Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Abbas Brothers - A Depressing Tale

More than a year earlier, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas had been appointed as the military’s spokesman. With several brothers prominent in the media—his brother, Mazhar Abbas, headed the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists for several years and was a 2007 CPJ International Press Freedom Awardee; another, Zafar, is editor of the English-language daily Dawn—Maj. Gen. Abbas is media savvy and understands the importance of supportive news coverage.

Value, Collateral Damage as Journalists Embed, by Bob Dietz, 7th October 2009, Committee to Protect Journalists

The Abbas brothers are sort of B-Grade political celebrity famous in Pakistan. They are Mazhar Abbas (works for ARY and headed the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists for several years), Azhar Abbas (Geo Managing Director), Zafar Abbas (Sub-Editor at Dawn Group of Newspapers) and the very, very famous Athar Abbas (Director General Inter-Services Public Relations, and basically the propaganda mouthpiece of the Pakistan military).

Major General Athar Abbas is not happy that I called him the propaganda mouthpiece of the Pakistan Military.
Tough Cookies.

The significant thing is that all these major news organizations (Dawn, ARY and Geo) have the sons of a family who have risen up through the decades as hard working journalists, putting in the sweat and effort to become senior editors, managers, etc. And then there is this brother who joined the military as a cadet in 1976, and unexpectedly presevered through the bureaucratic, fascist mess that is the Pakistan military, until in 2008, there's a new government in town, there's a tottering dictator who's been replaced by an enigma of a former intelligence chief (General Ashafaq Pervez Kayani of course), and the time has come to replace the old spokesman and DG of the military's PR machine with someone new. The military pulls of a masterstroke by promoting a Brigadier to Major General, who's brothers are not just well respected members of the Pakistan media landscape, but men (like Mazhar Abbas) who have at times fought for media freedom, as evidenced by this blog page that the Committee to Protect Journalists gives him, and this page honoring the man. Not only does the "new" military command send out a signal of promoting men in its ranks who are related to parts of the new "free" media of Pakistan, but it puts a very subtle pressure on the news organisations themselves, and indirectly on the brothers themselves too.
Cafe Pyala has been bothered too many times in it's comments section by a variation of this story where it's presented as a conspiracy in which the Abbas brothers are directly manipulating the news at Geo, ARY and Dawn. I do not buy into this, not just because it's an annoyingly stupid idea, but also because the instruments and structures are already in place that allow the government to pressure Dawn, Geo and ARY into toeing certain red lines. Dawn in it's 60 year long history has a reputation of many times kowtowing to the military establishment, Geo is owned by Jang group which has no dearth of right wingers, overt and covert authoratarians, and media mouthpieces whilst ARY is compromised by the fact of its founding by a gold smuggler. All are vulnerable and I don't think the Abbas brothers go around harassing the "cowering" employees of these news organisations into toeing some imaginary red line; although the lack of coverage on the bloackade of the Turi in Kurram is a certain case that Dawn and Jang group need to correct. No, nearly ALL the people who work at Dawn, Geo and ARY are aware of the limits (some historical, some present) that they shouldn't cross, and simply don't go there.

So where do the Abbas brothers fit into this tale? Well, rather than provide fodder for conspiratorial thinking, what the Abbas brothers represent is a corporate and ethical dilemma for the ownership and management of Geo, Dawn and ARY. Now before you collapse laughing at the concept of Geo and morals being discussed in the same sentence, let me expand this further. This argument is being made solely at the philosophical level of what should be done by these news organisations concerning the journalist Abbas brothers. The conflicts of interest are obvious. The journalist Abbas brothers are theoretically meant to challenge the status quo in Pakistan and stand up to authority of the Pakistani state. That authority is represented at the centre by the military establishment of Pakistan. Their own brother is now the vocal chords of that establishment and the journalist brothers are supposed to dissect his words to try and get at the real story hidden behind the spin of public relations. The Abbas brothers may feel that their brother omits certain facts, they may even say he does, but this puts them, their organisation, and their (dare I say) family bonds in a precarious ethical place. My view of ISPR reports from the current war makes me think generally, that the ISPR do not lie outright about victories or defeats, but they do spin, dissemble, and ignore any fact that is inconvenient to the military's worldview; this description is a world apart from the crude caricaturing by opponents of Pakistan of Athar Abbas as Baghdad Bob V. 2 - I assess he's a normal human being, albeit an ex-soldier, whereas Baghdad Bob was a caricature just from his external personality, and craven, party hack like behaviour.

The corporations also hiring the Abbas brothers are left with a vaguely suspicious feeling. Are they left with a feeling that the military brother wishes to "massage" the "direction" of the media's message. Do they risk that threat, or do they sideline that threat? Would it be ethical for the media houses to sideline Azhar Abbas, Zafar Abbas and Mazhar Abbas into maybe administrative, and non-politically related positions until Major General Athar Abbas either completes his term as the DG of ISPR, or the media houses bring pressure onto the ISPR to possibly retire Athar Abbas. It is very unlikely that Dawn, Geo or ARY will ask the army to retire Athar Abbas, but maybe if they bought it up, it would make it kind of clear to the military that they are trying to manipulate the media, and that the media is aware of this tactic.

