Originally published in the Columbia Journalism Review, Sept/Oct 2007.
In Pakistan, independent TV is young, powerful, and biting the hand that fed it
One evening last June, during an oppressively hot summer in Islamabad, I attended a protest organized by Pakistani television journalists. A fiery stream lit Constitution Avenue—the broad thoroughfare is lined with the state’s most powerful political institutions—as a torch-carrying procession marched past the Supreme Court. The marchers chanted slogans against the military regime of Pervez Musharraf, vowing “endless war, till the media are freed.”
Some of the biggest names in Pakistani television were among the protestors, names known to nearly a third of the urban population in this country of 150 million. “Imagine if one of us showed up on air with a bruise tomorrow,” an anchor I recognized from a popular political talk show said, stopping next to me. He smiled smugly, and stepped over a listless tangle of barbed wire that had been flattened by the crowd. Islamabad police in full riot gear lined both sides of the road, watching silently.
The protest that evening—there were several by journalists last summer—began with rousing speeches outside the offices of Pakistan’s most popular private television network, GEO-TV. Journalists, mainly from broadcast media, and hundreds of their supporters were demonstrating against the sweeping restrictions introduced by Musharraf’s government a few days earlier on all electronic media—basically FM radio and, particularly, the more than sixty private satellite television operations that have emerged in the last seven years as a popular but controversial alternative to state-run TV. The new laws restricted live coverage and gave unprecedented power to government regulators to seize private property and interrupt broadcasts deemed unacceptable.
The crackdown had been long coming. Three months earlier, in March, GEO-TV’s offices were the scene of a defining moment for the journalists in Pakistan’s independent television news business—when their struggle against government restrictions itself became news, and helped them glimpse their untapped potential as a force for political change.
On March 16, government security forces raided GEO’s offices after the network crossed an unspecified “red line” by broadcasting live coverage of a rally for the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who had been dismissed by Musharraf the previous week. In recent years, Chaudhry had repeatedly embarrassed Musharraf by aggressively prosecuting government corruption, and the president wanted him out of the way. After his dismissal, Chaudhry emerged as a hero for those seeking an end to military rule. The security forces broke into the GEO building, shattered windows with batons, fired tear gas, and roughed up the men and women inside, demanding that the coverage stop.
That day, Pakistanis were riveted to their television sets as Hamid Mir, GEO’s Islamabad bureau chief and the most widely recognized journalist on Pakistani television, waged his own live, on-air struggle against the police. Defying orders to stop transmission, Mir locked himself in the newsroom in the basement. From there, he broadcast a minute-by-minute narration of what was happening. “They’re attacking us with tear gas now,” he yelled at one point, as the network beamed shaky, raw footage of the clash over its satellite feed.
Hours later, the raid now over and the security troops gone (GEO never stopped its coverage), Mir, wearing a sober blue suit, was leaning into the camera for his live prime-time show. Pakistan’s parliament, a creamy white colossus with the first article of Islam inscribed across the front, provided the backdrop. Mir announced a special guest for that evening’s show, and a phone line crackled through to President Musharraf. “I would like to apologize,” the pugnacious general said a few minutes into the interview, referring to the raid. “Freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and the freedom of media, this is my mandate. I strongly condemn any violation of this.”
It wasn’t typical Musharraf, to say the least. The general has earned a reputation for never apologizing. But then, it is said that television is making the impossible happen in Pakistan every day.
Last summer, as Pakistan turned sixty, the country appeared to be fracturing along multiple fault lines, even as the promise of democracy hovered in the near distance. After eight years of cagey military rule, Musharraf found himself on unstable ground. The judiciary was in revolt; the various opposition movements had united against him; floods along the southern coast had displaced over 200,000 people; and the U.S.-led “war on terror” was knocking loudly along Pakistan’s porous 1,600-mile border with Afghanistan. Sensing change in the harsh summer winds, or loo as they are called, everyone, it seemed, spilled onto the streets to stake their claim.
The elections scheduled for the fall were commonly referred to as the most important in the country’s history. Not only would they pit pro-American forces against nationalists and Islamists at a time when the country was being watched closely by anxious Western capitals, but it was also seen as a chance to alter the civil-military balance of power, under which civil politics have always been run—directly or indirectly—by the army. Musharraf defied a growing chorus of critics who argued that it was unconstitutional for a general to be president, and insisted on standing for reelection while retaining his position as the Army’s chief of staff.
