Differentiating between journalism and ‘churnalism’ – by Azeem Daultana

First published on Pak Tea House

Apropos “Information Minister vs journalists” by Usman Manzoor published in The News International of May 27, 2010, the reporter has desperately tried to use the space of this newspaper to establish the now controversial credentials of its Group Editor, Mr. Shaheen Sehbai. Why he felt the need to do so may actually speak volumes for the difficult situation that the journalist in question is currently facing to justify his spate of unverified, unattributed, highly biased, and explicitly venomous opinions that he has been writing in this newspaper for the last two years under various slugs to attack the Democratic Government and its elected leadership.

To begin with, the headline of this story is misleading, as it does not correspond with its contents. The use of the term ‘journalists’ in plural for one person – in this case Shaheen Sehbai – gives the impression as if the Federal Minister for Information & Broadcasting is up against many journalists. If that were the case, which of course it is not, why did the reporter not quote any other journalist, or analyze their stories to justify his report’s headline? It looks as if headlines in The News are now being written before the content of a piece.

The reporter has listed a few stories by Mr. Sehbai to prove a point that the journalist in question files authentic stories, which never bounce back. But the readers of The News now know that reality is quite otherwise. They are well aware of both the subject and the use of words that the writer usually employs to express his sheer bias against one personality in the name of ‘viewpoint’, ‘news analysis’, ‘comment’, and ‘situationer’ on Pakistani politics and current state of affairs.

Readers have become familiar with Shaheen Sehbai’s brand idiom, which is always based on flawed assumptions and speculations, and often expressed in sheer bad taste with no regard for basic ethics and mannerisms of public authorship.

The extent of the writer’s venomous hatred for the President of Pakistan, Mr. Asif Ali Zardari, is well known to the readers of this newspaper. It can be judged by a recent piece written by Sehbai titled “Why is the President scared of political actors” published in  The News of April 23, 2010, in which he sadly used words like “fiendish” and phrases like “attack dogs” to describe the person and the official staff who – whether we like it or not — represent the office of the President of Pakistan.

Shaheen Sehbai’s brand of writing reflects poorly on its author’s sense of objective and professional balance that any journalistic piece requires. By continuing to write in the same vein during the last year and a half, the writer has proved that he possesses none. An increased use of angry expletives only shows the writer’s frustrations at how, one after another, all his predictions and analyses about the President’s policy actions and political stances have proven fallacious no sooner have they been penned by the turn of events that have come about as a result of the Democratic Government’s progress under the leadership of President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani.

One could be tempted to dissect and respond to Usman Manzoor’s selective listing of Shaheen Sehbai’s content. However, it will better serve the interest of this esteemed newspaper’s readers, if one casts a quick eye on some of the outrageous charges and wild predictions (wishes) that Mr. Sehbai has made in his articles published in these pages during the past year and a half. How these speculations – always attributed to anonymous and nameless “well-informed sources”, “insiders”, and “flies on the wall” — have simply flown in the face of the Democratic Government’s continued progress and accumulating achievements is also listed below as ‘readers’ checks’ against corresponding charges.

Expecting military coup
·       “The political leaders and parties are not prepared, or capable, of handling this mess as the politicians would never be able to reach a consensus in view of their own insecurities and vulnerabilities.
If after all the havoc which politicians are now bent on wreaking, destroying whatever is left or could have been rebuilt after Musharraf’s disastrous era, the men in uniform have ultimately to come and save the situation, it would be a tragedy of monumental dimensions.” The News, March 2, 2009.

·         “There have also been whispers that President Zardari would not give in to political or physical threats and would fight all the way, even if that created an October 12, 1999-like situation. It would be better if nothing more is said about these options.” The News, August 29, 2009.

·         “Some even fear a desperate panic move like sacking the Army chief while the president is on one of his visits abroad. A reverse replay of October 12, 1999.”  The News, November 7, 2009.

Readers’ Check: The people of Pakistan have seen this kind of misgivings about their elected leadership but they have also seen that the very same political leadership has risen to the occasion and has cleansed the constitution of the mess created by Mr. Sehbai’s favorites. It is correct that the country faced a number of challenges when the dictator was ousted by the wisdom of Asif Ali Zardari. But it is also correct that the political leadership belonging to all shades of opinion has worked hard to rid the country of this mess.

It is just not possible for non-representative unitary governments to keep a diverse federation like Pakistan in a unified political system. Only Governments with backing of people of all provinces of Pakistan can keep this country united as evidenced from the recent successes in Khyber Pakhtunkhwah (Swat, Malakand and other districts), Balochistan and FATA. It is callous on the part of a person sitting in Washington to incite instability and unconstitutional dispensation in Pakistan. Let Pakistan take a sigh of relief after decades of dictatorship.

