Archive for December, 2010

First Impressions

Friday, December 17th, 2010

Front page headlines are a first impression of the news of the day. Newspapers consider them carefully because it is well known that the front page headline will colour the way we see the world events. Look at the front page of The News today. The headline reads, “Obama asks Pak Army to do more”.

The News, 17 December 2010

Here’s the first paragraph of the article, which sets the tone for the story:

As a new US policy review on Thursday found al-Qaeda in Pakistan weaker than ever, US President Barack Obama, acknowledged progress, though slow, in defeating al-Qaeda and Taliban in the border region of Afghanistan. However, he asked Pakistan, without mincing words, to do more militarily in the tribal areas.

Between this and the menacing photograph used (a photo that is not even from the speech) clearly leaves the public with the impression that an angry Barack Obama is bullying Pakistan’s military.

And The News is not the only media group to define Obama’s speech in this way. Actually Dawn‘s front page article is quite similar, even going so far as to define the American president’s speech as “adopting a classic carrot-and-stick combination”.

Dawn, 17 December 2010

Actually, Obama never uses the words ‘do more’ which raises the question is it a mantra for American officials, or for a political group that wants the public to believe that US is bullying Pakistan.

And no carrots and sticks were discussed either. In fact, reading the transcript of Obama’s speech gives a much different perspective than either headline. Here is what American President Barack Obama actually said about Pakistan:

Finally, we will continue to focus on our relationship with Pakistan. Increasingly, the Pakistani government recognizes that terrorist networks in its border regions are a threat to all our countries, especially Pakistan. We’ve welcomed major Pakistani offensives in the tribal regions. We will continue to help strengthen Pakistanis’ capacity to root out terrorists. Nevertheless, progress has not come fast enough. So we will continue to insist to Pakistani leaders that terrorist safe havens within their borders must be dealt with.

At the same time, we need to support the economic and political development that is critical to Pakistan’s future. As part of our strategic dialogue with Pakistan, we will work to deepen trust and cooperation. We’ll speed up our investment in civilian institutions and projects that improve the lives of Pakistanis. We’ll intensify our efforts to encourage closer cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

And, next year, I look forward to an exchange of visits, including my visit to Pakistan, because the United States is committed to an enduring partnership that helps deliver improved security, development, and justice for the Pakistani people.

This is a far different person speaking than the angry bully that is portrayed on the front page of The News. Actually, the rest of Sami Abraham’s article portrays a very different event, one much more like the impression one gets from reading the actual transcripts. President Obama even said that he is looking forward to visiting Pakistan and is committed to improved security and justice for the Pakistani people. So why the portrait of a bully Obama?

Sadly, this is not the first time that headlines have presented asensational and misleading first impression. Perhaps this is an example of what Cyril Almeida calls, “massaging public opinion”.

The fake WikiLeaks cables give the first public hint about how opinion is being shaped in this country right now. Unpatriotic, secular, godless liberals may sniff about such naked manipulation, but the smart money is on a population raised on a diet of conspiracy and paranoia swallowing it as yet more evidence of external plots against the country.

It is no secret that a particular political constituency considers “do more” to be the greatest insult of all time. And it is also no secret that this is a very vocal group who would like to see the Army disengage from cooperation with the Americans. But these are political opinions and belong on the opinion page, not front page headlines. Mischaracterizing the speech of a foreign leader on the front page headline is beneath the professionalism of our media.

It is also possible that these newspapers know that such headlines will simply sell better. Certainly the political tendencies of Dawn‘s editors are not the same as The Nation (which, it should be recognized, had the most objective headline of the three!). But it is much more profitable to have a dramatic front page story than a report that relations are respectful and improving. Whether headlines are being written to promote a political agenda or to simply sell more newspapers, however, the results are the same.

Many people don’t read past the headlines of a newspaper. It is the first thing that jumps at you when walk by a newspaper stand, and thus it is the image the sticks in your memory. Even if you read the entire article, your first impression will still be coloured by the headline and opening paragraph that characterizes the story. So first impressions are lasting – but what if they are wrong? In the case of media impressions, the result is we are left with a lastingly misinformed public.

The Celebrity Mufti Show

Monday, December 13th, 2010

Front Line with Kamran Shahid

A blog post on Dawn caught my attention and I think it deserves further discussion. The post by Shyema, ‘Is Veema Malik a threat to Islam?’ discusses Sunday’s episode of Front Line in which Kamran Shahid did his best to whip up a juicy fight between Ali Saleem and Mufti Abdul Qaqi over Veena Malik’s appearance on Indian reality show Bigg Boss.

Ali Saleem, famous for his television persona Begum Nawazish Ali, mentioned the Hajj Scam, the corruption of our leaders, the silence of police on the face of torture and the unjustified killings which have become commonplace in our country but somehow all of that does not hold any weight to Veena getting comfy with an Indian (read: Hindu). Hats off to him for keeping his cool while the Mufti sahab accused him of “bay ghairthi, bay sharmi and bay hayai”. What a “mujrim” he is in this day and age, dressing up as a woman on screen.

