Pakistan’s News Media No Longer Silent, but …

Pakistan’s News Media No Longer Silent, but Musharraf Has Muted His Critics by Salman Masood and David Rohde

December 11, 2007′. Nearly all private television channels blacked out last month by President Pervez Musharraf’s emergency decree are back on the air. But the country’s once-thriving television news media remain largely muzzled by sweeping new restrictions that journalists and Western diplomats say stifle criticism of the government.

A giant television screen in Islamabad. More than a dozen networks have become popular alternatives to state-run television.

After the blackout cost leading channels tens of millions of dollars in lost advertising revenues, owners of all but one channel agreed to stop broadcasting the country’s highest-rated political talk shows and signed the government-ordered “code of conduct.”

And under a new ordinance, unilaterally enacted by Mr. Musharraf, television journalists face up to three years in jail for broadcasting “anything which defames or brings into ridicule the head of state” and other restrictions. The law will remain in place after Mr. Musharraf ends the state of emergency, which he has promised to do on Saturday.

“He’s getting away with it, really, because the Western support is there again,” said Talat Hussain, a popular talk show host whose program is no longer aired on two stations, Aaj and Today. “There isn’t enough pressure.”

Western and Pakistani observers say Mr. Musharraf has reversed one of his greatest achievements: fostering a vibrant independent news media. His crackdown has deadened private television and radio outlets that were widely seen as increasing political awareness, educating a largely illiterate population and curbing the spread of militancy.

“The level of self-censorship is very, very high,” said a Western diplomat who asked not to be identified. “Everybody’s got the orders.”

Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, the chief executive of the Jang Group, one of Pakistan’s largest news media companies, said he had rebuffed government requests that he fire two popular television talk show hosts on the Geo network and three investigative reporters from The News, a newspaper. He has refused to sign the code of conduct, and Geo remains the only major news network that the government has not allowed back on air.

“We are not accepting their main demands of terminating a few people,” he said, adding that the code of conduct was “absolutely illegal and arbitrary.”

Nisar Memon, Pakistan’s acting minister of information, said Geo was off the air because it had still not signed the code of conduct. He said the only restriction on which the government insisted was not airing gory pictures of suicide-bombing victims, which officials said can reduce public morale and make terrorists seem like heroes.

“The ball is in their court,” he said.

Tension between Mr. Musharraf and media organizations emerged this spring in the political and legal fight surrounding Mr. Musharraf’s suspension of Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the chief justice of the Pakistani Supreme Court.

Extensive coverage of opposition lawyers and political rallies, as well as live broadcasts of Mr. Chaudhry’s speeches, angered government officials. They accused the independent news media of becoming an opposition mouthpiece, indulging in sensationalism and insulting the Pakistani military.

Last month, days before Mr. Chaudhry’s court was widely expected to declare Mr. Musharraf ineligible to serve a third term, Mr. Musharraf declared emergency rule, suspended the Constitution, fired the Supreme Court and blocked all independent news broadcasts.

Television journalists concede that they went too far in some of their coverage, but they say the government has grossly overreacted.

Since the state of emergency began Nov. 3, journalists — from both print and broadcast news media — along with lawyers and human rights activists, have staged rallies and clashed with the police.

In recent weeks, they have grown increasingly angry with American and European officials, whom they accuse of accepting Mr. Musharraf’s assertion that the crackdown is ending. They say they expect Mr. Musharraf to use his sweeping new powers when the state of emergency formally ends to intimidate the news media and rig national elections scheduled for Jan. 8.

Today, many journalists remain defiant and vow to uncover election rigging. Some television reporters tape shows and post them on YouTube. Some newspapers have produced aggressive coverage of the crackdown and scathing editorials. Journalists say the independent news media are a force that can help curb endemic corruption in the Pakistani government.

Since Mr. Musharraf allowed independent channels on cable television in 2002, more than a dozen private networks have opened and become popular. The stations are beehives of activity where young Pakistanis push cultural norms and express views rarely heard on state-run television.

Politics, culture and relationships are avidly discussed on call-in shows. Conservative and moderate religious leaders debate Islamic fundamentalism. Political talk shows have become the highest-rated programs in the country. Pakistanis revel in hearing their own voices and seeing officials held accountable for their actions.

The shift toward openness in the news media was attracting some attention. Geo, which means “live,” is thought to be the most popular cable channel in Pakistan. Two years ago, Business Week magazine named Mr. Rahman one of Asia’s top 25 innovators. Today, he is Mr. Musharraf’s top media target.

The government’s main leverage, according to Mr. Rahman, has been financial. When he blacked out news channels last month, Mr. Musharraf also suspended the broadcast of three Geo entertainment and sports channels, which carry little news but are major sources of revenue.

When Geo broadcast its news programs via satellite from studios in Dubai, Pakistani officials persuaded government officials there to temporarily block the broadcast. Mr. Rahman estimates that he has lost $17 million to $18 million in advertising revenues.

Television journalists say owners of other private television networks have gradually caved in to government pressure and stopped broadcasting critical talk shows. Financial considerations, they say, have outweighed journalistic ones.

“News is not being covered objectively, but according to the wishes of the government,” said Kashif Abbasi, whose popular talk show no longer airs on the ARY One World channel. “There is vigorous self-censorship after strong words from the government.”

Syed Anwar Mehmood, the secretary of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, said the government was not exerting pressure on television channels, especially Geo, to fire talk show hosts who were critical of the government. “Absolute trash,” he said.

“It is up to the channels and their owners to decide when these talk shows go back on air,” Mr. Mehmood said. “Maybe they are having a breather.”

Image above: Akhtar Soomro for The New York Times