Journalist Suhail Warraich is an authority on Pakistani politics. The News on Sunday sat with him on a sunny Lahore evening to discuss journalism, current political trends and his interviewing technique.
The News on Sunday (TNS): Do you agree that the emergence of YouTube commentators has enabled a more accessible and informed discourse with diverse voices?
Suhail Warraich (SW): There are always good and bad sides to new phenomena. Back in the day, several English poets expressed reservations against the operation of railway when it first started. It was said that the rails were to blame for irregular showers in England. Whenever new products are introduced, their negative aspects are highlighted. In the context of journalism in Pakistan, I will say that a time will come when digital commentary will be a part of our routine. Its shortcomings will take a downward trajectory.
TNS: How do you see the role and impact of independent digital voices?
SW: Not too bad. I think overall they have been good for journalism and the society. Digital journalism has paced up the news cycle. Within almost no time, people are made aware of the latest developments in a story. One should appreciate that.
TNS: Should the government regulate the digital spaces to prevent the circulation of fake news?
SW: I am against governments having a role as a regulator of the news media. They have a penchant for restricting the freedom of speech and making draconian laws. There should be no room for government intervention except with regard to speech or expression that might endanger lives.
TNS: Do you agree with the view that journalism in Pakistan is currently focusing more on the power elite and less on the people? Non-political stories seem to get little to no space.
SW: To an extent, I agree with this assessment. There are indeed two distinct approaches to journalism. I would, personally, like to see more stories about the people. But the truth is that today stories focusing on political structures dominate the media. This is not good for Pakistani journalism. People and stories about people should always be the priority. Train accidents make headlines in British papers but here, sometimes they are allocated a single column space on Page 9.
TNS: Journalism and dissent came under serious pressure during former prime minister Imran Khan’s term. Do you believe that the trend will continue, the change in government notwithstanding?
SW: One can only express hope that the unfortunate times do not return. But in a society where the powers that be dictate everything, the situation you mention can never be ruled out. In the end, however, free expression is bound to prevail. We are headed in the right direction. There can be dips in between, but we are making progress.
TNS: How serious a loss of credibility do people associated with ‘positive journalism’ that tilts towards certain ‘patriotic’ narratives cause in the long-run?
SW: Journalists speak the language of the masses. They represent the public not the powerful. Eventually, the public discards those with vested interests. Having said that, one has to concede that such people are still watched; in fact, their YouTube channels make revenues comparable to some mainstream news shows, mainly on account of overseas viewers.
TNS: That begs the question: why do overseas Pakistanis have a greater appetite for certain narratives than those living in Pakistan?
SW: Some of them have quite complicated psychological problems. Identity crisis is one of those. Despite having lived abroad for ages some of them still feel that they are in Pakistan. They have a very parochial understanding of Pakistan, its politics and its society. The Pakistani society has progressed. Unfortunately, they have not. There are some who left Pakistan in the 1970s and are still stuck in that time. I have found them having a weird obsession with seeing Pakistan turn into Europe or the United States overnight. That is not possible.
TNS: In one of your TV interviews, you asked a politician whether he had had extramarital affairs and he did not take offence. Where did this way of asking questions come from?
SW: I always get the answers without offending people. Let me tell you how I do it. This starts with making them comfortable in the first part of the question before, subtly, transitioning to the tough part. My questions are a combination of the two. If a guest has taken an offence to my first two questions, I try to appease them before asking the third. An interview is a psychological game.
TNS: Sheikh Rashid Ahmed appears to be ratings king for TV shows. You have interviewed him several times. As a journalist, what is your view of him?
SW: He is a street-smart person who has risen through the ranks. He knows how he needs to talk on the level.
TNS: An interesting aspect of the no-confidence affair was the rift between the Chaudhris of Gujrat. Is it because the younger generation is making major decisions that they are not getting along well?
SW: That is true. Earlier, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and Parvez Elahi used to make the decisions. This time, Moonis Elahi played a pivotal role in the decision-making on the no-confidence motion. Meanwhile, Shujaat’s sons have also grown up. They, too, have wanted a political role which they have got in the current setup.
TNS: Do they have a political future?
SW: Every political dynasty has a future in Pakistan. Dynasties are significant in the Third World. They have safe constituencies where they hold influence. The real question is how big or small a dynasty will be.
TNS: Is the rampant urbanisation across the country not limiting the influence of these dynasties?
SW: Indeed, it is. But not every constituency gets impacted by urbanisation. A significant section of the urban populace too supports certain dynasties. The PPP emerged as an urban party in 1977 and 1988 polls; the PTI is a rural party but the PML-N is an urban party.
TNS: Your column headlined The Party Is Over, predicting the ouster of Nawaz Sharif several weeks before the fact, made waves across Pakistan. As a journalist, do you think you have reached the high point of your career?
SW: To be honest, I hope to do more. But the column did shock the-then prime minister Nawaz Sharif. He talked to me soon afterwards and expressed his reservations. I also wrote about Imran Khan’s government, warning that This Company Won’t Run. I also got that right.
TNS: Certain quarters were apparently unhappy about the cover of your book Yeh Company Nahin Chalaygi?
SW: They were quite annoyed. The book was taken off the shelves on the very first day. But I always try not to be in their bad books. Personally, I support democracy but I do not hate anyone. I believe that everyone should work under a system where the parliament is supreme. But there was a time back in 2014-2015 when I was in their bad books and got out after much hassle.
TNS: How do you rate your interview with Qandeel Baloch? Could it have been done differently?
SW: I don’t think there was any thing unethical or unprofessional about the way I interviewed her. You can ask why we chose to interview her and the answer is that we did so because she was gaining popularity. We could not have predicted that she would be killed.
The interviewer is a human rights reporter based in Karachi. He reports on conflict, environment and culture