So basically, Islam is under threat because of people like Veena who have joined the ranks of culprits such as suicide bombers who kill dozens by the day in the name of religion. But wait – while being put on the spot upon the insistence of Ali Saleem, the Mufti did condemn suicide bombers – so I suppose the religious leaders have done their duty.

Ali Saleem tries to make the excellent point that why are we arguing about Veena Malik and some mindless reality show when there are serious issues that deserve discussion. It should be noted that Front Line is supposed to be a serious show on Express News channel – not some mindless tabloid programme. Shyema makes the point perfectly:

I don’t think I’m giving enough credit to the show’s host here. By inviting a conservative Mufti and a controversially liberal celebrity to debate, the host already knew what the outcome would be: a mockery of both the guests. How would the show get its ratings and popularity without an angry religious scholar and a controversial celebrity attacking each other on screen?

Farzana Bari, a human rights activist, who was also invited to the debate, pointed out that neither has she nor Mufti Abdul Qawi seen the programme, and nor could they see the scandalous clips playing on the screen at the time of the debate. And the clips that were playing on screen were carefully chosen to show Veena at her best, or worst – but then again, nothing sensationalises better than the same clips shown over and over again.

But all of that didn’t seem to be important. What was important was that a Pakistani actress was causing the nation to hang its head in shame! As if being in the limelight for terrorism, honour killings, fake degrees, corrupt leaders and Baitullah Mehsud wasn’t enough, now we have Veena Malik who also wants to destroy the identity of Pakistan. The charged-up youth and ever-ready-to-protest religious parties must get their placards ready now – this is after all a matter of national and religious identity and Veena’s agenda must be destroyed!

Whatever is the point of Kamran’s show except to raise the blood pressure of viewers and increase ratings by providing a good fight to watch? Considering the various issues facing the country, who cares what Ali Saleem and Abdul Qaqi think about Veena?

If there is such a concern about the image of Pakistan in the world, why is Kamran Shahid hosting discussions about Bigg Boss and not the media groups that were so easily fooled by an obviously fake Wikileaks story, and worst of all those media groups that continue to peddle such false stories? Has this not done more to damage Pakistan’s image in the world than a Lollywood actress on a reality show?

Just as reporters have a responsibility to verify their facts, producers and editors have a responsibility to select topics and guests that can truly inform the citizens on important topics. If Kamran Shahid wants to host a celebrity gossip show, that is his right. But don’t host a celebrity gossip show and call it news.

Conspiracies, Media and a Willing Public

Saturday, December 11th, 2010

I’m glad that the discussion of these fake Wikileaks cables has not ended with the apology of some newspapers. I’m truly disappointed – no, I am truly depressed – that even after the story is admitted to be fake, some newspapers and TV networks continue to peddle the story. If it is unknown to be a forgery, the story is a mistake. Once it is known, it is simply lies. So, why do these lies continue? Unfortunately, the answer is too complex for some simple conspiracy theory. But reading several writers today, you can begin to piece together the answer.

Nadeem F. Paracha calls them ‘The liars collective’, a media that is used by agency men to protect the vested interests of an establishment whose irrelevance threatens its very existence.

Each time any of these institutions is rocked by a scandal or an exposé, certain newspapers and TV channels suddenly start teeming with loud deniers who would go to absurd lengths to divert the public’s attention towards something more ‘substantial’, such as of course, the ‘record-breaking corruption’ of this government, the fantastic job the free judiciary is doing, or how India remains the greatest threat to Pakistan. Or some feel-good lectures by a crank or two, usually crammed with airy myths presented as historical facts, are unleashed.

This has happened so many times that one wonders whether what many journalists and politicians on the other side of the ideological fence say, is true. Whether most of the media personnel we see on our TV screens or read about in the newspaper, who are always so passionately waving the flag of Pakistan and spouting contempt against corruption (especially when a narrative by the establishment comes under stress), may very well be the proverbial ‘agency men?’

NFP, as usual, is on to something. In fact, his thesis is at least partially confirmed by one of these ‘agency men’ himself, Ahmed Quraishi, who admits using media to spread propaganda, even when it is not true.

Just like the Guardian and NYT, the Pakistani media retains the right to manipulate and highlight WikiLeaks documents that serve our interest. This could involve some exaggeration in some parts of the media. But not everything is ‘incorrect’, as the Guardian claimed.

The Pakistani story shifts the focus to India, and shows we too can use WikiLeaks for propaganda like everyone else. The Guardian and the other two journals have been doing the same for the past two weeks. I am not saying Pakistan did use WikiLeaks for propaganda but it certainly can, like everyone else.

This is not journalism, but psychological warfare by manipulating an unsuspecting public. It is not right for the CIA, and it is not right for RAW…and regardless of Ahmed Quraishi’s perverted justification – it is not right for him and the ISI to do either.

But even this is only part of the story. Unfortunately, things are not so simple. There is also the news agencies who have a perverse incentive to publish the craziest headlines without checking their facts. Cafe Pyala describes this situation in their post today:

The defence that “if anyone goes on Goggle [sic] and writes: Wikileaks Leaks About India, Israel and Afghanisan” one would be able to get the same news we got” would be uproariously funny were it not simultaneously so appalling. That’s your defence Online??? So tomorrow, if you go on the net and search for “Conspiracy Theories About Moon Landing Being Fake”, you would pass that along to news organizations as valid news? Second point: why exactly then do news organizations need you? I mean all they need to do to get their ‘news’ is Google (or Goggle, if that’s your thing), right?