Under the leadership of COAS General Kayani, Pakistan Army has publicly stated on more than one occasion that it is not interested in national politics and wants to focus on its real job, which is defending the territorial integrity of Pakistan. By now, talk of a military coup has been debunked by every credible analyst, and Mr. Sehbai remains the only unfortunate exception. The nation stands united to protect democracy and ensure its continuity and strengthening. No friend of Pakistan or Pakistan Army would like to drag the military in politics when it is being praised by the whole nation as well as the world at large to have gone back to barracks. The Pakistani nation is trying to reinvigorate the armed forces to enable them to take on the terrorist threat. What would Mr. Sehbai get out of diversion of Pakistan Army’s attention towards politics which essentially is a civilian domain and where offices are held after getting people’s backing through free and fair election and not through commission in Pakistan Army or the civil or judicial services?

Predicting President’s ouster

·         “Mr. Zardari appears to be racing closer to the end of his rule within months.” The News, March 2, 2009.

·         “According to the secret scripts written by key players of our omnipotent establishment, the latest political developments tell us that the noose is tightening around our president and he has to decide quickly which option he has to exercise so that he can survive politically, financially and probably even physically.” The News, July 22, 2009.

·         “This political pressure is causing one-sided fueling of the countdown theories. The wild ones go far with some, claiming to be well informed, saying it was a matter of days not weeks or months that Zardari will hang his gloves, just like General Musharraf did.” The News, November 7, 2009.

·      “The political countdown, which began some months ago, continues. The establishment joined in a few weeks back. His coalition broke up days ago. Rats are said to be preparing to abandon the sinking ship as these lines are being written. The momentum cannot be stopped…Zardari will have to make his decision very quickly on whether he wants to exit with dignity or become a martyr. The days, as they say, are in fact numbered.” The News, July 11, 2009.

Readers’ Check: On the contrary, and as many critics acknowledge today, President Zardari has proven himself to be the strongest symbol of a Federation that places a premium – through words and actions — on Parliamentary supremacy, provincial empowerment, and national political consensus to resolve all outstanding issues. In order for Mr. Sehbai to make a correct prediction, he should start thinking in terms of 2013 or better still 2018.

President-Military differences

·         “A well-informed insider said things had gone so bad that the military leaders had refused to meet President Asif Ali Zardari recently but it was Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani who persuaded the Pindi people to at least convey their views in a face-to-face sitting so a patch up, if possible, may be attempted. That effort too did not work.”  The News, October 23, 2009.

·         “Decision makers at all stations started thinking about removing the President as it appeared to be the only viable option if the system had to be saved, cleansed and stabilized.” The News, November 5, 2009.

·     “The ultimate arbiter, the Pakistan Army, would not want political bickering to continue or rise to a level where it disrupts its efforts to tackle the extremists and terrorists.” The News, March 29, 2009.

Readers’ Check: It is primarily a wish of political outsiders like Mr. Sehbai that Pakistan Army and democratically elected government opt for the collision course. These are the same people who want a clash between the executive, legislature and the judiciary for their own ulterior motives. However, the political forces which represent the people of Pakistan and the current holders of high offices in other institutions have shown maturity by not getting into the trap of these political actors.

These political actors keep suggesting to the Chief of the Army Staff and the Chief Justice of Pakistan to unconstitutionally sack the Government and take over the system despite disastrous fallout of such adventurous acts in the past including dismemberment of Pakistan and ruining of the constitutional and legal structures. However, apparently the Chief Justice and Chief of the Army Staff are not buying their argument. One has yet to see any perceived differences between the President and the military growing to the extent of threatening the very democratic system.

Mr. Sehbai should understand that journalism is not just about getting an office of profit which according to some insiders he strived hard for and started this ‘churnalism’ as revenge when the Government showed its inability to accommodate him. He should also know that he may get an official position in Washington (from where he claims to be editing a daily newspaper published from Pakistani cities) in a non-representative dispensation but such an adventurism would have disastrous consequences for the integrity of the country.

The sagacious leadership of Pakistan Peoples Party under President Asif Ali Zardari has brought Pakistan back from the brink with the help of all political parties represented in the Parliament. This country has barely started to become a nation but people like Sehbai have their own childish wishes which are contrary to the integrity of the country. We wish that Mr. Sehbai comes out of that Sehba and starts looking at the world in realistic terms.

Mr. Sehbai is advised to correct his knowledge of political science as people of Pakistan, and not Pakistan Army, are the ultimate arbiters. He is further advised not to drag institutions of national security into his petty grudges.  This will not serve any one.

Row between PM and President

·           “PM was about to stage a political and moral coup against his own party co-chairperson, Mr. Zardari, because his government had turned into a joke and Mr. Zardari, exercising all the powers, had failed to come up with any successful initiative or policy.” The News, July 9, 2009.

·         “When Mr. Gilani stands up, he will find himself surrounded by a lot of supporters, both with the PPP and other political forces in parliament, ensuring that despite Zardari’s ire, he would not be voted out.” The News, July 22, 2009.