The nascent independent television press found itself at the epicenter of this political upheaval. While it fought to win and retain its own freedoms, the scale of the events that it grappled with in its coverage of the run-up to the elections challenged the very nature of its journalistic mission, raising questions about what role this powerful new medium can and should play in Pakistan.
In July, a few months after the raid on GEO, I met Hamid Mir at his top-floor office in the network’s Islamabad offices, which occupy a piece of prime real estate in the capital’s busy commercial district. Before becoming a television star, Mir was one of Pakistan’s most aggressive print journalists. As an editor at the country’s largest Urdu-language daily, Jang (which translates literally as “War”), Mir was known for his tough exposés on government corruption. As the first (and to this day, the only) journalist to interview Osama bin Laden in person after September 11, 2001, he had also begun enjoying international recognition. But days after the ransacking of GEO, Mir was “promoted” by the channel’s management, from bureau chief to executive editor. It was a position created to insulate Mir, maybe for his own good, as the government suddenly showed its willingness to hit back.
The political storm that had blown up with the dismissal of the chief justice was still buffeting the country. Chaudhry had been reinstated only days before to a shower of rose petals and street celebrations across the country, and he had specifically and publicly thanked the “media fraternity,” without whom, he said, the rebirth of the judiciary, signaled by its unprecedented stand against Musharraf, would have been impossible. But Mir wasn’t in the mood to celebrate. He found that his promotion had effectively removed him from editorial decisions at GEO, and he was frustrated. “What did we gain that day? What did I gain?” he said. “I’ve only lost more freedoms every day since. I can’t even go live on air anymore!”
Mir’s understanding of journalism’s role in society comes from Pakistan’s rich tradition of an independent print press, which has jousted with four different military regimes since the country’s birth in 1947. Old print hands, like Mir, recall with pride when papers like Jang would publish blank columns (and once an entire blank front page) to protest government censorship.
But in a largely rural country with one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, print media has never been mass media. Newspapers sell mostly in urban centers, while in rural areas radio, and to a lesser extent state-run television (broadcast over a terrestrial network), are the main sources of news and information. With the Internet still available only to 3 percent of Pakistanis, the influence of online journalism is negligible. Until Musharraf came to power, there was no private satellite television in Pakistan. But now cable lines, carrying satellite television signals, are slowly creeping into even the most remote villages. A young documentary producer at Dawn News, the country’s first twenty-four-hour, English-language news channel, explained the significance of this: “They don’t really have schools in interior Sindh,” he said, referring to the most impoverished state in the country. “But now they have cable lines. So guess what? Now we’re the ones educating all of them.”
Pakistan remains one of the most dangerous places in the world for a journalist to work, yet in the eight years since Musharraf overthrew the democratically elected government of Nawaz Sharif in 1999, not only have newspapers maintained their independence, but Musharraf is credited, by critics and supporters alike, with fostering the growth of private broadcast media in the country.
Now, five years after the first private news channel went on air, the broadcast media are nipping at the regime that nurtured them, threatening to tear it down. Their coverage of the Chaudhry affair, as well as of Musharraf’s increasingly vocal political opponents, set the broadcasters on a collision course with the president. Anti-Musharraf sentiment is boiling over in newsrooms at a time when his rule has never seemed shakier. “A few years ago you could have said, ‘If it weren’t for Musharraf, private television wouldn’t be where it is,’” Mir says. “Today there is no doubt—if it weren’t for private television, General Musharraf wouldn’t be in the mess that he is in.”
The story of the general and the private broadcasters must read a bit like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, at least to Musharraf. The general came to power on the heels of Pakistan’s war with India in Kargil, Kashmir, in the summer of 1999. In that highly secretive war, Indian journalists reported from the icy Himalayan front lines on private news channels watched all over the world, while Pakistan’s state-run media refused even to acknowledge the war’s existence, and its independent newspapers were largely kept out of the war zone and fed misinformation. As a result, Pakistan lost the battle for public opinion, and international pressure finally forced the Pakistan Army, led by Musharraf, to pull back. “The whole experience was defining for him,” says Adnan Rehmat, who is the Pakistan country director for Internews, a media advocacy and watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. “He felt Pakistan was losing the information and cultural war to India.” Like any good general, Musharraf decided his country would find a way to compete—and win.