Of course none of this takes away from the news organizations’ own responsibilities to verify stories they take on. Are we to gather from this that the news sense of the staff at these papers and channels has deteriorated to such an extent that NONE of them saw anything remotely strange about the story?

There are a lot of news researchers, producers, and editors out there who are not on the payroll of any intelligence agency. But they have their own vested interest, which is the public which consumes the news – us. As Nadir Hassan makes quite clear today, we also share responsibility for all this mess.

The media was only the vehicle for delivering the WikiLeaks-that-weren’t. The ultimate responsibility lies with us, the consumers. That the news stories based on the falsified cables were believed by so many people shows that they only told us what we so desperately want to be true. For a story to pass muster, it must ring true. And a heady brew of inflammatory textbooks, government sabre-rattling, media sensationalism and, it must be admitted, our own prejudice, have convinced a large percentage of the population that a hidden Hindu hand must be behind every local problem. Any media organisation which claimed, for example, that the slippery Swiss were behind the Baloch separatists, would be laughed into bankruptcy. Since we have so successfully demonised India, for many its involvement doesn’t so much as merit an arched eyebrow.

Since self-congratulation is easier than reflection, there will also be a lot of chatter in the coming days about the burgeoning photosphere. True, the fraudulent cables were first exposed as such by blogs and Twitter users. Inevitably, this will be used as proof that the Pakistani population is too sophisticated to fall for such hoaxes. Let’s not delude ourselves into thinking a few liberal journalists are representative of a country that is all too willing to believe the worst about its neighbour.

Fake stories are not published because of one sinister villain sitting in some hideout like in the movies. If it were so simple, we could simply find him and throw him behind bars. Problem solved. Unfortunately, there are complex reasons and complex motives behind media propaganda and lies. The good news is, there is a solution – it just takes a little bit of work. Just as word-of-mouth and ‘word-of-Twitter’ can be used to spread misinformation, it can also be used to expose it. It is said that sunlight is the best disinfectant. Therefore, let the sun shine on these cockroaches and we will watch them scurry away.

Lessons From Forged Wikileaks Story

Friday, December 10th, 2010

Wikileaks Forgery

I don’t want to spend too much time on the forged Wikileaks story that was exposed by The Guardian yesterday as it has been covered fairly extensively already. But there are some important lessons that should be discussed, and so I will spend a short time on those.

Some have laid the blame squarely on Jang Group, but that’s not quite fair. While Jang certainly shares some fault, they were not the only media group to run the story and neither were they the originators. Actually, the story was also run by The Nation and Nawa-i-Waqt as well as Express Tribune. That this story was not carried by one media group only but by a wide selection suggests that the mistake was not intentional but the result of two common media problems.

The first problem that is highlighted is the rush to ‘scoop’ other news organizations and be the first to publish headlines – especially if those headlines will get attention – without doing proper background checks to confirm the facts. We see this far too often. In the case of a bomb blast, news programmes will report a certain number of deaths before their reporters have even arrived to the scene, only to change their reporting several times until the facts are known. There must be a balance between reporting news quickly and reporting it factually. It is better to be second to break a story and have it correct than to be first and be incorrect. In this case, Dawn did not run with the original story, and comes away looking more reliable because of it.

The second problem is the habit of relying on questionable sources. This story appears to have been first broken by the website, a website that has previously been exposed as part of a propaganda ring. According to today’s The News,

A check on the Internet as well as The Guardian report showed that the story was not based on Wikileaks cables, and had in fact originated from some local websites such as The Daily Mail and Rupee News known for their close connections with certain intelligence agencies.

This blog and others have been trying to bring to light the question of intelligence agencies and other vested interests using journalists as puppets. Perhaps some times there is money changing hands, perhaps other times a reporter is awed by access to a well-connected source, perhaps the reporter simply believes the story is too good to pass up – whatever the reason, we see too many incidents in which news reports make claims based on statements by ‘reliable sources’ that never come true and then fade away. This is not to say that journalists should ignore their sources, but perhaps they should do a little more investigation to verify the story.

Both of these lessons center on the same point – the need for better fact checking.

Express Tribune has published a retraction and public apology letting readers know that the story was a mistake. Jang Group has also been forthcoming and published front page stories explaining that the story was a mistake and revealing the source for the material as some questionable websites. These media groups should be commended for their honesty in retracting the story and admitting the mistake. Unfortunately, today’s issue of The Nation continues to peddle the story even after it has been shown as a forgery.

In journalism, mistakes are made. This is why many newspapers include a ‘corrections’ section where they can let readers know in the event of a mislabeled photograph or some details that have been reported and later learned to be incorrect. For larger incidents like these forged Wikileaks documents, a full article such as published by Express Tribune and The News is appreciated. We hope that the lessons will be taken and all media groups will use the unfortunate incident to remind their editors and reporters of the importance of getting the story right.

