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.