GEO-TV, owned by the Jang Group of Newspapers, went on air in 2002 as the first private news channel in Pakistan. Today, whether originating in Pakistan or beaming in from nearby Dubai, Pakistanis have a relative smorgasbord of TV viewing options—from Quran TV, which has built a thriving business on religious programming, to Fashion TV Pakistan, which gets away with partial nudity in the middle of the day, to Muzik, which showcases Pakistani pop acts, to Dawn News, there is little this burgeoning new industry is not auditioning.
From the start, Musharraf promised a technologically advanced society with an open economy and media sector, including a free press. But this also meant that didactic, state-censored news would lose viewers to, among other things, a primetime interview show hosted by a charming and funny transvestite, or a satire depicting a schizophrenic president. “Infotainment” became a winning formula, and GEO and a few other news outlets, like ARY-TV and AAJ-TV, emerged as serious competitors for state-run Pakistan Television, particularly in urban centers. Today GEO has four twenty-four-hour channels for entertainment, sports, news, and youth, and plans to launch an English-language news channel soon.
Musharraf, supremely confident and largely popular in his first few years in power, wanted to transform Pakistan into an “enlightened moderate” nation, and welcomed the phenomenon. The result was revolutionary. Whether it was humor, live news, or soap operas, the satellite channels were charting new social boundaries every day. As one journalist put it: “Private television single-handedly turned us from a society that was scared to speak out, into a confessional society that couldn’t stop talking about itself.”
But when you’re at the center of such profound social change, you’re bound to get scuffed up. Long before the state sought to tone down the broadcasters, satellite TV operations were being ransacked by sectarian mobs for attempting to cover religious conflict, by criminal networks for exposing them, by the powerful intelligence agencies for overstepping “national security” boundaries, and by religious militants for purveying vice. When Musharraf felt his pedestal wobble, the state became only the latest—albeit the most powerful—institution to lock horns with the broadcasters.
Now, the boundaries within which this hungry new medium must operate are being negotiated in the streets, the newsrooms, the courtrooms, and the corridors of power.
Islamabad, the capital, has the unflattering reputation of being “the city that mostly sleeps.” A serene town of fewer than a million people, it is surrounded by rugged green hills and wrapped snugly in red tape. Most television news operations are based in Karachi, the bustling financial capital, but maintain a major office in Islamabad to cater to an audience who breathes and eats politics.
The rather dry shows produced in Islamabad are typically talking heads, debates between politicians, and the odd breakfast show. But this year, those static forums had a healthy serving of drama to chew over. If the struggle between the judiciary and the executive branches that spilled into the streets of the capital weren’t enough, a confrontation was also brewing in the heart of Islamabad at a well-known place of worship, the Red Mosque.
The mosque had become a base for thousands of religious students working under the leadership of two cleric brothers who aimed to “Islamicize” the Pakistani capital with their interpretation of sh’aria, or Islamic law. The government initially ignored them, but soon found it could not. When the Red Mosque Brigade began vigilante, moral-policing operations—busting prostitution rings, raiding video stores, burning mounds of CDs, and even kidnapping police officials and foreign nationals—public pressure forced the state’s hand. As Musharraf confronted one of the biggest challenges to state authority ever in the capital, international media attention became transfixed on Pakistan, with some in the Western press hinting at the beginnings of an Iranian-style Islamic revolution.
The Red Mosque became the flashpoint for a confrontation that many Pakistanis considered inevitable in their increasingly polarized society. While an affluent and largely secular elite was reaping the benefits of Musharraf’s open economy, a vast underclass had grown disgruntled, and some found a convenient scapegoat for their frustration in the “lax moral standards” in evidence daily on the city’s streets and also on satellite TV.
The showdown came in early July, in a weeklong battle between the military and the clerics’ armed followers in the mosque. Hundreds, including children and hostages, were killed in the military’s final assault on the mosque, which lasted an entire day. At the time, the broadcast media were confronting the government’s new censorship laws, passed a month earlier, and the Red Mosque incident became a test for how they would respond. The government was so concerned about the likely impact of television coverage that Musharraf publicly announced, a few days before the offensive, that the government would take action against the clerics only if the media agreed not to show any dead bodies.
But when fighting erupted, the TV cameras were there. On the first day, a photographer was killed in the crossfire; another young TV cameraman was shot in the spine and paralyzed. The new Islamabad bureau chief for GEO was shown live on air, bleeding profusely from a head wound. Seeing this, the government quickly restricted coverage.