Readers’ Check: This is another wish of Mr. Sehbai. If wishes be the horses Sehbais would ride. The so called intellectuals like him have been writing for years that the people of Pakistan have short-lived memories. But actually it is Mr. Sehbai who has a short-lived memory. He tends to forget that Mr. Gilani was chosen as Prime Minister of Pakistan by one Mr. Asif Ali zardari who was once the best friend of Mr. Sehbai.

Sehbai and co tried their best to create a rift between the President and the Prime Minister but just when they had created enough storm in the tea cup, the Prime Minister would come in the National Assembly and make a strong speech in favor of Mr. Zardari. These frustrated men would then begin their tirade against the Prime Minister and start telling Mr. Nawaz Shareef not to trust Mr. Gilani because he is a friend of Zardari. Usually the editors of newspapers sack such young reporter who starts using the newspaper space for settling their personal scores. But what if an absentee group editor with a lifetime in the profession gets into such an unethical practice?

The passing of the historic 18th Amendment earlier this month and its implementation now in progress should suffice to rebut this ridiculous charge. In fact this latest outburst of political outcasts emanates from this success of the Pakistani people and the heroic act of Mr. Asif Ali Zardari to return the powers of the elected Leader of the House in the National Assembly i.e. Prime Minister of Pakistan.

Mr. Sehbai should now accept that the power belongs to the people of Pakistan and not to whom he wishes it should. It is the mission of the Pakistan Peoples Party to empower the people of Pakistan. Actually Mr. Zardari presided over the peaceful transfer of power from the office of the President to the office of the Prime Minister.

Mid-term elections

·         “That could mean anything but what is definite is that he sees fresh elections coming up on his political radar sooner than later.” The News, July 22, 2009.

Readers’ Check: Even the Opposition knows better than this! Look at the date. It is almost an year. Would Mr. Sehbai enlighten Pakistani readers with his new deadlines?

War against Extremism

·         “Politicians are incompetent to handle war against extremism. The politicians do not have the skills, experience and the commitment to deal with the Taliban since they still do not trust the Army. They believe any failure will quickly lead to an Army takeover, thus ending their short spell of power. Thus, they perpetually remain in a survival mode. This lack of will and authority has provided the Taliban the opportunity to march on, secure more territory, frighten people with public beheadings and lashings and establish their writ at the cost of the state.” The News, April 29, 2009.

Readers’ Check: The unprecedented successes made by the Democratic Government in the war against terror – today fully acknowledged by the international community — is a direct result of the national political will and consensus that gave legitimacy and effective strength to the military operations in Swat and Bajaur.

It is a well documented fact that Pakistan Army was engaged in now on now off struggle against the terrorists in FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. But since the dictator had estranged the whole nation from Pakistan Army, there were no success in war against terrorists and huge tracts of Pakistani territory had fallen in the hands of the terrorists. It was the Government of Pakistan Peoples Party and its allies who brought Pakistani people behind the armed forces. A well conceived, coherent and all encompassing program was prepared by the peoples Government to defeat the enemy and with joint efforts of the people, provincial government, police, Pakistan Army and Pakistan Air Force the Pakistani flag was hoisted again in six districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and a number of tribal agencies. This is a well known fact and the whole world knows this. In which world does Mr. Sehbai live?

U.S. not in favor of democracy in Pakistan

·         “Obama went on to say that ‘it was very difficult for the government to gain support and loyalty of their people.’ These words are shocking as they show that the U.S. president was unwilling to accept the mandate which the PPP government claims to have on the basis of the Feb 18 elections.” The News, May 1, 2009.

Readers’ Check: Sitting in Washington, can Mr. Sehbai not see what the rest of the world can: U.S. economic and military aid, political support, strengthening of the Pakistan-U.S. strategic dialogue, and now the graceful acknowledgement of Pakistan’s status as a nuclear power.

Presidential Powers

·         “Today after what Mr. Zardari has systematically done to emulate General Musharraf, Benazir Bhutto and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, all put together, it is becoming obvious where he is headed — to grab absolute and unchecked power.”  The News, March 2, 2009.

·         “This contrast with an eager-to-act PM made it very clear that Zardari still wanted to play the game by his own rules and was not interested in handing over decision making to the PM or parliament.” The News, March 29, 2009.

Readers’ Check: Long live 18th Amendment as called for and ultimately signed by President Asif Ali Zardari – the only President in the world to have undertaken a step of this magnitude by stripping his own office of powers willingly amidst cheers from friends and foes alike. C’mon Mr. Sehbai, be a sport and join the national mood of celebration!

But would the writer make a break from his usual and now boringly predictable penning attributed to imaginary sources? “There is no one present when they talk, but there are walls and there are flies on these walls, if not of the biological kind, of the electronic species,” he wrote in The News of November 23, 2009.

At the very least, this newspaper owes its readers better English writing!

(The writer is Parliamentary Secretary for Information & Broadcasting.)



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