It began with a bang. On December 22, PPP Punjab’s President Aftab Ahmed Khan decided to go public with the party’s growing distaste for a batch of four print and electronic journalists (incidentally associated with a single large media organization), accusing them of ‘playing politics’ and suggesting that they should not cross the understood boundaries of journalism.
Aftab also alluded that these gentlemen had become tools and spokespersons of ‘forces out to derail democracy,’ especially after the Supreme Court’s unprecedented verdict that scrapped the controversial NRO.
The journalists named were Kamran Khan, Shaheen Sehbai, Ansar Abbasi and Dr. Shahid Masood. As expected, the media organization’s main dailies and TV channel splashed the news and the supposed ‘threat’ that the PPP man had made against the journalists.
Interestingly, so far the condemnation messages that have come in are from politicians that are considered ‘small fish’ by the mainstream players in Pakistani politics, even though these gentlemen have been favoured as ‘guests’ on many of the talk shows that take place on various Pakistani channels.
To many mainstream politicians and senior journalists, men like Imran Khan, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, Marvi Memon and Kashmala Tariq have no major constituencies of their own as far as conventional electoral politics are concerned, and some also suggest that these along with personalities like General (Rtd.) Hamid Gul, and columnists like Irfan Siddiqui and Haroon Rasheed, are ‘media personalities’ who, as one PPP spokesperson told this writer, are always playing to the gallery of populist politics. It should also be added that all the above have also been described as having ‘right-wing ideas.’
So it should come as no surprise that the ‘threatened’ journalists too have been accused by a number of both independent as well as pro-PPP elements for holding similar views on politics, especially Mr. Ansar Abbasi and Dr. Shahid Masood, both of whom have often been embroiled in a number of controversies.
Mr. Ansar Abbasi made a name for himself as an astute investigative reporter during his sympathetic coverage of the 2007-2008 Lawyers Movement. However, while also covering the Lal Masjid debacle by the disgraced Musharraf dictatorship in 2007, Abbasi was in the forefront of actually airing his negative outlook of the Army’s action in the volatile Lal Masjid premises.
Certain PML(Q) ministers who were in power during the bloody episode, had accused Abbasi and the media outlet he represents of ‘glorifying the terrorists that were holed up with guns and grenades in the Lal Masjid.’
The Musharraf regime also accused some newsmen including Abbasi, of ‘grossly exaggerating’ the number of men, women and children killed in the Army action against the Lal Masjid terrorists.
Abbasi was once again in the picture during the early years of the current coalition government being led by the PPP when a suicide bomber rammed a van laden with high intensity explosives into the entrance of Islamabad’s famous Marriot Hotel.
In a report that he compiled for the TV channel he works for, Abbasi claimed that the bomber was actually targeting a ‘high profile (Western) target’ staying at the unfortunate hotel.
Some columnists castigated the report for being insensitive to the feelings of those Pakistanis who died in the attack, and more so, Abbasi was also criticized for giving the dreadful attack an ideological and strategic justification.
Undeterred by the criticism, Abbasi eventually committed his biggest blunder following Jamat-i-Islami chief, Munawar Hussain’s angry and somewhat disoriented vocal retaliation on a popular TV channel against the showing of the Swat girl’s flogging video. Abbasi got into a disturbing verbal tussle with a young female TV anchor on the same channel, castigating his own channel for repeatedly showing the video.
He vehemently protested against the telecasting of the stunning video that showed a group of Taliban flogging a young Pashtun woman in public.
TV host Dr. Shahid Masood too has come under the hammer of the coalition government (that also includes MQM and ANP), for almost the same reasons. He is being accused by the current regime as well as leading liberal (but not necessarily pro-PPP) commentators and sections of the local intelligentsia for holding intransigent and ‘anti-democratic’ views.
Mr. Masood, who ironically was said to be associated with the student-wing of the PPP (the PSF), when in college, is believed to be steadily drifting towards the rightist sides of the conventional ideological divide in spite of the fact that he was once seen to be getting closer to late Benazir Bhutto and was thus ‘rewarded’ with a highly lucrative post in the state-owned PTV by President Asif Ali Zardari.
