Was The News Manipulated By Its Own Man?

Mar 13th, 2012 | By | Category: The News

The News (Jang Group)Now that The News acknowledges that ‘Memogate’ is not as open and shut a case as some assumed, the paper should ask itself why it was so certain about Mansoor Ijaz’s claims at the beginning. In his video series on journalism ethics, Abbas Nasir discusses several traps that journalists face including conflict of interest and working with sources that are promoting a particular agenda rather than the objective truth. We usually think of biased sources as being paid agents of agencies or other external organisations. But what if the biased source was an employee of the media group itself.

Shaheen Sehbai was one of the the first Pakistani journalists to promote Ijaz – not after the famous Financial Times op-ed, but over a decade beforehand. While he was Dawn‘s Washington correspondent in the mid-1990s, Shaheen Sehbai wrote several stories promoting the American businessman.

In 1995, Sehbai filed a story, ‘Dateline Washington : A blueprint Pakistan cannot ignore’ that described Mansoor Ijaz as the manager of a billion dollar investment firm who is the secret hand writing US policy. Actually, Sehabi’s description from 1995 sounds strangely familiar.

He and his other friends, in similar well placed position, say they have laid the ground work for the changes that have started to show in the U.S. policy towards Pakistan (meaning others were just paying lip service) and they have been at this job ever since the Pressler sanctions were imposed.

Their claims are hard to be accepted or rejected at their face value but what has actually taken place in favour of Pakistan including the change of heart in the White House, the sympathetic mood of the Senate and the bipartisan support for an even-handed policy in South Asia, was originally outlined in Mansoor Ijaz’s confidential blueprint. That gives his claims a bit more credibility that any Pakistani Government official would make us believe.

It should be noted that this demonstrates that as far back as 1995, Shaheen Sehbai was already promoting Mansoor Ijaz as the billionaire international advisor that gave his recent claims such credibility in the media and the public mind. But blogger Ibrahim Sajid Malick investigated these claims and found Mansoor Ijaz’s wealth and power a little less impressive that what was being claimed.

A self-styled Pakistani-American who describes himself as “ultra wealthy man” with expensive lawyers in major cosmopolitans of the world seems to have several financial defaults, almost no personal assets, and a creditor attempting to collect a court ordered judgment against him since 2010 in New York.

How is that Sehabi did not uncover this same information about Ijaz’s supposed wealth? Ibrahim Sajid Malick himself used to work with Shaheen Sehbai, writing for his South Asia Tribune website in the early 2000s, and he wrote last year that Shaheen Sehbai and Mansoor Ijaz had more than just a journalist-subject relationship. According to Malick, Shaheen Sehbai’s South Asia Tribune was funded by Mansoor Ijaz.

When Shaheen Sehbai ran his website SATribune.com I had written few articles for him. I also briefly assisted him with getting advertisement when he converted his online presence to print. During those days, Shaheen Sehbai had mentioned that Mansoor Ijaz is one of the ‘funders’ for his publication. I didn’t think it was such a big deal. But now after memogate controversy, I can’t but wonder if MI and SS still collaborate.

This raises serious questions about the Shaheen Sehbai’s credibility as an independent journalist, especially in stories involving Mansoor Ijaz. Shaheen Sehbai was one of the first media men to strongly insist on Mansoor Ijaz’s credibility, even co-authoring stories with The News Editor Mohammad Malik declaring the memo as ‘treasonous’ as early as last November. Did Shaheen Sehbai reveal to Mohammad Malik that he had a long and possibly financial relationship with Mansoor Ijaz? Or did he withhold this information in order to manipulate his newspaper’s position on the story?

If Shaheen Sehbai discussed his long relationship with Mr Ijaz, did he note that he had written in 1996 that the spokesman for Pakistan Embassy in Washington had described Mansoor Ijaz as “vilifying and damaging Pakistan, because the embassy denied him 15 million dollars he had demanded to deliver votes in the United States House of Representatives for the passage of the Brown Amendment”?

Or did Sehbai describe Mansoor Ijaz as he did one year later in 1997 – “a Pakistani-American investment tycoon running a multi-billion dollar money management firm, who also wrote a number of hard-hitting articles against the Benazir Bhutto government, exposing itscorruption and incompetencelast year.” Actually, in his 1997 piece about Mansoor Ijaz, Shaheen Sehbai not only describes him as a ‘tycoon’, but spends most of his article quoting from an op-ed by Mansoor Ijaz himself! Did he mention to his boss that he noted in a 1998 article for Dawn that he had interviewed Mansoor Ijaz about the F-16s that went undelivered due to sanctions imposed under the Pressler Amendment?

Two years later in 1999, Shaheen Sehbai again praises Mansoor Ijaz – this time as Pakistan’s saviour “who used his clout with the Clinton Administration and key senators” to lift military and economic sanctions.

The close relationship between Shaheen Sehbai and Mansoor Ijaz appeared in the media again in 2002 when Vanity Fair was reported on the murder of Daniel Pearl. According to the report, Daniel Pearl called Mansoor Ijaz at the recommendation of Indian intelligence who claimed Ijaz “was wired with leading jihadis”. The Vanity Fair reporter called Ijaz who confirmed his contact with Daniel Pearl. According to the interview,

Ijaz made introductions to three sources: Shaheen Sehbai, editor of The News, Pakistan’s largest English language daily; a jihadi activist he declines to name; and — most fatefully — Khalid Khawaja, a Muslim militant and a onetime agent with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) who counts among his very best friends Osama bin Laden.

Even if Shaheen Sehbai hid his long relationship with Mansoor Ijaz, shouldn’t The News have become somewhat suspicious when he wrote a detailed piece last October defending Ijaz’s credibility, and then included this fateful memory:

Ijaz, it may be recalled, was involved in mediating in Sudan during the Clinton presidency, where he secured critical counter-terrorism assistance for the US authorities. He was also the man who worked behind the scenes to get a statement issued by the then Vice President Al Gore against a possible military coup during Benazir’s second tenure. In fact, I personally attended the event where Gore came to join Pakistani activists at a fundraiser and out of the blue ended his speech with the warning that no military coups would be tolerated in Pakistan.

If journalists are going to effectively hold officials accountable, they must be credible as objective and neutral reporters. At a minimum, a reporters relationships – personal and financial – with key characters in their stories should be openly disclosed to the public. Better, though, is for journalists not report on stories when they have a close personal connection that can cloud their judgment.

All media groups are threatened by manipulators, and all media groups make mistakes. The important thing is to put in place processes and procedures that can prevent mistakes and manipulation, and to carry out investigations when mistakes and manipulations do happen so that the processes and procedures can be strengthened.

When The Nation was discovered to have Taliban propaganda on their website, Nawa-e-Waqt group responded immediately by investigating the incident and correcting it. They did so publicly to ensure that the credibility of their reporting was not jeopardised. Whether The News and its Editor Mohammad Malik were manipulated by Shaheen Sehbai to promote a particular agenda in the ‘memogate’ case can only be determined by a thorough and transparent investigation by Jang Group. Whether they will take this step is up to them.

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