Imran Aslam, the CEO and one of the founders of GEO-TV, is blunt about his network’s performance during the crisis: “It was a miserable failure.” I met Aslam, another transplant from Pakistan’s newspaper business, in the studios being built for GEO English, in Karachi. Covering the battle of the Red Mosque became “real American-style embedded journalism,” he said, referring to the restrictions implemented by the government. The entire assault was viewed from behind the Army’s collective shoulder, so to speak, and journalists were even barred from entering hospitals. “To this day, we still don’t know how many people were in the mosque. How many were children, how many hostages? How many died and where were they buried?” Government claims that foreign al Qaeda fighters had made their way into the compound could never be verified, and many questioned the authenticity of the grand display of weaponry, supposedly recovered from the mosque, shown to journalists when they were finally allowed in after several days.
“People were offering us their rooftops,” said Hamid Mir, recalling the missed opportunity with regret. “We could get views right into the mosque compound. But we were just too scared.” The top management, he said, was under too much “pressure from above.”
The limitations on coverage imposed by the government did more than just frustrate the young broadcast operations. With obvious avenues for covering the confrontation closed off and an admitted reluctance to use “side doors,” broadcasters were lured into a position that many now say was a perversion of their journalistic mission. “We ended up playing negotiator,” Aslam explained. Both government officials and the leader of the Red Mosque, Ghazi Abdul-Rashid, used the media as a soapbox. As the standoff intensified, hardly an hour would go by without an on-air statement by one side or the other, in an effort to win the battle for public opinion.
On the night before the military offensive, a GEO anchor brought on the leader of the mosque and a state minister in an attempt to negotiate a settlement. The live, on-air talks brokered by the journalists failed. “We got reeled in by the moment,” Aslam said, “and now I think about how dangerous that was. We’re media, not mediators!”
GEO wasn’t alone in betraying its commitment to impartial journalism as it attempted to cover this explosive story. News channels across the board found themselves in activist roles, crossing established boundaries of professional journalism. It was common during the crisis, for example, for journalists at the scene to interview each other about events, giving their opinions as well as the facts. In a variety of ways, the broadcasters became part of the Red Mosque story.
A few days after the Red Mosque standoff ended, I met Talat Hussain, the bureau chief in Islamabad for AAJ-TV. The network has a reputation for being one of the feistiest anti-government news outlets around. Hussain pulled a document from his cluttered desk and handed it to me. It was a notice from the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), established by the government just before the emergence of private broadcasters to issue licenses and set the standards for content. In the weeks after the Red Mosque raid, a series of suicide attacks shook the capital, and AAJ had shown dead bodies and bloodied body parts, as had many other news channels. The document was a warning from the regulatory authority that AAJ risked losing its license if it continued televising the carnage.
Hussain has devoted hours of his prime-time talk show to discussing the nature and limits of press freedom, but the suicide-bombing footage, he told me, might have been a strategic mistake. “We’re just opening up ourselves to criticism,” he said. “It just lets the state crack down and look justified doing it.”
Even more troubling for Hussain is the false choice he says broadcasters face between what the viewers want and what the government wants. The viewers “look up to us as the holders of truth,” he said, “yet they want to hear what they already believe. Neutrality is a sin, and the remote control is god.” No sooner will a network try to soften its editorial line or include the government’s point of view than e-mails and calls pour in accusing them of selling out. The government, he said, “wants a calm, rosy picture.” Neither seems to want good journalism.
The indirect pressure implicit in this “choice” is one thing, but the “PEMRA Ordinance 2007,” as the oppressive new laws that sparked the summer’s protests are officially known, was a more brazen crackdown by the government. Following the uproar by journalists over the new restrictions (media owners were largely silent), the government offered to unilaterally suspend the ordinance if the Pakistan Broadcasters Association, a group of media owners (no working journalists are members) agreed to create a voluntary code of conduct. The chairman of PEMRA, a former chief of the capital police force, put it to me quite simply: “If the media polices itself, there will be no more policing left to do.”
Some broadcasters, like Shakeel Masood, the CEO of Dawn News, saw this as an opportunity. “Of course the government would like to dictate: ‘You can talk about this; you can’t talk about that,’” he said. “But having this code is part of becoming a mature media.” Many journalists, though, believe that the chances of getting a code that protect independent journalism were slim. Unless the broadcasters produce a code that satisfies government concerns, they argue, the onerous new laws will remain in effect and the government will withhold some $20 million-worth of campaign advertising. Nevertheless, the code is in its final stages and will be done this year, although the substance of it has not yet been made public. “It’ll be something permanent but we need to get it done before these elections,” said Masood. “The media can’t afford to have this unsettled when covering what might be the most important election in the country’s history.”
