Editors Get a Seat at Pakistan’s Top Table
An article by Amanda Hodge of the The Australian newspaper published on April 15 quoted my Huffington Post article about the appointment of two of Pakistan’s veteran journalists Arif Nizami and Najam Sethi in the caretaker governments in Pakistan and wondered if their appointment would end censorship in Pakistan, including lifting the ban on The Baloch Hal. Given below is the full text of the article.
THE editor of Pakistan Today newspaper is sitting in the office of the country’s Information and Broadcasting Minister when we meet, but not – as you might reasonably assume – on the visitors’ side of the desk.
For the next four weeks, Arif Nizami has agreed to join what he calls a democratic “experiment” by accepting a role in a national caretaker government charged with overseeing the running of the country until the May 11 elections and ensuring free and fair polls.
One week into the job, Nizami says the experience has been illuminating, if tricky.
As an outspoken journalist who for 40 years has not shied from sticking the boot into respective governments – and information ministers – he is now constantly fighting the temptation to say things he should not.
“It’s like being in the hot seat, especially for a journalist like me who has been critical in the past,” he says.
Four hours down the splendid highway that connects the capital Islamabad with Lahore, Friday Times editor-in-chief and liberal talk show host Najam Sethi – a man known variously as “Pakistan’s Walter Cronkite” and “the most trusted man in Pakistan” – is running the Punjab government as caretaker chief minister.
Sethi, who also took a role in a previous caretaker administration, only last year was forced to briefly leave Pakistan under threat (he believed) from the country’s powerful security agencies. But it hasn’t blunted the criticism he and Nizami have taken for crossing over.
Malik Siraj Akbar, editor-in-chief of the online English language Baloch Hal newspaper, wrote last week that the move set “an unhealthy and unprofessional precedent” given the state’s “long history of patronising and bribing journalists”.
Though Akbar says Sethi’s appointment is “perhaps the highest recognition of his impartiality”, he predicts it will only encourage a “new dirty race among veteran journalists to please the government in their search of ‘brighter’ prospects”.
His column ran on the Huffington Post website, but his own newspaper site remains blocked by the Pakistan Telecom Authority for “containing indecent material”.
It will be interesting to see whether Nizami – as caretaker Information and Broadcasting Minister – uses his influence to lift that censorship.
The portents are good. Two days ago he announced he was lifting the YouTube ban imposed in September after the online release of the anti-Islamic film Prophet.
Nizami says that under his brief watch he is determined to ensure unfettered freedom of the press, for local and international media.
His critics might argue that journalists accepting political roles – even temporary ones – discredits the notion of an independent media, a key pillar of a functioning democracy.
However, those who support him say the main priority must be ensuring Pakistan makes its first ever democratic transition of government.
Who better to help oversee that than the political class’s most fervent critics?
“All parties contesting these elections will have a fair shot at forming the next government because it is the first time in our history that a neutral caretaker setup has been put in place instead of a handpicked one by the incumbents,” says Mehmal Sarfraz, a Pakistani columnist and Friday Times executive editor.
Nizami believes Pakistan is fast approaching the stage where a caretaker government will be unnecessary, because an “independent media, judiciary and election commission should be guarantee enough for free and fair elections”.
But right now the caretaker system – in which civilians from the world of law, police, finance and even journalism are co-opted by the election commissioner to run government while politicians campaign – is symptomatic of the deep distrust between the country’s political parties.
Nizami says he refused roles in previous caretaker administrations because “I did not think journalists should be part of such outfits”.
“There have been (previous) caretaker governments in Pakistan, but they have been formed after the sacking of a government.”
They were “more undertaker than caretaker”, tasked with pursuing vendetta cases against sacked governments and political leaders.
“This time I thought there were so many checks and balances in play that this is actually a neutral caretaker government,” Nizami says.
“Its mandate is to hold elections and run the day-to-day affairs”, though he adds that to ensure free and fair elections “the economy must be going, law and order must be under control”.
Nizami has used his own position to lay down the law to state media.
“I went to PTV (state-owned Pakistan TV) and said ‘I want equal time for everyone’.”
It sounds like fun, though Nizami says “it’s too early to say” whether he is enjoying himself.