Najam Sethi, the star of one of Pakistan’s top-rated political talk shows, does not travel far to work. For the three nights a week his program is on air, Sethi simply opens his bedroom door and walks into a purpose-built studio.
Since January, the journalist has been broadcasting from the little studio because he fears his public criticism on Aapas Ki Baat (“Just Between the Two of Us”) of one of Pakistan’s most powerful institutions could get him killed.
He is not alone.
Last month, prominent human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir, who lambasts the military for interfering in civilian politics, claimed there was a plot to kill her hatched “at the highest level of the security apparatus.”
She has since been given government guards to protect her.
Almost alone among the country’s TV pundits, Sethi regularly takes on the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), the military spy agency accused of everything from supporting the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan to murdering its critics.
Sethi began to feel seriously concerned for his safety after the US raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in May last year, after he told his audience Pakistan must have been “complicit or incompetent” during the al-Qaeda chief’s decade-long stay in the country.
The broadcast led to a “stormy” face-to-face confrontation with a very senior ISI official.
“He accused me of everything — anti-Pakistan, anti-army, anti-everything,” Sethi said.
Weeks later, the journalist Saleem Shahzad, who wrote about the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the ISI, was found dead in a canal.
Sethi told viewers Shahzad had been tortured to death by the ISI.
With the top brass apoplectic, high-level government officials warned Sethi his name had been circulated on a hit list. A kidnapping plot, he was told, had been hatched involving two militant groups with links to the ISI.
Sethi and his wife, the journalist Jugnu Mohsin, hoped the danger would die down if they left the country.
After four months abroad, Sethi returned to find he was still at risk, despite going public about the threats.
“On the first program I did when I came back, I said I had been facing threats from state and non-state actors, and I warned that if anything should happen to me or my family we would hold the military establishment at the highest level responsible,” Sethi said.
Security cameras now cover his house, which he rarely leaves. Trusted guards from Mohsin’s ancestral village have been drafted in to keep an eye on the guards provided by the government.
Sethi’s liberal politics show, generally out of step with a society that appears to be turning more conservative, has been a surprise hit on the country’s most popular private channel.
With a hit on their hands and nightly journeys to the studios of Geo TV thought to be too dangerous, channel bosses took the unprecedented step of building their star a studio in the couple’s spare bedroom.
Sethi sits at a glass table and discusses the day’s news with co-host Muneeb Farooq. With Pakistan buffeted by what seems to be at least one scandal, disaster or political upheaval a week, there is always a lot to talk about.
While the program is slick, the makeshift broadcasting facilities are anything but. The production team run the show from monitors and laptops inside a battered pink and white Toyota Coaster in the driveway. They work in cramped, uncomfortable conditions — even at 11pm, Lahore is sweltering.