Najam Sethi: moving from Dunya to Geo
Now this news is rather big news, not only in and of itself - after all, Sethi is a big hitter for Dunya to lose and Geo to nab - but also because of what it indicates about the direction of Geo. You may recall our post in November about Geo CEO Mir Ibrahim Rahman's (MIR's) mysterious trip to the US, wherein we had expressed our assessment that you may soon see a decidedly less antagonistic-to-the-Americans line from the Jang Group (read the earlier post to understand why). In that post we had also pointed out that, intriguingly, MIR had arrived at an American reception in Washington D.C. along with Sethi, who had also been in the US for some separate work but who himself has been wooing the Americans to support a more liberal media. It seems our observations were more prescient than even we realized and our predictions about the Jang Group are being proved true.
Even before the latest signing, news filtering in from within the Jang Group indicated that head honcho Mir Shakilur Rahman had begun to exert more control over the editorial content of Jang and The News. Apparently of particular concern for him were the over-the-top anti-Western diatribes of some of his correspondents such as Ansar Abbasi and all such potentially 'controversial' news pieces are regularly first vetted by him.
Add to that the appointment (announced December 16) of former The News editor and Pakistan's ambassador to the US, Dr. Maleeha Lodhi, as the Jang Group's 'Special Adviser International Affairs.' According to the official announcement, she will "lead efforts to establish new platforms for global discourse and enhance the Group's global engagement and international profile." Basically, what that means is that she will lead the public relations effort for the Jang Group, especially with the US.
But what I had really wanted to comment on was this unprecedented front-page write-up on December 17 in The News and Jang (unfortunately a poor translation) by Geo News Managing Director Azhar Abbas. Abbas has never written for the Jang Group publications since he first began heading Geo and also has probably not written anything since he left his reporting days behind at least a decade ago. But what makes the piece even more intriguing is its between-the-lines condemnation of the machinations of elements within the military intelligence services which, according to the piece, are back to their old tricks of attempting to manipulate public opinion in favour of hawkish positions through the media, as well as its plea for providing space to liberal voices.
For the Managing Director of the largest television news channel to make these accusations and plea publicly is surely worth noting. It also is worth remembering that Abbas' elder brother, Athar Abbas, is a serving major general in the army and head of the military's Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), which surely shows the sensitivity that Geo's Abbas was willing to breach with his piece. Our information indicates, however, that the piece was directly instigated and approved by the top echelons of the Jang Group (could Lodhi's joining have something to do with it?), which should also give people an idea of how the group is attempting to make a break with its ambivalent past.
Just to provide an idea of the line Azhar Abbas took in his piece, here is a selection of some of its main points:
"Political and security observers believe a concerted effort is once again being made to encourage and promote a typical extremist mindset. Some analysts-cum-anchors have re-emerged from quasi-oblivion. Many journalists and analysts are briefed and encouraged to take an aggressively anti-West, especially anti-US, stance. Experts, who ‘preach’ extremism in disguise, are encouraged to participate in talk shows.
"Many analysts point to the shortsighted policies of our successive governments, especially true for our military rulers, who have led us to the disastrous situation of today. Unfortunately, even after suffering so much, especially in the last few years, there is still no realisation that using people in the name of religion will backfire once again. “It is not a water tap or an electric switch that you can turn on and off whenever you want. Once put in motion, it acquires its own momentum and is very difficult to control,” a former security official said.
"It is no secret that there were those in the media and clergy who openly opposed the Army’s campaign against the militants in Swat and tried their best to put the armed forces’ objectives and intention in doubt. Cajoling the same elements from the right, for short-term tactical objective against our eastern neighbour or to ward off a mounting US pressure to act decisively against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the country’s western backyard is certainly fraught with dangers.
"We should be clear that giving space to elements sympathetic to militants would squeeze space for those who genuinely support efforts to eliminate the extremist forces in the country. If pro-Taliban elements are to be pampered and used as a tool to influence the United States to come to term with Pakistan’s legitimate interest in post-US Afghanistan, it may have a reverse effect. Apparently, not realising this, a misplaced nationalistic and patriotic theme is being propagated. It may be an easy sell in the short term, but the impact at the strategic level will be disastrous."
Does the reintroduction of nutjobs like Zaid Hamid as political commentators on mainstream channels such as ARY make more sense now? Does the re-emergence of Jamaat-ud-Dawa nee Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Saeed at the forefront of the right-wing protests against any amendments to the anti-blasphemy laws make better sense? Abbas also had this dire warning as the conclusion of his piece:
"Many observers believe that in the days to come, one should again expect a rise in the extremist mindset. This will not just be restricted to the print media or TV screens, but will be visible on the streets of Pakistan as well. It may be a welcome sign for those who wanted it as a tactical move. But the coming months and years will tell us how flawed a move it is."
Certainly, this does not whet the appetite about the coming days but there may be a silver lining in all this if Geo and its parent Jang Group actually change course. Who better to reel back the madness than the group which has played a large part in promoting it?
As for Sethi, whose show had only recently moved into the 8pm prime time slot on Dunya, I have to admit that whatever other reservations one may have about him or his past, his show on Dunya is among the most watchable and sensible on Pakistani media at the moment. It may lack the fireworks and hysteria of his competitors, but that is a VERY GOOD thing in my book. It is generally well-researched, questions accepted political 'truisms' in an often gentle but logical manner and more often than not provides insight into what a certain part of the establishment is thinking (and by that I mean the non-Zaid Hamid lunacy loving establishment). It seems other viewers too had begun to appreciate having a non-screeching, non-hysterical, non-agenda-blinkered option and his show's ratings had been consistently going up. Dunya TV will indeed be sorry to see the back of him.
Here's a clip of one of Sethi's recent shows that illustrates why I think he is worth watching (clip courtesy Tahyr):
Watch this space for further developments.