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.
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.