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

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Pakistan Media Watch

Sep 29, 2009, 3:24:02 PM9/29/09
to Pakistan Media Watch

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 [
remarks/2009/129154.htm] did not bear out Sehbai’s story. But since
Sehbai is his own boss as editor, his newspaper carried the story any

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

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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