After first making a name for himself by doing a ‘documentary’ called End of Time – based on a concept which his fellow TV host, Iftihkar Ahmed, claimed was directly ‘plagiarized’ from Turkish pseudo-scientist, Harun Yayah’s writings – he started doing a ‘political’ show on his current channel.
Aptly called Meray Mutabiq (According To Me), the show is actually a stylized monologue that incorporates the most popular conspiracy theories involving the government, the CIA, RAW and Zionism.
Taking up the PTV offer, Masood suddenly dumped the channel, but was soon back doing the same show that has now become a carnival of sorts for some of the leading exponents of right-wing politics and dyed-in-the-wool views in Pakistan. Thus, men like Hamid Gul, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, Irfan Siddiqui, Haroon Rashid, Ansar Abbasi and Imran Khan are regulars on the show.
These two gentlemen, Abbasi and Masood, have also been accused by some for constantly taking a ‘pro-Taliban line.’
The remaining two journalists who were supposedly threatened by Aftab are somewhat anomalies in this respect. Till about only a year ago they were seen as respected senior journalists, but over the past few months they have been compulsive critics of President Asif Ali Zardari. A PPP minister told this writer that these two gentlemen have really no qualms about corruption. He added that ‘their target is simply Zardari. They are on a witch-hunt against the PPP co-Chairman.’
The PPP minister further claimed, ‘This is due to some personal vendetta they have against the President and also, one of them simply reads what he is asked to by his masters.’
Just who those ‘masters’ are, he did not say, but it is true that Karmran Khan and Sehbai have been a bit too obviously overenthusiastic about ‘exposing the corruption’ of a single personality, i.e. Zardari.
The coverage of the NRO verdict by Kamran Khan was quite a sight, really. Some regular viewers of Kamran’s show to whom this writer spoke to, said that they have never seen Mr. Khan look so animated. What’s more, two of the viewers who were vehemently against Zardari confided that Kamran had ‘overdone it a bit.’
The most interesting drama of the day (when the PPP Punjab President supposedly threatened these gentlemen), came at 8pm the same day during Hamid Mir’s popular talk show, Capital Talk.
Mir’s show has the highest ratings amongst talk shows on Pakistani television channels, and as a host he’s been somewhat enigmatic. He clearly comes across as a man who is well on the left in his views about democracy and military rule, but is known to usually fall way towards the right sides of the ideological divide regarding America’s ‘war on terror’ and the Pakistani state and government’s co-operation with the US in this war.
His December 22 show turned out to be rather unprecedented because perhaps for the first time Capital Talk did not have loud right-wing politicians and TV personalities that usually shout down the few ‘liberal’ guests that are invited on talk shows.
Instead, this time, the show was packed, wall-to-wall, with known liberal and progressive exponents of politics and the judiciary in Pakistan.
Asma Jehangir, a lawyer and well known human rights activist, was pretty vocal about her disappointment with the way the NRO verdict was worded, alluding that perhaps the verdict was driven by a conservative (if not entirely reactionary) thought process.
She said the verdict had targeted the whole democratic structure by extending its power and crossing its constitutional limits: ‘The judiciary has crossed its limits and it is a dangerous precedent that the Supreme Court passed a verdict on parliamentarians’ morality,’ Asma lamented.
But the biggest bombshell (as Hamid himself explained), came from Ali Ahmed Kurd, the lawyer who was in the forefront of the Lawyers Movement against the Musharraf dictatorship.
He said that it seems the judges of the higher judiciary are making up their minds about cases after reading newspaper headlines and watching TV shows. Taking Mir and his channel by surprise, Kurd added that that the judges were visiting and addressing the bars and that they would have to prove themselves worthy of their positions.
A senior columnist of Dawn while talking to this writer thought that by doing this particular episode of Capital Talk, Mir wanted to detach himself from that section of the electronic and print media which has recently come under severe criticism from the government, some leading columnists and journalists, for trying to ‘derail democracy’ by running ‘media trials’ against elected politicians and (as the Dawn columnist explained), for becoming ‘cheerleaders of conservative forces who were encouraging the judiciary to play a more political role.’