Tell us about your foray in the field of publishing and journalism? How did it all begin for you?
I started off as a publisher in 1978! General Ziaul Haq hated me for publishing From Jinnah to Zia by former Chief Justice of Pakistan Muhammad Munir (r). In this book Justice Munir admitted his error in legitimising the first Martial Law in 1958 based on the Law of Necessity. He was therefore very critical of Gen Zia’s Martial Law in 1977. In 1984, Zia got an opportunity to punish me when the then US Ambassador complained about another book that I had published. It was titled The American Role in Pakistan. He was also upset that I wanted to publish Daniel Wolpert’s biography of Jinnah without censoring out certain personal details. So he charged me with terrorism and put me in jail. Except for BBC, no Pakistani newspaper was ready to plead my innocence because of fear. So I resolved to publish my own paper one day to defend human rights and press freedom. The day Zia died in 1988, my wife Jugnu and I sat up all night to draw up a blueprint of The Friday Times. TFT has weathered many storms since the day it was launched in 1989.
How supportive and encouraging was your family when you decided this was the profession you wanted to take up?
TFT could not have been launched or survived without Jugnu’s untiring and heroic efforts. Our kids Ali and Mira were five and two years old respectively. My mother, bless her soul, looked after them for many years during the long hours both of us were toiling away at TFT.
You are a versatile person with multiple talents having anchored talk shows as well as being the chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board among other roles. What do you feel the most passionate about in your life?
I was passionate about cricket when I was in school, growing up. And I was passionate about liberty, equality and fraternity when I was at university abroad as a young adult. I guess you might say I have lived my life in a fulfilling way. PCB has enabled me to try and reform cricket for the better and the media has created space in which I can flog my political beliefs and ideas.
Have you ever considered taking up politics actively?
Yes, anyone who wants to change the status quo cannot resist taking up politics. But that is easier said than done because vested interests are immeasurably wicked and powerful. I accepted an invitation to join the interim government in 1996 but failed to persuade it to hold true accountability. I accepted interim chief minister-ship of Punjab in 2013 because I thought it a great honour to be nominated as a consensus candidate of all parties, including Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. I ran a fiercely neutral administration for three months and was deeply wounded when Imran Khan levelled allegations of rigging the elections against me. Later he admitted that he had just made a political statement worth nothing, but the scar remains.
‘Journalism is glamorous for a few and crappy for the rest. In the old days, it was also a mission statement. Now it is just a job’
Journalism is a very demanding profession. Did you at any point feel that your family life had taken a backseat while you were working or did you always balance well?
As I mentioned, the demands of journalism adversely affected our lives. Both Jugnu and I wish we had spent more time with Ali and Mira in their childhood. For a long time this rankled with both kids. But they seem to have forgiven us and our family bonds are strong.
What have you learned the hard way in the field of journalism?
One lesson – there is a huge price to pay for speaking and searching for the truth. There are times when you wonder whether it is worth the while.
Which has been the most challenging story you have ever worked on? Which did you enjoy the most?
Naturally, reporting truth to power is challenging. I once did a story that aroused Benazir Bhutto’s wrath in 1995 and she threatened to throw me overboard while we were on a prime ministerial flight over the Atlantic! In 1999, Nawaz put me in prison for reporting about corruption in his government. In 2008, I had to flee Pakistan for a few months because I started to receive death threats from the Taliban. This happened again in 2011 when I stepped on the toes of the Establishment after I accused it of complicity or incompetence in the Osama Bin Laden affair.
Is there anyone who you haven’t worked in your career with but would love to?
Eqbal Ahmad was a towering intellect and great humanist. I wish I had spent more time in his company. But he passed away without fulfilling our collective dreams.
Describe a typical day in the life of Najam Sethi.
I read, read and read. I get paid to talk and write. But PCB now takes up a lot of time and energy. I hate myself for not exercising enough or squeezing out time to watch movies and listen to jazz.
What advice would you give to a novice in the field of journalism?
It is glamorous for a few and crappy for the rest. In the old days, it was also a mission statement. Now it is just a job.
What according to you has been your biggest achievement so far?
Launching TFT and Daily Times. Both were huge challenges. But ‘Aapas Ki Baat’ has been most fulfilling because of the affection and support of millions of viewers.
What is your vision for Pakistan and what does it mean to be Pakistani for you?
My hope and vision for Pakistan was lost in the Zia era and hasn’t been found since. This is not the Pakistan I grew up in and certainly not the Pakistan I dreamt of in my youth. The tragedy is that there are not many buyers for my idea of Pakistaniat in which there is no room for the politics of religion or singular religious identity.
We at Daily Times, consider you one of our national heroes. Who are some of yours?
Honestly, the true and unsung heroes of Pakistan are those teeming millions who daily drown their sorrows in toil and sweat.
Tell us about the harrowing experience of your arrest in 1999 following your interview about government corruption to BBC.
I had a rough time but that’s a story for another occasion.
MASTER OF ALL TRADES
The legendary Najam Sethi is not just a leading journalist but also a left-leaning political commentator who serves as the editor-in-chief of The Friday Times, hosted the primetime current affairs show ‘Aapas Ki Baat’ on Geo News and is also the chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board. He also served as the caretaker chief minister of Punjab during the 2013 elections. He established Vanguard Books, which is a progressive book publishing company.
Najam Sethi studied economics at the Government College, and later moved to Clare College at the Cambridge University where he received his master’s degree in economics and progressed as a PhD student.
Najam is the editor-in-chief of the independent English weekly The Friday Times, which he and his wife Jugnu Mohsin launched in 1989. In 2002, he founded the Daily Times and became its editor until October 2009. He has also served as the Pakistan correspondent of The Economist.
Najam won the 1999 International Press Freedom Award of the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists and the 2009 World Association of Newspapers’ Golden Pen of Freedom Award.
Najam, along with Jugnu Mohsin, has raised his children well. His son, Ali Sethi, is a renowned singer, writer and columnist. His daughter Mira is an immensely talented actress and writer.
Published in Daily Times, August 12th 2017.