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The Abbas brothers: A depressing tale – by TLW

Major General Athar Abbas

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).

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that is the Pakistan military, until in 2008, there’s a new government in town, there’s a tottering dictator who’s been replaced by an enigma of a former intelligence chief (General Ashafaq Pervez Kayani of course), and the time has come to replace the old spokesman and DG of the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

Source: These Long Wars

About the author

Abdul Nishapuri

15 Comments

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  • Abdul,
    You may be right on every count but I know the family from Hyderabad, Sindh where they all grew up. Let me say this I knew one brother socially but their father Mirza Abid Abbas was a well respected literary person. I think Mirza Abid Abbas was for sometime chairman of Hyderabad Education board. HIs integrity was never questioned in Hyd.

    But not all sons follow their fathers. Otoh, I think these middle class folks are just trying to survive in Pakistani society where it is better to have relationships with power groups for a better life rather than spend their lives in wilderness by associating with the poor and less fortunate.

    I will give them benefit of doubt.

  • Just received this email from a friend:

    Mazhar Abbas is also Director Reporting ARY in addition to his show. Zafar Abbas has “informal” influence on DawnNews management. Athar Abbas was appointed in 2007 probably.

  • Here is something for pure fun.

    Earthman, International Professor, (a long time friend of the LUBP) once wrote:-

    However GEO TV that is working under command of Super Chief Director, the brother of Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the DG ISPR, and running whole army – NATO campaign devotedly. While another brother of Athar Abbas is fighting crusade being employee of ARY and think character of Pakistan’s Union of Journalists that Mazhar Abbas is Gen. Sec of PFUJ.

    http://criticalppp.com/archives/11103

    Influence of Athar Abbas the DG, ISPR and his corrupt brothers on media:

    Azhar Abbas, one brother of Athar Abbas, DG ISPR, is CEO of Geo TV network, the largest TV channel and champion of journalism than don’t ask question that who manipulated Swat agreement and forced army to invade on FATA areas. Other brother Zaffar Abbas is Editor of Dawn, and policies of Dawn group are well known.

    Another brother Mazhar Abbas is anchor of ARY and secretary general of PFUJ (Pakistan Federation of Journalists). The entire gang is patron of Mahdi army and pro-Iranian terrorist groups in Pakistan.

    All brothers have received double plots at Islamabad worth billion. The entire fascist family is pro-Mush and followers of MQM anti-Pushtoon and anti-Sindhi doctrine. The loathsome faces are enough to tell about darkness of their souls.

    A brief introduction of media channels and their defenselessness or mockery to de-value entire media industry:

    Express TV and newspaper is an Agha Khani channel owned by Lakhani, and operated by Athar Abbas, flag bearer of Khomeini’s doctrine in Pakistan, sectarian views of his team are well known and on record.

    Managing Director of GEO TV is a brother of polluted minded Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the biggest liar of current century and some programs on GEO TV looks like scripted by ISPR or ISI, particularly a program anchored by Sana Bucha.

    http://www.makepakistanbetter.com/why_how_what_forum.asp?GroupID=5&Group_title=Pakistan&ArticleID=8278

  • @Hoss, TLW, the author of this post, may better respond to your comment.

    Personally I tend to agree that the Abbas brotehrs’ could be a case of a middle class family who were able to build relationships with power groups in their search of a better life.

  • @ Hoss, thank you sir for bringing your experience with this family up. My intention with this post was to bring light to this very strange placing of four brothers in very important positions within Pakistan’s private and public media landscape. I think the real “blame” if any lies with those who have placed Mr Abbas as DG ISPR, and those in the various media houses ownership and administration who know what red lines not to cross and what is “too hot to print”. These same people have gone along with multiple conflicts of interest by placing the various Abbas brothers in their positions of authority. I do not think this is a conspiracy between the brothers. It is however a case of the government applying subtle pressure on reporters (the Abbas brothers) and media houses that hire them, and placing Athar Abbas’s future professional advancement in a question mark depending on how, maybe, in the future, one of his brothers deals with the ISPR. In your words sir:

    But not all sons follow their fathers.

    True.

    Otoh, I think these middle class folks are just trying to survive in Pakistani society

    Three decades ago, yes. Now they’re all well settled.

    where it is better to have relationships with power groups for a better life

    Sadly true.

    rather than spend their lives in wilderness by associating with the poor and less fortunate.

    Tragically true.

    I will give them benefit of doubt.

    To an extent yes I do too. I am trying to raise the question of the ethics and personnel policy of the media houses, without degenerating into conspiracy theories and finger pointing. There is already too much of it.

    I did not wish to make allegations, rather I have tried to flesh out the relationships using publicly available, but reputable sources, mainly the Committee to Protect Journalists.

    @ Junaid Mangi 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 correct my mistake on my blog.

    @ Sarah Khan, that post was funny. Incidentially I tried to search online for what websites are banned in Pakistan and Mr Earthman’s posts could only be accessed through a proxy. So one pro-extremist person on the internet was censored by the Pakistan government. LOL. He is a viciously sectarian little monster. And his hysterical defense of Shahid Masood makes for black comedy.

  • I do not know much about this family but going through th lines It seems that the writer has some personal grudges about Abbas brothers.

  • I do not know much about this family but going through th lines It seems that the writer has some personal grudges with Abbas brothers.

  • I agree with Hunzai.

    Overall, I see

    Dawn as a non-controversial middle of the road ‘reporter’ of news with a teeny weeny bit of opinion.

    ARY as a ‘go with the flow’ (mainly influenced by the PPP due to its Zardari / gold dealer ownership; if I remember correctly, Zardari owned it to start off with and who knows may still have his tenticles in it)

    GEO on the other hand is more balanced with an independent view.

    I don’t see much evidence of news being influenced in any meaningful way by these brothers. In fact, I am happy that they have come up in a professional and untainted manner.