The pressure this also brings on all three of the journalist Abbas brothers is also unfair. These are all men who have built up their reputations through two (sometimes three) decades of experience in journalism. They would likely feel they are "owed" the positions they have, I am sure earned. But this question is really for all their superiors at Dawn, ARY and Geo. Can you afford to put men who's brother is directly charged with spinning the news, in charge, or in authority of those departments of a news organisation, which have to lift the veil from government obfuscation, spin and omission? It is a depressing question, and I don't blame the respected Cafe Pyala from not trying to bother with such a tangled question of personnel policy, family, subtle government pressure, and media houses. It tires on out, and makes one sad. I hope I've bought some nuance to the matter.

Errata: Zafar Abbas is now actually editor at Dawn. I thank Junaid Mangi at critical PPP for pointing this out. I assumed linkedin would be a good source since one wishes to show their CV in the best light, but I guess Zafar Abbas has enough job security that he can let an old CV stay up. I apologise for getting his designation wrong and will be more careful in the future.

This post is now published on the web page of the Critical Supporters of the Pakistan Peoples Party Website.


Anonymous said...

that was cool...

Shahid said...

Dude, you use a pseudonym and can survive. As for that Earthman refere3nce, that's one fucked up man who sends his disgusting cartoons and columns in my mail and sometimes they bypass the junk filters. I'm ot sure why Sarah Khan referenced him as a friend of LUBP, and if that's the case, then I think I'll have to talk to Ali and Nishapuri.

TLW said...

LOL, Shahid, sorry to hear about the junk folder fail.

Don't worry, when Sarah Khan called Earthman a "friend" of LUBP, she was being completely sarcastic, cause in comment 4 she links to this web page where they call him a "pro-Taliban conspiracy theorist". Not a friend of LUBP, just a nasty troll.

What I wanted to ask you yaar, was what you think of this piece I've written. Cafe Pyala's responses would get flooded by people abusing the Abbas brothers in conspiracy-speak. I wanted to bypass this stupid conspiracy talk and try and flesh out the scene, and all I end up with are questions not for the Abbas brothers themselves, but rather their various bosses, these bosses ethics (or lack thereof), and why they've let all of them stay in the positions they are in. I wanted to try and take a real world approach to this whole thing, without devolving into conspiracy speak. I'm wondering if I've succeeded on that front.

Reply on LUBP as well, it'll be good to let some light into some of their musty commentators minds.

Shahid said...

I remembered them profiling him as soon as you mentioned the post.

I do think people tend to go off in conspiracy talk and start ranting about how they're collaborating to control the news and twist it and what not. It's a weird mess since the other three, as you pointed out repeatedly, have spend decades in journalism to reach where they are and their soldier brother just landed the single biggest over establishment propaganda job. Now, was he selected b/c his brothers were in the media and he could influence their decisions making? Perhaps and perhaps not.

It would certainly be weird for say Mazhar to sit with Athar and discuss what happened over the KLB. It can be expected of Athar to say that a playing to the gallery press release was right and justified but I cannot in any way imagine Mazhar or Zaffar Abbas agreeing with him. Lateral influences in the form of exchange of ideas influencing others is one thing but it's idiotic to say that they've colluded to play the military's media line b/c that's not something that was existent and ended but something that never existed and will take time and change in the state structure and power relationships to happen.

It will be wrong for them to be punished or taken away from their earned and deserved posts just because their brother happens to have become the media manager for the military. And Athar is now going to retire very soon.

Conflict of interest is one thing but assuming w/o evidence that there's some brotherly gang holding up the government in the eye of the media is a completely different one. I do not exclude the possibility at same point, about some reports and some things personal relationships could have played a deciding role, but that would require convincing the sibling and we should give the three in the media the benefir of the doubt (say ARY was going to run a story on the blockade of Turis and ISPR got wind of it. Athar called up the respective brother and provided reasons. This would require convincing and not mere brotherly influence and/or monetary compensation to the media outlet).

Personal relationships and their influence on such issues should be done w/o mud-slinging.

TLW said...

it's idiotic to say that they've colluded to play the military's media line

That was the point of this post. To broach the subject without letting the internet fundies go crazy over it.

Personal relationships and their influence on such issues should be done w/o mud-slinging

That was the whole point of this post.

BTW - what's up with the private settings for twitter? Who's bothering you?

Shahid said...

Not so much bothering but public account let's Google search through your tweets. That's way too intrusive and Google shows tweet results on the front page. I find that a very big invasion of reasonable expectation of privacy.