Looking out his office window onto Constitution Avenue in the middle of the turbulent summer, Hamid Mir is pensive. The prospect of a return of democracy brings back memories for him, not all of them good. He lost his job at Jang in the mid-1990s, thanks to then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the day after he broke the news of a submarine-purchase scandal that had allegedly made Bhutto’s family $120 million richer overnight. A few years later, he lost his job again, under the democratic rule of Nawaz Sharif, for exposing more government corruption. “But we have to, for our own sake, strengthen democracy,” he tells me. “We can’t survive without a strong parliament and without a strong judiciary. We can’t be at the mercy of one man. It’s our prime responsibility—we do have a watchdog role.”

Regardless of what happens in the general elections, the preceding months have been a crucible for Pakistan. The stakes were raised again in October, when Benazir Bhutto’s triumphant return from exile was marred by bombings that nearly killed her, and did kill 140 others—a scene that unfolded on television. These months have been a crucible for the country’s private broadcasters, too. They have emerged as a deeply flawed but essential pillar of whatever kind of democracy Pakistan ultimately embraces. It is difficult to say precisely where this pillar will stand in relation to the others, or at whose expense its power will grow. The journalists at these news operations continue to struggle with pressures—both internal and external—to use their power in support of someone else’s agenda, whether the judiciary’s, the opposition’s, or the state’s. But thus far, those journalists are working hard to stay true to their own agenda, to keep the mission of an impartial and credible television media alive. Without this balance, they seem to understand, they are bound to lose.

 

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Shahan Mufti teaches journalism at the University of Richmond. He is the author of The Faithful Scribe: A Story of Islam, Pakistan, Family, and War.