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.