Ansar Abbasi's Bizarre Performance on Dunya Today

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

Ansar Abbasi on Dunya TodayAnsar Abbasi appeared on yesterday’s episode of Dunya Today to discuss Wikileaks. What could have been an informative and productive discussion of an important event in both national and foreign policy turned into something of a circus, though, as Ansar Abbasi began reciting conspiracy theories instead of actual facts. And from there, his performance only got more bizarre. But where this episode was unfortunately not as informative as it could have been about the topic of Wikileaks, it was quite informative about the guest Ansar Abbasi.

About 5 seconds into the second video clip, Dr Moeed Pirzada asks Abbasi, “You said in our last program that Wikileaks is a conspiracy against Pakistan and the Muslims of the world.” Ansar Abbasi replies, “I am still saying the same thing, the exact same thing.”

This claim that Wikileaks is a conspiracy against Pakistan and Muslim countries is being passed around the media by the usual cabal of factless conspiracy theorists. It should be noted also that this line is being spread mostly Urdu media, not English-language, though it was published by The Nation last week also. Like most conspiracy theories, it seems that people believe that it is sufficient evidence to keep saying it.

Pressed by Mosharraf Zaidi to explain how this is a conspiracy, Abbasi simply says that “they use people, not just journalists; they use entire governments for their conspiracies.” Again, he makes this claim by simply stating it, presenting no actual evidence or proofs to back up his claim.

To his credit, Mosharraf Zaidi presents an important counter weight of reasonableness to Ansar Abbasi, terming it a “poison that we have in our nation that we look at everything as a conspiracy theory.” Zaidi goes on to explain:

All I am saying is that we don’t need to start scratching on every surface just to say there is a conspiracy brewing. There are so many other things that have come up here which can promote freedom, democracy and the truth. We should concentrate on those things instead of painting everything as a conspiracy theory so that we don’t ignore the guilty (as well as the innocent) involved here.

Mr Zaidi’s statement should be printed and hung on the wall of every Editor’s office in the country. Editing in journalism is about more than looking for minor grammatical or spelling mistakes. It is supposed to be about ensuring that the media is providing what The New York Times famously calls, “all the news that’s fit to print”. The operative word here being “fit” not “all”.

But I want to mention something else that may have been overlooked by casual viewers. A few minutes after Zaidi states his comments about how conspiracy theories are a distraction from real problems, the conversation took a turn for the bizarre as Abbasi began rambling about religion, saying:

Allah says the enemies of Islam do a lot of planning but Allah is the biggest planner of all. Americans can think of plan whatever My Allah has a plan for them.

This was so bizarre that even Dr Pirzada asked what he is talking about. However, I was immediately reminded of Ansar Abbasi’s recent fatwa against Fashion Week (again published in the Urdu-language Jang as if to perhaps hide it from his English-language audience) in which Mullah Abbasi wrote:

But the real sadness is over how, despite the clear instructions of Allah and His Prophet (PBUH), and despite the promise of the Constitution of Pakistan that an environment based on religious values and Islamic teachings will be created in Pakistan so that Muslims can live their lives according to the Quran and Sunnah, there is no one to stop those making fun of Islamic values. I don’t know who allowed such a fashion show to be held. This trend of fashion shows and catwalks began in Pakistan a few years ago and because of a lack of any controls, has gone, as in the West and India, towards obscenity.

Ansar Abbasi is clearly speaking to a particular audience here. He is repeating conspiracy theories about Wikileaks being an anti-Muslim plot without providing any proofs or facts to support his claim. He is making religious judgments about punishments for acts that he determines to be un-Islamic. This is all fine for Ansar Abbasi the Mullah or Ansar Abbasi the entertainer – but Ansar Abbasi is supposed to be Investigative Editor for one of the largest news organizations in the country. Ansar Abbasi can believe whatever he wants, but it does not make it news just because Ansar Abbasi thinks it.

Ahsan Butt writes an excellent question about the exchange on his blog Five Rupees:

The thing is, I completely agree with being reasonable and tolerant of other people’s opinions, and I am pretty tolerant for the most part — being at grad school sort of forces this upon you, even if you are not personally inclined that way. However, there is a big difference between respecting other people’s opinions (which I think I do) and respecting other people’s facts (which I do not and will not).

Mosharraf Zaidi and Ahsan Butt are correct. Each person is entitled to his own opinions. Nobody is entitled to his own facts. Ansar Abbasi is supposed to be an investigative journalist. He is supposed to ‘investigate’ – to find facts and report them. Perhaps he thinks he can hide from the rest of the world by behaving this way behind a veil of Urdu, but the world is not so divided as he might like to think. By spreading unfounded conspiracy theories and playing on the religious sentiments of the people, Ansar Abbasi is doing a disservice to his readers, his reputation, and his profession.

Noam Chomsky's Description of Pakistan's Media Raises Questions

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Noam ChomskyAmerican intellectual Noam Chomsky has been writing about media and influence for decades. His book with co-author Edward S. Herman is a foundational work on the subtle ways media shapes the way we think and see the world, and the powers that influence media from behind the scenes.

