Listening to Najam Sethi’s Kewal Singh Memorial Lecture, my mind went back over several eras of Pakistani history. In the course of half-a-century of sovereignty, many dictators and autocrats had tried to suppress Pakistan’s inherent spirit of liberty and outspokenness, until a democratic polity finally dawned. Now, though they occasionally experience difficulties, elected governments, a free press and courageous ngos are still centrestage. The task of social transformation in traditional societies is onerous, particularly in the initial stages when the mask of cultural hypocrisy is laid bare. But Parliament can perform its role effectively only with the assistance of the media.
Najam Sethi was not saying anything that we in India had not heard before. Nor are our own shortfalls hidden from the gaze of neighbouring countries. Satellite television and the Internet have lit up previously dark corners, broadcasting to all and sundry the existence of wide chasms between the pretensions and practices of the ruling elite, who believe they can suppress independent views with the help of police and hoodlums, that government-sponsored propaganda can black out reality. But why talk of Pakistan? Here in our own country, we have witnessed our worthy minister of information expressing similar beliefs while eroding the autonomy of Prasar Bharati. In the era of social transformation, autocratic regimes and minds want to edit both history and news. Bold practitioners of the media whose only tool is their credibility are bound to resist.
Najam Sethi was only re-stating what he had already written in his newspaper. But a false sense of national pride overcame Pakistani diplomats: the spirit was "why say it here in India", still "enemy country" despite all the bus journeys and the lauded Lahore Declaration. The Pakistani high commissioner in Delhi who filed the FIR against Sethi perhaps felt the need to protect himself lest he be accused of dereliction of duty. But this action and the leaking of his secret report by an Islamabad official only caused him immense embarrassment here. He will obviously be the main prosecution witness if and when Sethi is brought before a court.
Sethi was not revealing a state secret when he said the US sanctions were imposing a heavy burden on Pakistan’s economy. Nor did he tell us for the first time the agonising details of terrorist activities in Karachi and elsewhere. The gun is loud enough to be heard on its own. The cult of violence is causing anxiety to us as well; we recently saw the scion of a political family kill a girl who refused to serve him a drink. If this story were to be carried in Pakistani periodicals, would we brand it an "anti-Indian move"?
Sethi may have chosen sharp rhetoric. He used the word ‘crises’ to describe a variety of challenges confronting Pakistan. Since I am temperamentally a moderate, I had counselled Sethi that the word ‘difficulties’ may be more appropriate. Journalists tend to describe a spade as a sword; persons of my temperament call it a twig. All the same, over-reacting to well-meaning utterances or writing does not serve the cause of democratic life, it is dissent and debate that generate progress. Otherwise, we would still believe that the sun revolves around a flat earth.
The media’s social relevance is built on credibility. In the contemporary era, a journal is seen to acquire ‘integrity’ only when it courageously exposes the misdeeds of the rulers. The US media acquired much of its lustre when it exposed the merciless massacres of the US forces in Vietnam. A different view of what constituted ‘national interest’ did not persuade those scribes to hide the facts from the people. In the end, the American nation was the gainer. If the national media has not acquired credibility in peace time, it’s a useless instrument in times of war or crisis.
During my tenure as I&B minister, I saw the marginalisation of the official media. But my efforts to make it credible were cynically dismissed, which ensured that India paid a heavy political price later. Only an independent press can give policymakers genuine feedback. The suppression of criticism bottles up public anger, which will some day explode in floods of corrosive lava.
My proclivity for building an amiable framework of Indo-Pak relations is known in both countries. It is in this spirit that the India-Pakistan Friendship Society (IPFS) works, according a place of honour to Pakistani officials in its functions. When Najam Sethi told us about various difficulties that confronted civil society in Pakistan, I viewed them in our own context, where our baggage is no lighter. For some years now as president of the IPFS, I have been trying to arrange meetings between parliamentarians of the two countries. In 1986, I wrote to Benazir Bhutto and later asked her personally to send across leading members of Parliament to India, or to invite ours. But to no avail. Five years were to pass before a courageous Pakistani journalist—Imtiaz Alam—arranged a meeting in Islamabad. Even the hardline members of the Indian delegation were singing a different tune on their return. A month back, Imtiaz was here to organise another meeting of Indo-Pak parliamentarians in Delhi. The response was positive and the meet would have been a thunderous success, but our own political crisis intervened. I was sad to learn that soon after his return to Pakistan, officially-sponsored goons descended on him. He must be thanking his stars that only his car was set on fire; he was not meted out the treatment that fellow scribes like Ejaz Haider or M.A.K. Lodhi received.
In the last analysis, the delicate edifice of democracy rests on several pillars. It is both vital and indispensable to have a fourth estate with a clear and credible voice. If this pillar is damaged, the cracks could boomerang lethally on the whole structure.