May 3, 2009

Whistle blowers vs weasels

By Anjum Niaz
'It’s for you to go and dig around,' a mealy-mouthed former power horse tells me when I ask for more information. His bare boned two sentences of a 'deal' negotiated between Pakistan Air Force and the Chinese who have just sold us their anti-aircraft weaponry gets me all excited.
The punch line: a son of a VVIP is involved, antes up my interest. 'Come on, tell me more,' I fish for details. But my informant isn’t biting. 'Ask your sources,' he says tantalisingly. 'Sources?' I roll my eyes in exasperation 'excuse me where do I begin – at the air force mess?' Convinced my friend knows a lot more than he’s willing to let out, I later commit this embryo to ink hoping some ‘God fearing’ guy may one day breathe life into it after he reads my column. I draw a blank. Meanwhile, winter comes and goes. Then suddenly last week there’s a boom! The ‘God fearing guy’ I had dreamt about, and waited for, but never got, descends out of the blue. He spills the beans (sorry for this cliché but it’s a good fit) to an English-language newspaper, not this one, and goes on record.
Why did Air Marshal Saadat Kaleem wait for full three years after he retired as Air Force Chief to speak up?You and I know perfectly well that the devil’s in the details. And the details can only be had from the man/woman at the top embroiled in the deal. Air Chief Kaleem alleges he was pressured by President Musharraf who summoned him at the Army House to do business with the Chinese. When he opposed the purchase, Musharraf snubbed him by saying, 'What is the problem with you?' according to the newspaper report. Why has Kaleem chosen to unzip his mouth now? There has to be a reason. Perhaps he wants to preempt an inquiry about the deal incriminating him for the purchase? He has therefore conveniently passed the buck to the former president. In any case, the deal is history and the deed is done. But who got the kickbacks is now the question? Kaleem does not mention Musharraf as the direct beneficiary but a hint is all over the newspaper story. Don’t also forget our friend the son of a VVIP sitting in at the bargaining table. I know his name but can’t mention it. No, I’m not a weasel, but an ‘Uninformed Person’ (UP) because the truth will never come out unless and until it comes directly from the horse’s mouth (oops one more cliché!). Maybe when there’s a seismic shift in power and the current set of VVIPs get thrown off their Pak-1 ark, the son will either rise or drown in the deluge of accountability.
People just don’t blow the whistle unless there’s something good for them to be had. In America, giving out inside information carries a hefty price tag. The corporate media involved in the war of ratings is known to shell out a mini-fortune to lay their hands on scoops that make for breaking news. The New York Times recently bagged five Pulitzers - American journalism's most sought after accolade. One of them for breaking news reporting on its coverage of the prostitution scandal that took down New York governor Eliot Spitzer. Just hold on. If you think the Times had assigned a reporter to stalk Spitzer because the editors suddenly got suspicious of their governor’s secret sex life with a hooker, then think again. There was someone who gave Times the lead. And by Jove, that someone must have been rewarded richly. Get the picture? By the way, this Spitzer chap has bounced back since the day he faced the cameras along with his spouse and said sorry to her and Charlie’s aunt and uncle. You’ll see his face on the latest cover of Newsweek. Blazing a new road to self recrimination he admits his weakness for sex with a prostitute whom he paid thousands of dollars 'We succumb to temptations that we know are wrong and foolish when we do it and then in hindsight we say, ‘How could I have?’'
I’ll tell Spitzer how. It’s what you call in men ‘middle age mania’! Do you agree? You don’t have to sprawl on a therapist’s couch to discover yourself. 'There's got to be some element to its being a result of tension and release. And that builds up,' Spitzer known as the ‘Sheriff of Wall Street’ because he nailed corporate warlords, says in his self-defence. Let me pare it down further to just 3 letters: s,e, x. Another Pulitzer bagged by the Times for investigative journalism went to David Barstow's piece that revealed how retired generals who served as radio and television analysts pushed for war in Iraq while receiving undisclosed payments from defence contractors that benefited from the conflict. Again, Barstow must have an excellent whistle blower who fed him all the information.
Money must have changed hands. But this is not to take the credit away from Barstow who doggedly followed the trail once he was put there.
Pakistan today would be a different country if we had whistle blowers squeal on the multi-million kickbacks our politicians, generals, admirals and air marshals have received over the years. While Islamabad has been oozing out stories galore of guys – Pakistanis and foreign – who have made a killing from time to time, not a single person (other than the navy chief Mansurul Haq) got hauled up by our accountability courts. The twitter by the high society wallahs always skirted around names involved in deals ranging from tanks, Dassault mirage aircrafts and nuclear Agosta submarines. The press, including yours truly, would go around collecting crumbs that in the end would turn stale and had to be chucked. Ah, those were surreal times. The money trail never led to any footprints; Just scandals in the air. Dawn News broke a story last year about the misuse of his office by the Naval Chief Admiral Afzal Tahir. The video is posted on YouTube. Tahir who retired October last had put Navy personnel to guard his property which was disputed. Was Tahir asked for an explanation? Are you kidding? Instead he was given a royal send off!Whistle blowers and investigative journalism, two parts of a whole, have sadly never matured in Pakistan. It’s not the journalists who are the weasels; it’s our leaders because they don’t like to expose others for fear that their own mega millions rattling in their cupboards may come out. Or we lack the wherewithal (read money) to whistle up the blowers necessary to produce ‘breaking news.’

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