ISLAMABAD (AP) — In a rare victory for Pakistani liberals, a private TV station decided to fire a popular morning show host after she sparked outrage by running around a public park trying to expose young, unmarried couples hanging out, a taboo in this conservative Muslim country.
Pakistani liberals derided host Maya Khan's behavior on Twitter and Facebook, comparing it to the kind of moral policing practiced by the Taliban, and started an online petition asking Samaa TV to end this "irresponsible programming" and apologize.
The company responded Saturday in a letter sent to reporters saying it had decided to fire Khan and her team and cancel her show because she refused to issue an unconditional apology for the Jan. 17 program.
Samaa TV's decision marked an unusual victory for Pakistan's beleaguered liberal minority, which has become more marginalized as the country has shifted to the right and whose members have been killed by Islamist extremists for standing up for what they believe.
Critics of the program also praised the company's decision as a positive example of self-regulation by Pakistan's freewheeling TV industry, which was liberalized in 2000 and has mushroomed from one state-run channel to more than 80 independent ones.
Some shows have been praised for serving the public good by holding powerful officials to account, but many others have been criticized for doing anything that will get ratings, including pandering to populist sentiments at the expense of privacy and sometimes truth.
"Samaa management has set a good example that some others need to follow," said prominent human rights activist and journalist Hussain Naqi.
During the program in question, Khan and around a dozen other men and women chased down young couples in a seaside park in the southern city of Karachi. Several couples raced away from the group. One young man put on a motorcycle helmet to hide his identity, while his female friend covered her face with a veil.
Khan finally accosted one couple sitting on a bench and pestered them with questions about whether they were married and whether their parents knew they were there. The man said the couple was engaged and asked Khan to shut off her cameras and microphone. She lied and said they were off.
"What is the difference between this kind of media vigilantism and that demonstrated by the Taliban?" said Mahnaz Rahman, a director at the Aurat Foundation, an organization that fights for women's rights in Pakistan.
Islamist extremists have been ruthless in targeting liberal Pakistanis who disagree with their hardline views. One of the most prominent examples was in last January, when a bodyguard shot to death the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, because of his criticism of Pakistani laws that mandate the death penalty for criticizing the Prophet Muhammad.
Following Khan's program, one headline in a local paper called the host and the other women who appeared on the show "Vigil-aunties," referring to the South Asian term "aunty" for a bossy older woman.
A petition posted online that criticized Khan's behavior as "highly intrusive, invasive and potentially irresponsible" and demanded an official apology attracted more than 5,000 signatures.
Khan reportedly rejected the criticism at first but eventually issued on apology on TV to anyone she may have offended, saying "it was not my objective to make you cry or hurt you."
This fell short of the apology that Khan's bosses demanded, according to a letter written by the chairman of Samaa TV, Zafar Siddiqi. It said Khan and her team would receive termination notices on Jan. 30 and her show would be canceled.
Siddiqi said the company did not "absolve such behavior irrespective of ratings the show was getting."
Scores of Pakistanis on Twitter praised Samaa TV's decision.
"Journalists must never forget the dividing line between public interest & private freedom," tweeted Najam Sethi, a prominent Pakistani journalist.
Khan reported from Karachi. Associated Press writer Zarar Khan contributed to this article.