Last Month, Professor Chomsky spoke to India’s Outlook magazine about the differences between Pakistan’s and India’s news media, and what he said raises not only important points of consideration, but new questions also.

Answering the question, “What is the mechanism through which the media becomes the voice of the government and elite?”, Chomsky talks about the analysis of British author George Orwell.

He says the reasons are that the press is owned by wealthy men who have every reason not to want certain ideas to be expressed. In the more modern period, generally, the media are either big corporations or parts of mega corporations or closely linked to the government.

Looking at Pakistan’s media through with this in mind, we can see that our own media is primarily owned by a few families. Consider two examples: Daily Times is owned by Governor Punjab Salmaan Taseer. You would be hard-pressed to convince me that Salmaan Taseer has no influence over the editorial perspective in Daily Times, but at least he allows professionals to edit the newspaper.

Consider as an alternative Jang Group. Their daily newspaper The News International is founded by Mir Khalil-ur-Rahman, Group Chairman is Mir Javed Rahman, and Editor-in-Chief is Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman. Is it not better to name the newspaper The News Rahman?

Chomsky does give some credit to our domestic media, which I agree is warranted – Pakistani journalists show no fear of criticising government officials.

In Pakistan, I read the English language media which go to a tiny part of the population. Apparently, the government, no matter how repressive it is, is willing to say to them that you have your fun, we are not going to bother you. So they don’t interfere with it.

The media in India is free, the government doesn’t have the power to control it. But what I saw was that it was pretty restricted, very narrow and provincial and not very informative, leaving out lots of things. What I saw was a small sample. There are very good things in the Indian media, specially the Hindu and a couple of others. But this picture (in India) doesn’t surprise me. In fact, the media situation is not very different in many other countries.

Professor Chomsky is correct that our media is free. But one thing Chomsky doesn’t mention is that our own media is so quick to criticise the government that it makes the opposite mistake. Just as it does nobody any good to have a media that is a lap dog for the government, it is not any good to have a media that is a rabid anti-government dog also. Rather than always assuming (or inventing) the worst about the government or any official, the news should be reporting the facts. If those facts expose the government for corruption or other misdeeds, the population is better off. But we do not need to invent corruption or misquote officials in order to create some drama. Citizens need the media to give them facts about their country so that they can form their own opinions. If they do not have the facts, their opinions will be misguided. If the so-called ‘facts’ are simply the wishes or inventions of someone in the media, their opinions will also be misguided.

This has been the driving belief behind the very beginning of Pakistan Media Watch. Pakistan’s media is finally free…but is it fair and factual? Just as proper journalists have accepted the responsibility to keep watch on the government to keep it honest, we have accepted the responsibility to keep watch on the media to keep it honest also. We hope you, our dear reader, will keep a watch over us also and let us know if we make some mistake. Together we will help make certain that Pakistan’s media is not only freer than India’s, but more reliable also.

Ghosts, Goblins, and Shaheen Sehbai's Cloudy Crystal Ball

Monday, December 6th, 2010

Shaheen SehbaiI will admit, what Shaheen Sehbai lacks in facts he certainly makes up for in tenacity. That man is relentless! Having spent some time reading the Wikileaks database, he has figured out a way to justify all of his mistakes over the past two years. But when you boil down Sehbai’s column to its essence, you find that no matter how hard he wishes, there is still no meat in the pot.

According to Shaheen Sehbai today:

The ghosts say when Ambassador Patterson conveyed the minus-1 formula to Washington, the delayed reaction was indifference and almost a tacit approval as if people would be much relieved if that happened in a constitutional or legal way, without direct military intervention or takeover.

This is essentially the same as what Sehbai wrote before:

The State Department, specifically Hillary Clinton, has almost categorically declared that they are no longer interested in saving President Asif Ali Zardari if he falls in his current battle for survival, waging in the superior courts of Pakistan.

Here is what the secret US diplomatic cable actually says:

3. (C) During Ambassador’s fourth meeting in a week with Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Kayani on March 10, he again hinted that he might, however reluctantly, have to persuade President Zardari to resign if the situation sharply deteriorates. He mentioned Asfundyar Wali Khan as a possible replacement. This would not be a formal coup but would leave in place the PPP government led by PM Gilani, thus avoiding elections that likely would bring Nawaz Sharif to power. We do not believe Army action is imminent. We do believe Kayani was laying down a clear marker so that, if he has to act, he can say he warned the U.S. in advance and gave us ample opportunities to pressure both sides to back down. Kayani is trying to leverage what he considers predominate U.S. influence over Zardari, instead of seeking a direct confrontation that could provoke an unhelpful civil-military clash.

Do you see the glaring problem here? Despite Shaheen Sehbai’s most wishful thinking, the fact remains that the cable says something completely different from Sehbai’s reporting. Actually, it says that Gen. Kayani ‘hinted’ to the US Ambassador Anne Patterson that he might have to ‘reluctantly’ persuade President Zardari to resign “if the situation sharply deteriorates” in the hopes that the Americans would influence the president to not make any mistakes. The cable concludes with a statement by the US Ambassador, “Zardari needs to win back the military’s confidence.” That’s a far cry from Zardari being removed by the Army with the blessing of the US State Department.

