on TV and the likes of them in the print media of Pakistan cannot see the true love between a father and his children. May be the ‘crying babies’ are saddest who take pleasure from inflicting pain. When Ms Bhutto’s brother Mir Murtaza was killed the same saddest had blamed Benazir and Asif for the murder of Murtaza.

    But Benazir and Asif’s children are mature enough. They are well-aware that those minds, which plotted the killing of their mother, uncles and grandfather, the same killers, are now after their father and indeed anyone who wants to bring the power back to the people of Pakistan.

    May be we should not blame the ‘crying babies’ for their hateful behavior. Perhaps these men in suits, who appear on our television screens as commentators and intellectuals, are victims of religious and ethnic hatred that has destroyed peace and harmony in Pakistan since the unlawful removal of the prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1977.

    (Shiraz Paracha is a journalist and professor of journalism)

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