The rather dry shows produced in Islamabad are typically talking heads, debates between politicians, and the odd breakfast show. But this year, those static forums had a healthy serving of drama to chew over. If the struggle between the judiciary and the executive branches that spilled into the streets of the capital weren’t enough, a confrontation was also brewing in the heart of Islamabad at a well-known place of worship, the Red Mosque.
The mosque had become a base for thousands of religious students working under the leadership of two cleric brothers who aimed to “Islamicize” the Pakistani capital with their interpretation of sh’aria, or Islamic law. The government initially ignored them, but soon found it could not. When the Red Mosque Brigade began vigilante, moral-policing operations—busting prostitution rings, raiding video stores, burning mounds of CDs, and even kidnapping police officials and foreign nationals—public pressure forced the state’s hand. As Musharraf confronted one of the biggest challenges to state authority ever in the capital, international media attention became transfixed on Pakistan, with some in the Western press hinting at the beginnings of an Iranian-style Islamic revolution.
The Red Mosque became the flashpoint for a confrontation that many Pakistanis considered inevitable in their increasingly polarized society. While an affluent and largely secular elite was reaping the benefits of Musharraf’s open economy, a vast underclass had grown disgruntled, and some found a convenient scapegoat for their frustration in the “lax moral standards” in evidence daily on the city’s streets and also on satellite TV.
The showdown came in early July, in a weeklong battle between the military and the clerics’ armed followers in the mosque. Hundreds, including children and hostages, were killed in the military’s final assault on the mosque, which lasted an entire day. At the time, the broadcast media were confronting the government’s new censorship laws, passed a month earlier, and the Red Mosque incident became a test for how they would respond. The government was so concerned about the likely impact of television coverage that Musharraf publicly announced, a few days before the offensive, that the government would take action against the clerics only if the media agreed not to show any dead bodies.
But when fighting erupted, the TV cameras were there. On the first day, a photographer was killed in the crossfire; another young TV cameraman was shot in the spine and paralyzed. The new Islamabad bureau chief for GEO was shown live on air, bleeding profusely from a head wound. Seeing this, the government quickly restricted coverage.
Imran Aslam, the CEO and one of the founders of GEO-TV, is blunt about his network’s performance during the crisis: “It was a miserable failure.” I met Aslam, another transplant from Pakistan’s newspaper business, in the studios being built for GEO English, in Karachi. Covering the battle of the Red Mosque became “real American-style embedded journalism,” he said, referring to the restrictions implemented by the government. The entire assault was viewed from behind the Army’s collective shoulder, so to speak, and journalists were even barred from entering hospitals. “To this day, we still don’t know how many people were in the mosque. How many were children, how many hostages? How many died and where were they buried?” Government claims that foreign al Qaeda fighters had made their way into the compound could never be verified, and many questioned the authenticity of the grand display of weaponry, supposedly recovered from the mosque, shown to journalists when they were finally allowed in after several days.
“People were offering us their rooftops,” said Hamid Mir, recalling the missed opportunity with regret. “We could get views right into the mosque compound. But we were just too scared.” The top management, he said, was under too much “pressure from above.”
The limitations on coverage imposed by the government did more than just frustrate the young broadcast operations. With obvious avenues for covering the confrontation closed off and an admitted reluctance to use “side doors,” broadcasters were lured into a position that many now say was a perversion of their journalistic mission. “We ended up playing negotiator,” Aslam explained. Both government officials and the leader of the Red Mosque, Ghazi Abdul-Rashid, used the media as a soapbox. As the standoff intensified, hardly an hour would go by without an on-air statement by one side or the other, in an effort to win the battle for public opinion.
On the night before the military offensive, a GEO anchor brought on the leader of the mosque and a state minister in an attempt to negotiate a settlement. The live, on-air talks brokered by the journalists failed. “We got reeled in by the moment,” Aslam said, “and now I think about how dangerous that was. We’re media, not mediators!”