What the document doesn’t say is that the Army is planning a minus-1 ‘soft coup’. Neither does it say that the Americans approve – tacitly or otherwise – such a plan.

To understand this better, consider a topic besides back-room political dealings. Without having any contacts in the military or being privy to any secrets, it is probably safe to assume that there are contingency plans with both the Pakistani and Indian armies for the event of a nuclear war. These plans are, of course, discussed between the military and intelligence so that “if the situation sharply deteriorates”, no one is caught unaware.

But it would be beyond the pale to make the leap from, “the army has considered what could happen in a ‘worst-case’ scenario” to declaring that Pakistan and India will be in a nuclear war any day now. This is the style of Shaheen Sehbai – wishful thinking packaged in sensationalism. All spice and no meat.

What does begin to reveal itself, though, is how Shaheen Sehbai has been made a puppet of certain factions within the establishment who feed him rumours and leaks that they know he will package and publish in a manner useful to their plans. Perhaps these elements of the establishment must feel that Sehbai is not clever enough to realize the actual situation, or perhaps Sehabi is a willing participant.

What is clear is that Shaheen Sehbai is quite selective about his facts, carefully choosing certain sources who he is willing to believe without question – he calls these ‘ghosts’, and certain others whose statements he dismisses out of hand as nothing but cronyism – what he calls ‘power players’ but are clearly the ‘goblins’ in his fantasy tale. To Sehbai, the statements of these ‘ghosts’ that follow Pervez Musharraf to New York City are like gold form the tongues of Angels, while those who dare suggest that Sehabi does not have all the facts are merely ‘anti-Army zealots’ – a curious charge from a man with a well documented record of anti-Army headlines of his own. Of course, the fact that the tiger has changed his stripes now is simply another example of the double-standard that Shaheen Sehbai uses for himself.

It should also be noted that this is the same Shaheen Sehabi who wrote an article on 22 October 1999 for Dawn that describes Pakistan as a “patient” and Pervez Musharraf as the “surgeon”, and who wrote earlier this year that his sources for information about Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry were “circles close to General Musharraf in London and Washington”. It seems that these ghosts of Musharraf are sitting squarely on Shaheen Sehbai’s shoulders and whispering directly in his ears.

Shaheen Sehbai, having read through the Wikileaks database, has decided that his predictions over the two year past are vindicated because the American diplomatic cables have revealed that there are disagreements and tensions in the Pakistani government. He is encouraged by the ghosts of Pervez Musharraf.

Shaheen Sehbai writes almost 2,000 words describing an establishment and a political class deeply distrustful and suspicious of each other. Again, not exactly ground-breaking news there. But Sehbai conveniently ignores the facts – that the evidence in the Wikileaks cables proves that his predictions and his reporting were wrong from the very beginning.

Despite writing over two years ago that “the present Zardari-led set-up will not last long”, Asif Zardari remains president, and the PPP remains in government. Undeterred by an inconvenient reality, Shaheen Sehabi concludes his 2,000 words by making the same prediction he has been making since before day one – that Zardari will be removed from government.

It appears Shaheen Sehbai is using what is called the ‘broken clock strategy’ since even a broken clock is correct twice a day. Obviously, someday Zardari will not be president of Pakistan. It could be in 2013, it could be 2018…it could be sooner or later. But Sehbai knows that as long as he keeps predicting that Zardari is leaving office, eventually he will be correct. Rest assured that the day Zardari leaves office, Shaheen Sehbai will pen a column declaring himself vindicated again.

In the meantime, you’ll get better news by looking out your windows than Shaheen Sehabi gets from his crystal ball. And you won’t have to read 2,000 words to get it.

The Intransigent Talat Hussain

Saturday, December 4th, 2010

Syed Talat HussainTalat Hussain, a man who has (or should I say had) a reputation for being at least bearable among the insufferable lot of TV anchors, has done it again. The anchor, on his struggling-for-rating program “News Night with Talat” recently attacked Husain Haqqani, ambassador of Pakistan to US questioning the ambassador’s loyalty and motives.

He took a couple of Haqqanis quotations out of context from Bob Woodward’s book “Obamas Wars” and directly attacked Haqqani saying that these types of comments should make us reconsider the type of people representing us. Talat Hussain has picked up two things that Woodward has quoted the Ambassador as saying in the context of Pakistan and US relations; one where the Ambassador talks about “carpet merchants” and the other where the Ambassador talks about the need to “woo a woman” and importance of giving an engagement ring.

The first quote which Talat talks about out of context as directly taken from Woodward’s book, is as follows:

He [Haqqani] also warned that the Pakistanis would always ask for the moon as a starting point in negotiations. He compared it to the salesmanship of rug merchants. “The guy starts at 10,000 and you settle for 1,200″ Haqqani told the Obama team. “So be reasonable, but never let the guy walk out of the shop without a sale.”

It is important to mention here that ambassador Haqqani was talking about how people and nations negotiate. Each side always starts with a long list of issues and then as you keep discussing and negotiating you come down to the bare essentials. And what is important, as the Ambassador emphasizes, is that you need to know what it is that you want. One also needs to make sure that you never let the negotiations break down so much that you have to let go of the one or two absolutely essential items that you need out of the negotiation.

