Pakistan's two mainstream political parties, the Pakistan People's Party (P.P.P.) and the Pakistan Muslim League (P.M.L.-Nawaz), agreed to appoint renowned journalist Najam Sethi as the caretaker chief minister of the country's largest province of the Punjab. Earlier, the two parties had nearly disappointed their followers over failing to reach consensus on the appointment of a caretaker prime minister ahead of the next month's general elections. Their inability to appoint an interim chief minister would have indeed embarrassed them before the voters and sent a negative message indicating that politicians were unable to agree on critical national issues. Hence, they picked up a veteran journalist with an unquestionable integrity to take care of the affairs of the government for the next two months.
Mr. Sethi is the founder of the Lahore-based liberal weekly, the Friday Times, and a popular talk-show host on Geo News, the nation's first private news channel. His nonpartisan and accurate analyses on television have made him the equivalent of Pakistan's Walter Cronkite, who was popularly known as "the most trusted man in America." Mr. Sethi's appointment is perhaps flatteringly the highest recognition of his impartiality.
Conservatives and hyper-nationalists have frequently expressed resentment to Mr. Sethi's liberal views. They describe him too pro-west and critical of the Pakistani Taliban. In 1999, the powerful Directorate of Inter-Service Intelligence (I.S.I.) kidnapped him for what the state officials billed as a 'controversial' and "anti-Pakistan" speech he delivered in India. Recently, Mr. Sethi was once again threatened with death warnings which compelled him to flee to the United States where he temporarily undertook a fellowship at the New America Foundation in the Washington D.C. He returned to Pakistan only after publicizing the threats. While in Pakistan, Mr. Sethi aired his popular talk-show from a small studio established inside his house because he did not apparently consider driving from home to office a safe option.
Besides the professional integrity part, the appointment of Mr. Sethi also reflects the broader changing dynamics of the Pakistani news media. Since General Musharraf, the military ruler from 1999 to 2008, liberalized the media a decade ago, the news media has deeply influenced the society and politics in Pakistan. While some talk-show hosts, such as Mr. Sethi, have established themselves as highly credible, the others have become the agents of promoting conspiracy theories and instilling dangerous sentiments of hyper-nationalism among their viewers.
The general public, the government authorities and opposition leaders all fear the television journalists because they are hardly held professionally accountable for intruding into people's private space or spreading rumors against people they personally loathe. This is an absolutely dangerous pattern prevalent in the news industry but such behavior is often generously forgiven and forgotten. Station managers say such behavior will diminish gradually as the news industry gains more professional maturity with the passage of time.
On the darker side, Mr. Sethi, by accepting the public office, has set a very unhealthy and unprofessional precedence in the national media. Should journalists accept official positions? No. What Mr. Sethi has agreed to will go a long way in spoiling journalists in his country where the State has had a long history of patronizing and bribing journalists. The Pakistani government offers houses, foreign trips (including free pilgrimage tours to Mecca in Saudi Arabia) and lavish domestic vacations.
Using one's profession to gain personal benefits is wrong and unethical for journalists. Because such bribes deeply tarnish, if not compromise or influence, a journalist's integrity. Walter Cronkite in the United would definitely not do so. In fact, Cronkite would agitate if he were even rumored to run for public office, as, for instance, was reported in 1980s that he would run as the vice president of John Anderson, an independent candidate.
On March 27, the B.B.C. Urdu published an interesting article called "the politics of journalists". The article chronicled how some journalists, including three Pakistani ambassadors to the United States, joined politics and public offices by the virtue of their popularity as journalists.
Political parties in Pakistan view journalists as valuable assets for improving their public image. They regularly write editorials in newspapers to defend their party's policies and also utilized their vast network of old professional colleagues to broaden the news coverage. A successful journalist does not necessarily have a broad electoral constituency to get directly elected to the parliament. So, political parties, mainly those in the government, help these journalists become legislators by providing them tickets to run for the Senate, the upper house of the parliament, or, for women, to get elected on seats reserved only for women. Those who do not get elected for the parliament are normally appointed as ambassadors to western countries to improve the country's reputation.
Mr. Sethi's appointment will only engender and encourage a new dirty race among veteran journalists to please the government in their search of 'brighter' prospects. While journalists with real professional integrity will surely resist such temptations, the lesser known will still see the reward of remaining pro-government. This is the continuity of a bothersome practice in the Pakistani media.
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