But the question is more fundamental than that. The journalists want clearly defined rights, not just a short-term fix that allows them to cover the elections. Many journalists fear that if the private broadcast media don’t establish a clear, independent role in this critical period of transition to democracy, they risk getting overrun by the many political forces that are attempting to use them.
Last June, Maleeha Lodhi, one of the country’s most celebrated female journalists who now serves as Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.K., spoke to a gathering of university students in London about the upcoming Pakistani elections. “Unlike in the past, this time there will be dozens of private TV networks to cover the entire electoral process from start to finish,” she said. They would be Pakistan’s first televised elections, and the private media would play a role in shaping political behavior like never before.
Lodhi’s predictions on television’s role in the elections are proving to be reasonably accurate. But while many expected private television to be an important forum for debate during the elections, few anticipated that the broadcasters would get sucked so deeply into the power politics, or that the elections would become a trial by fire for television news.
The election season began with a bang at the end of September. Opposition groups, including a vibrant civil-society movement led by the country’s lawyers, filed suit in the Supreme Court challenging Musharraf’s eligibility to seek reelection while still serving in the Army. The decision had the potential to redefine the civil-military power equation in the country, which has worked against the sustenance of democracy for decades. Once again, as they had earlier in the summer, the media’s (and by extension, much of the country’s) complete attention fell on the Supreme Court, where Musharraf’s—and some said the country’s—fate hung in the balance.
As television became saturated with discussion of the possible fallout of the court’s decision, PEMRA sprang into action on behalf of an agitated government. It issued a warning to all private TV networks that any sub judice matters related to the election were off-limits, to avoid what it termed “media trials.”
A few days after the warning from the regulators, activist lawyers and opposition party workers led a rally outside the Supreme Court. Under a hail of stones, Musharraf’s opponents demonstrated and scuffled with security forces on Constitution Avenue, obscured in a haze of tear gas. Dozens of TV reporters covered the rally, and when police began cutting camera wires, the journalists got swept up in the protest.
“Imagine if one of us shows up on air with a bruise tomorrow,” a TV anchor had asked me during that march in June. This time, the images left little to the imagination: police beating journalists with batons, well-known journalists with bleeding heads and broken bones being rushed off in ambulances. The provocation by police notwithstanding, the media had once again become part of a story they set out to cover.
It was another failure, but the story does not end there. Musharraf was reelected president in a controversial and largely boycotted legislative vote on October 6, after promising to relinquish his military position if he won. The more important general elections are in December and January, and will determine the makeup of parliament and the next prime minister. For the private broadcasters, it is a chance to shake off two distinct breakdowns in their mission—one in which they let the state bully them and another in which their hostility toward Musharraf got the better of them—and find that crucial balance between detached observer and force for social change.
“The Great Debate,” broadcast on GEO a few days before Musharraf was reelected, appeared to be a step in this direction. Because of the opposition boycott, there was only one candidate with a chance of winning, and it was essentially a debate between Musharraf’s supporters and his opponents. Tensions were running high in the studio. Hamid Mir co-hosted the first debate of its kind in Pakistan’s history, and millions watched as the panelists argued over issues ranging from the president’s personal character to the nature of economic growth in the country.
At one point, a government defense lawyer unleashed a rant against an opposition leader. A string of obscenities poured forth as the hosts lost control of the belligerent guests. The debate ended prematurely, before the audience got to ask questions.
GEO decided to air the show in its entirety, and Iftikhar Ahmad, Mir’s co-host, delivered an on-air commentary after the broadcast:
Ladies and gentlemen, I didn’t expect the debate to end like this. I thought the lessons of tolerance we give to others, we could practice ourselves. We had hoped that the Pakistani public could have learned that we all have the patience to learn each others’ points of view. Only then can we move forward as a nation .We hope that the role GEO is playing to move the country forward, to reform society, to create a tolerant, patient, and balanced society, a society that can understand each other and work together to solve their problems—I hope this role will continue.
Just like that, in the debate between Pervez Musharraf’s supporters and opponents, it was the broadcasters who scored an important victory. The politicians had embarrassed themselves, and the journalists managed to rise above it, to establish themselves as a fair voice of reason.
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.