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!”
GEO wasn’t alone in betraying its commitment to impartial journalism as it attempted to cover this explosive story. News channels across the board found themselves in activist roles, crossing established boundaries of professional journalism. It was common during the crisis, for example, for journalists at the scene to interview each other about events, giving their opinions as well as the facts. In a variety of ways, the broadcasters became part of the Red Mosque story.
A few days after the Red Mosque standoff ended, I met Talat Hussain, the bureau chief in Islamabad for AAJ-TV. The network has a reputation for being one of the feistiest anti-government news outlets around. Hussain pulled a document from his cluttered desk and handed it to me. It was a notice from the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), established by the government just before the emergence of private broadcasters to issue licenses and set the standards for content. In the weeks after the Red Mosque raid, a series of suicide attacks shook the capital, and AAJ had shown dead bodies and bloodied body parts, as had many other news channels. The document was a warning from the regulatory authority that AAJ risked losing its license if it continued televising the carnage.
Hussain has devoted hours of his prime-time talk show to discussing the nature and limits of press freedom, but the suicide-bombing footage, he told me, might have been a strategic mistake. “We’re just opening up ourselves to criticism,” he said. “It just lets the state crack down and look justified doing it.”