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.