Journalism and Democracy

By , 29 December, 2008, No Comment

Fear not, cyberfriends. I have surfaced from Christmas-induced hibernation with many cultural reflections to throw at you before ’08 fades into ’09. To start with, this belated announcement:

Najaam Sethi, the editor of Pakistan’s Daily Times–has recently won the Golden Pen journo award, meant for reporters and editors who use their pulpit to promote and support free institutions and good governance.

Sethi has done much of that in his career, notably going to jail in 1999 for his criticisms of then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. He’s taken plenty of flack from the religious right for his hard line on terrorism. And though an initial supporter of General Musharraf as an antidote to both the corruption and the growing fundamentalism of the Sharif era, he was among the harder hitters when time came to expose Musharraf for the fraud he was. In a country where the press has historically not been free, Sethi certainly deserves recognition.

But it’s not a cut-and-dry case. First of all, Sethi’s more recent work in defense of the free press came at a time when Pakistani media in general was rising to new levels of bravery in response to new levels of suppression, especially after the imposition of martial law last November. Watch Kiran Khalid’s excellent documentary on this struggle and you’ll realize that Sethi has been honored to recognize, symbolically, the long way that Pakistani journalists, as a group, have come.

At the same time, Pakistani media has a long way to go. The most striking thing about the way Sethi’s own paper covered the award is the power given to the government to determine the interpretation. The story was titled “Award for Najam Sethi an honor for Pakistan.” The article focused on Minister of Information Sherry Rehman’s remarks following the Golden Pen announcement, where she presented his work as protecting the government from “regressive elements.” Given that the prize was given in part to honor Sethi’s “independence” and his willingness to be “at odds with Pakistani authorities,” this warm fuzzy treatment from the government, and the appropriation of that warm fuzziness by the press, is a bit uneasy.

It has me worrying that the zeal among Pakistani journos to really crusade for press freedom was particular to the struggle against Musharraf, but the check of public opinion on authority matters just as much, if not more, in democracies as in dictatorships: in democracies, exposing official sins has a clear impact of changing voter behavior. I hope Sethi and company know this.

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