If you’ve ever been on the streets of Saddar where rug merchants are trying to sell their merchandise, you can see that they start their sales pitch from an outrageous price and come down to a much more reasonable one. That is what the norm traditionally is for selling rugs. It is a noble and respectable profession that helps people provide for food and shelter. Talat Hussain was not only taking Haqqani’s words out of context here but was also belittling rug merchants by implying that selling rugs was beneath any respectable individual and that using such an example is shameful.

The second quotation that Mr. Talat Hussain talks about clearly out of context, from Woodward’s book where the ambassador talks about “wooing a woman” is:

Pakistan’s Ambassador to Washington Husain Haqqani, a key go-between, tried several times to explain to the Obama administration how to court Pakistani leaders, comparing the dynamic to “a man who is trying to woo a woman.” “We all know what he wants from her. Right?” Haqqani said in a meeting with Jones, Deputy National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and the NSC’s Gen. Doug Lute. “But she has other ideas. She wants to be taken to the theater. She wants that nice new bottle of perfume,” Haqqani told them. “If you get down on one knee and give the ring, that’s the big prize. And boy, you know, it works.” Haqqani said the “ring” was official U.S. recognition of Pakistan’s nuclear program as legitimate.

It’s actually quite clear that the ambassador was explaining Pakistan’s complaint against US and using an example Americans can understand. Did you notice how Talat partially explained the ambassador’s statement and left out the part about presenting of the “ring” to the woman being wooed and the part where Husain Haqqani says that the ring represents America’s public acceptance of Pakistan’s nuclear status? The ambassador was defending Pakistan’s nuclear program and trying to help Americans understand how important it is for Pakistan’s security and existence and that Americans need to accept it and learn to live with it. Listening to Talat Hussain, though, a viewer would come away with a different impression than the truth.

Talat Hussain conveniently pulled out the complete opposite meaning of what the ambassador was trying to say and started implying that Pakistan is a woman and US is a man, bringing forth his sexist nature, trying to rev up his listeners emotions without real reason.

On Hillary Clinton’s latest visit to Pakistan, our ill-informed anchor who was working for Aaj TV at the time, wanted to embarrass Hillary by proving that she was wrong and U.S did not give Pakistan enough money compared to Kyrgyzstan. He kept insisting that U.S. was paying Kyrgyzstan $640 million as rent for a military base in that country. Hillary corrected the self-righteous anchor but Talat Hussain insisted he was correct. Hillary Clinton remained polite and did not pursue the whole debate further but as it turns out, Talat was incorrect and had little regard for facts.

It is also important to point out that not too long ago Talat Hussain in his column in the Urdu daily Express News targeted the famous Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie in his shameful effort to attack the present civilian government of Pakistan. He caused an uproar among most of those people who read it not because of the just the message he was trying to get across, but in how he viciously maligned Angelina Jolie’s character to build his case. His article was condemned by majority of his readers and what he actually ended up doing was show to the public his own bigotry, his sexist attitude and his own racism (he actually called Jolie’s children as “rang barangay yateem bachay” or multi-colored orphan kids). He also showed how some hypocrites in the media write in one style for the Urdu-reading public and maintain quite a different persona for the English readership.

Playing the Machismo card to rouse the emotions of viewers is the strategy of drama serials, not series news programmes. And playing fast and loose with the statements of government officials is a style of ‘hit-and-run journalism’ that may score a short-term boost in ratings but does long-term damage to national security by giving other nations the impression that we do not even respect our own representatives so why should they. All of this together suggests a disturbing trend in Talat Hussain’s reporting – a willingness to sacrifice the truth for some cheap ratings.

The Nation Publishes Contradictory Wikileaks Conspiracies

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

The Nation (logo)You have to hand it to the editors of The Nation – they do not discriminate against any conspiracy theory. This is made obvious again this week as the newspaper changes its tune within mere days, first saying that the Wikileaks confirms that there is a USA-India conspiracy against Pakistan, and only a few days later writing that actually Wikileaks is a USA conspiracy to embarrass Muslims!

If you recall, The Nation earlier this week published an editorial that claimed that Wikileaks proved a US conspiracy against Pakistan.

The disclosures of the US attempt to remove highly enriched uranium from the Pakistani reactor confirm the suspicions of certain political circles in Pakistan that the US has an eye on our nuclear assets, and while doing everything it can to strengthen India, defence-wise and economically, at the same time, it wants to enfeeble Pakistan.

Today, though, the same newspaper publishes an editorial that says that actually Wikileaks is a US conspiracy to embarrass Muslims.

The suspicion that the latest WikiLeaks are actually at the instigation of the US government gained strength when it was noted that the leaked documents are more likely to cause conflicts within the Muslim world than to embarrass the USA. Starting with Saudi King Abdullah’s reported views on Pakistan’s President, and going on to reports about Iran and Afghanistan, the State Department seems to devote an inordinate amount of time to the problems of the Muslim world, even more than is justified by its interest in the Palestinian problem, or the war on terror.

