- 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.
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mess that is the Pakistan military, until in 2008, there's a new government in town, there's a tottering dictator who's been replaced by an enigma of a former intelligence chief (General Ashafaq Pervez Kayani of course), and the time has come to replace the old spokesman and DG of the military's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.