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.