Whether the US government is devoting “an inordinate amount of time to the problems of the Muslim world” is open to debate. But paranoia is not evidence, and this appears to be the only thing supporting the belief such a claim. Naturally, this conspiracy theory comes from former COAS Gen (retd) Alsam Beg who has also been quoted saying that Osama or his al-Qaeda were not responsible for 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, despite all evidence to the contrary (including the statements of Osama bin Laden himself).

More interesting, however, is that The Nation is willing to accept any conspiracy theory that casts some blame on their favourite bogeys, even if those conspiracy theories are in direct contradiction to each other.

It will be interesting to see what conspiracy the editors at The Nation can invent next. Already they have published not only the two conspiracy theories mentioned above, but also that the Americans are using some top secret weather control machines. Is there no limit to the silliness that The Nation will publish? Pakistan does not need any more silly conspiracy theories. We need facts and informed opinion. Sadly, The Nation seems to be allergic to facts and is daily becoming less relevant as a news source because of it.

Cafe Pyala Sends The News (Jang) Back To Kindergarten

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

The News (Jang Group)Yesterday, we showed an example of The Nation using Wikileaks documents to support their conspiracy theories. Of course, they are not the only media group that is making sensational headlines out of the Wikileaks cables. But while The Nation may be mischaracterizing statements in order to support a conspiracy theory, The News (Jang Group) is simply getting the facts wrong altogether.

Good work by Cafe Pyala for noticing this one!

Back to Kindergarten for the Lot of You

Whatever else the merits of the Wikileaks expose may be, one thing is for sure: it is a DISASTER for some of Pakistan’s media. The huge information dump has resulted, annoyingly for our journos, in having to actually read things properly and double check facts, and far, far too much temptation to make laughing stocks of themselves.

Thanks to @sohaibgulbadan who pointed this out, here is The Newsversion of one on the released cables. Breathlessly, The News’ reporter Umar Cheema tells us on the paper’s front page:

Pakistan, a private nightmare for Obama

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

By Umar Cheema

“ISLAMABAD: US President Barack Obama considers Pakistan as his “private nightmare”, a front-line ally in the war against terrorism that could surprise the whole world waking up one morning to hear that the country had been taken over by the extremists.

A diplomatic cable leaked by Wikileaks reveals that Pakistan is one of the major causes behind the US decision of not attacking Iran, amid fears that any strike against this neighbouring Muslim country could further fuel the militancy in Pakistan. Nevertheless, the US president understands that avoiding confrontation with Iran has portrayed his country as a weak superpower.

Obama, however, believes attacking North Korea would earn less criticism and also teach a good lesson to the countries harbouring nuclear-ambition. “He described Pakistan as his ‘private nightmare,’ suggesting the world might wake up one morning ‘with everything changed’ following a potential Islamic extremist takeover,” disclosed a cable. Obama expressed concerns about Pakistan in two consecutive meetings with ranking US Senator Codel Casey and Congressman Ackerman of the House’s Foreign Relations Committee before their visit to Israel for a meeting with defence minister Ehud Barak last year.

When asked if the use of force on Iran might backfire with moderate Muslims in Pakistan, thereby exacerbating the situation, “Barak acknowledged Iran and Pakistan are interconnected, but disagreed with a causal chain.” To the contrary, Obama argued that if the United States had directly confronted North Korea in recent years, others would be less inclined to pursue nuclear weapons programmes. “By avoiding confrontation with Iran, Barak argued, the US faces a perception of weakness in the region.”

Contrary to King Abdullah’s opinion of Zardari, the UAE rulers had very positive views of former President Musharraf, disclosed a cable narrating meeting of the US diplomats with the UAE Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander Mohammad bin Zayed, after the latter returned from a visit of Pakistan where he met Musharraf in 2005. First, he congratulated Washington for its decision to allow the US firm to bid for contracts to provide F-16s and other defence technology to Pakistan. “He said it was important to support Musharraf as he battled the terrorists. There was no alternative leader in sight,” said the cable. He also questioned the US suspicions that Pakistani authorities had deliberately delayed the news of the arrest of Abu Faraj al Libbi, negating the wrong perception towards Pakistan.”

Here is the actual cable. The operative part reads:

“11. (C) Barak reinforced his message regarding Pakistan in both meetings. He described Pakistan as his “private nightmare,” suggesting the world might wake up one morning “with everything changed” following a potential Islamic extremist takeover. When asked if the use of force on Iran might backfire with moderate Muslims in Pakistan, thereby exacerbating the situation, Barak acknowledged Iran and Pakistan are interconnected, but disagreed with a causal chain. To the contrary, he argued that if the United States had directly confronted North Korea in recent years, others would be less inclined to pursue nuclear weapons programs. By avoiding confrontation with Iran, Barak argued, the U.S. faces a perception of weakness in the region.”

If you haven’t figured it out yet, the person being quoted is former Israeli Prime Minister and then Defence Minister Ehud Barak, not Barrack Obama. The cable is from the US embassy in Tel Aviv.

Had Mr. Cheema and his editors at The News given it just a little bit of thought, by the way, why the hell would an American foreign mission be quoting their own president’s views to the State Department? A little bit of thought though seems far from some of the reporting going on.