Senior journalist Shaheen Sehbai has revealed that he was not shown the report in which the newspaper purported that the International Council for Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) mistakenly included Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s name in the Panama Papers, before it was filed.
Speaking to a panel comprising Express News anchors Imran Khan and Gharida Farooqi, and Daily Express Group Editor Ayaz Khan after resigning as the group editor of The News on Saturday, Sehbai said his reports at The News were radically changed without his permission.
According to Sehbai, the CEO and group editor-in-chief of the Jang Group, Mir Shakeelur Rehman, was waging a battle for ‘civilian ascendancy’. He said Jang Group’s ‘Aman Ki Asha’ initiative was considered a bad move among military circles, but “we insisted
that all this was done with full knowledge of the military leadership”.
“We were ashamed of certain decisions taken by my organisation and I now realise that the Jang Group promoted its own perception and angled all news according to its own need,” Sehbai said. He added that the Jang Group was facing a lot of issues for a very long time.
Sehbai said the most recent difference between him and the Jang Group cropped up when the latter ran a story claiming that ICIJ had included Premier Nawaz’s name in the Panama Papers by mistake. “My objection on this issue was that I was neither consulted nor shown the report before publishing it,” the veteran journalist said.
“I was not told about this report at all. Such moves usually took place after midnight and usually orders from the top were accompanied by ‘suggestions’ about which news was to be accommodated where in the newspaper,” he added.
The news report in question, according to Sehbai, was just a ‘one-liner’ correction which was followed by a letter from Daniyal Aziz and was arranged in the shape of a news report.
Things were micromanaged at his previous organisation, he said, adding that orders from the top usually not only included ‘hints’ at placement of even single-column news items, but also which report was to be radically edited too.
“When editors reviewed the newspaper in the morning, they realised just how much of their news reports made it in the paper and how much they were edited out.”
Sehbai said that while Mir Shakeel claimed he was waging a battle for civilian ascendancy, “I was ashamed of the way my previous employer came out in defence of the current government.”
“Owners of the Jang Group have a clear-cut view on what sort of news reports and editorials are to appear in their newspaper. They view everything in accordance with their own perspective and print newspaper in line with their own view point every day. Everything is determined by the group’s owners,” he said.
“Over the past two years, I had been facing a number of issues with the group owners. When the incident involving Hamid Mir occurred, I was with Mir Shakeelur Rehman in Dubai and I advised him not to adopt such an aggressive posture, but he said that a clash between the military and civilians is bound to happen and that I should not interfere,” Sehbai said.
“And everyone witnessed whatever happened afterwards. My differences on policy matters began from that time, I kept telling him not to pursue the course of action he had chosen. The mind of Mir Shakeelur Rehman may contain a host of disparate agendas, but he had some views of his own too,” he added.
“When I joined Jang Group, talks were going on for the ‘Aman Ki Asha’ project and some people from the Times of India visited us. At that time, I explicitly told them that I would not join this effort,” the veteran journalist said.
According to Sehbai, the restriction on Geo transmission during the Musharraf regime and Hamid Mir’s attack haunted Mir Shakeelur Rehman’s mind.
“When the attack on Hamid Mir happened, he (Mir Shakeel) told me that he believed that his group was destined to control military supremacy and establish civilian ascendancy. Right after the Hamid Mir incident, I tried my best to normalise the situation,” he said.
“I even apologized on behalf of my employer, but I believe we were not entirely forgiven. During this period, other issues kept cropping up and lastly, the disclosures contained in the Panama Papers hit the media. We should have maintained a balanced approach in handling this issue, but the way my group emerged, defending the government, I was utterly embarrassed.”
“I am in Washington, facing a lot of criticism. So many people have approached me, asking what is happening with my news group? I gave them their phone numbers and told them to ask the owners themselves. I have no idea what the media group is reaping or hopes to reap in return for supporting the government, except, of course, government advertisements,” he added.
Sehbai said ads in Jang Group publications completely dried up after the Hamid Mir incident and the subsequent standoff between the group and the military. “At that time, the current government had supported the group. They even tried to calm the military and told them not to entirely kill the group economically. They should have considered the truce negotiated by the government as a boon,” he said.
“I don’t know if there is a connection between the ban on the Pakistani movie ‘Maalik’ and Indian movie ‘Fan’. I have no idea. But I know this much that one film is supported by one group while the other has been released by another.”
Regarding ‘Aman ki Asha’, Sehbai said the project which began with much fanfare died off completely when the group hit bad times. “Mir Shakeelur Rehman and the Jang Group earnestly want to establish good relations with India and its film industry. They also want to establish their network in India. They want their channel to be freely viewed in India. However, their wish is yet to be realized,” he said.
“The group has so far avoided a direct civilian-military clash, but editorials and the display of news reports reflect such a situation. If there is a debate on civilian-military relationship, the group would always advocate civilian ascendancy, even when civilian leadership is on the wrong,” he added.
“I had reduced writing reports in view of the group’s policies, and most of the times I felt that my write-ups were not welcome or I was told to incorporate a certain point of view,” Sehbai said.
“Over the past few years, I stayed away from appearing on Geo TV and they also did not call me for my views, but I was invited on other channels where I gave my views,” he added.
Regarding the impact of his move, Sehbai said: “Nothing will happen after my resignation. It will not result in any revolution. I have no illusions. My resignation would not force people out on the streets. Nothing like this will ever happen. I was contacted by a lot of my colleagues, asking me to tell them what to do. I have told all of my colleagues to continue to work if allowed to do so with complete editorial independence, if not they should decide for themselves. I believe a journalist should basically uphold the truth at all cost. “
In his resignation letter submitted earlier, Sehbai complained that the Jang Group was “unnecessarily engaged in a dangerous conflict with national institutions”.
“I feel that I can no longer sustain the moral and ethical pressure as group editor [of the News], justifying decisions which were not taken by me but which have caused immense damage to the credibility and financial stability of the newspaper,” wrote Sehbai.
“I find the policies of the newspaper lop-sided, heavily tilted politically and unnecessarily engaged in a dangerous conflict with national institutions, especially at a time when the country is at war with terrorists, their supporters and financiers, and the corrupt elements in all spheres of society who are using money looted through corruption to fight the state,” he stated in the letter.
“I may also add that in formulating and implementing these self-defeating policies, the views and suggestions of professional editors at all levels, including myself, have been consistently ignored,” the senior journalist added.
Referring to Mir Shakeelur Rehman, Sehbai wrote: “As editor-in-chief it is your right to run the newspaper as you like, but for professional journalists there is always a limit to which they can go along. I know many editors feel the same way, but I have decided to call it a day today.