Jun 042008

After a long drought of real news, a cloudburst was the best thing that could happen for someone thirsting after truth. The weekend in the shape of New York Times Magazine carried lightning and thunder followed by raindrops that Aitzaz Ahsan spilled gently during his interview with James Traub. In short, Aitzaz opened up his heart for the first time!
Better it would have been had Aitzaz Ahsan taken the Pakistani press into confidence instead of having to go to the New York Times. But then, his cry of anguish would have remained confined to our borders and not crossed the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans.

As the wind carried his words like wildfire emblazoning the front pages of Pakistani newspapers, the information ministry and other media monitors stood helplessly watching what Aitzaz had done. Not all the king’s men could put Asif Zardari back again. But wait, Aitzaz Ahsan himself changed gears and went for damage control. He tried repairing the harm done to the image of his party leader Asif Zardari by promptly declaring that he had been misquoted by the Times correspondent James Traub. And that a legal notice to the “Newspaper of record” as the New York Times haughtily calls itself had been sent pronto from Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan.

According to Associated Press of Pakistan, “SCBA president Aitzaz Ahsan has said that he did not criticise Benazir Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari while the interview which was published in various sections of the press on Monday was manipulated. Aitzaz said that ‘the reporter who had conducted his interview did not report it properly.’ He said that he would write a letter to the newspaper concerned whose reporter conducted the interview and also ask it to publish contradiction of the news item in this regard.

“He said that being a worker of the PPP, how he would criticise his leaders Benazir Bhutto and Asif Zardari. ‘The case which the reporter quoted in his story, was the case in which as a counsel of Asif Zardari, I had appeared before the court and he was granted the bail,’ Aitzaz observed.”

Let me reproduce the whole section in the New York Times Magazine where James Traub tries journalistic gimmickry (aren’t we all hacks familiar with that trick?); skates cross country through cliché-land and gropes at well-worn phrases to arrive at the following:

“Ahsan defended both Benazir and Zardari (popularly known as “Mr. 10 Percent” for his reputation for supposedly taking a skim from big government contracts) in 14 cases, including, he says, “corruption against both,” and in Zardari’s case, “kidnapping, ransom and murder.

“Ahsan is almost recklessly outspoken about PPP leaders, even though they are his own political patrons. He speaks admiringly of Benazir Bhutto’s courage and steadfastness but also points out with disdain that she viewed herself as the PPP’s “life chairperson.” And he does not bother to conceal his dim view of Zardari. In the car, as we drove back through the night to Lahore, I asked him how many of the allegations of corruption he believed were justified. “Most of them,” Ahsan said, after a moment’s reflection. “The type of expenses that she had and he has are not from sources of income that can be lawfully explained and accounted for.”

There’s something fishy about the quotation marks. They are half-baked scraps of conversation converted into a cohesive whole by the narrator.

Notice in the narrative that Aitzaz skirts around the trap set up by Tricky Traub. He’s equivocal and avoids a direct quote on his former clients – BB and AZ. If you read the above text closely, you’ll note that the Times narrator uses phrases like “Mr 10 Percent;” “corruption against both;” “kidnapping, ransom and murder;” “life chairperson;” “most of them” and “The type of expenses that she had and he has are not from sources of income that can be lawfully explained and accounted for” without directly ascribing them to Aitzaz.

Wily Aitzaz knew exactly the direction his interview was headed and his interviewer’s unholy attempt to pin him down while casually discussing the former first couple – the kind heard in a drawing room chatter. Besides, there’s nothing original in the above sentences. One has heard this stuff over and over again. A fatigued Aitzaz must have revisited these tired phrases while driving to Lahore “through the night” in the company of Times journalist James Traub. Media savvy as Aitzaz is, he knew that The New York Times, the most influential paper in the world claiming to hire professional reporters/writers would not stoop to guerrilla tactics. The editors at the Times spend weeks if not months checking and cross-checking facts before the story gets published.

The question then one should ask is why did ‘Tricky’ Traub, a seasoned writer, appeared putting words in Aitzaz’s mouth. Traub has authored The Freedom Agenda: Why America Must Spread Democracy. The book is expected to come out this September.

So will the snooty New York Times now retract as Aitzaz Ahsan hopes or will the barrister sue the Times for slander and libel? Your guess is as good as mine, but one thing I know from experience: the Times is averse to eating crow. In other words it does not like to admit its mistake and say ‘oops sorry!’

Lately I have observed Aitzaz Ahsan. I know him and his family from the Bill Hailey days in Lahore. At a dinner party recently, I noticed Aitzaz to be lost in another world. He appeared disconnected. Earlier I had commented in one of my columns that the man appeared discreet, off-line and unhooked to his surroundings. Watching Aitzaz on television again at Peshawar Bar seated next to Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry last Saturday, I was convinced that Aitzaz had undergone a personality change. He was so quiet while everyone around him appeared animated.

On hindsight, Aitzaz must have been thinking about the bombshell that was to follow the next day (his interview with the NY Times). Maybe he was worried how Asif Zardari would react? Maybe he was troubled that he may get expelled from his party, the PPP which he has served since 40 long years; maybe he was scared at the wrath that might visit him now that he had spoken up finally.

Some of you may well wonder why it took Aitzaz so long to speak up. I for one question his silence. Aitzaz appears to be acting like the spoiler who has spilled the beans because the PPP refuses to budge on the judges’ issue. He feels betrayed by having been further treated shabbily by Asif Zardari over giving him a party ticket to fight the by-elections later this month. Aitzaz wisely spurned the ticket later.

The Pakistani media, both print and electronic, thus far has pushed the truth of our leaders’ unsavoury past under the rug. Ostrich-like it has shut out that era with the excuse that people change and must be given a chance to show that they have changed. The media while turning a blind eye to their faults — past and present — has used vainglorious words like “saving Pakistan;” “saving democracy;” “saving the people of Pakistan from future dictators” by not raking up their past.

My question: Have the people of Pakistan been saved? Has democracy really taken root?

Let me end by quoting my old friend and fellow The News columnist Ayaz Amir. He is presently PML-N member of the National Assembly. He has also been a member of the Punjab Assembly in the past. As someone who knows the inside story, we need to pay attention to what he writes in his opening column Expecting miracles from jackasses.

“A strange nation we are, expecting wisdom from morons, radicalism from born opportunists, and virtue from knaves whose principal claim to fame is daylight national robbery.”

Endnote: a word about the New York Times ‘misquote’ as Aitzaz would have us believe. The barrister is not a dimwit, loose-tongued bumbler nor is the NYT a cheap tabloid, the sort that carries girlie pictures. So whodunit? We have a right to know.

The writer is a freelance journalist with over twenty years of experience in national and international reporting. Email: aniaz@fas.harvard.edu

Source: The News, 4/6/2008


 Posted by at 7:53 am

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