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.”
Even more troubling for Hussain is the false choice he says broadcasters face between what the viewers want and what the government wants. The viewers “look up to us as the holders of truth,” he said, “yet they want to hear what they already believe. Neutrality is a sin, and the remote control is god.” No sooner will a network try to soften its editorial line or include the government’s point of view than e-mails and calls pour in accusing them of selling out. The government, he said, “wants a calm, rosy picture.” Neither seems to want good journalism.
The indirect pressure implicit in this “choice” is one thing, but the “PEMRA Ordinance 2007,” as the oppressive new laws that sparked the summer’s protests are officially known, was a more brazen crackdown by the government. Following the uproar by journalists over the new restrictions (media owners were largely silent), the government offered to unilaterally suspend the ordinance if the Pakistan Broadcasters Association, a group of media owners (no working journalists are members) agreed to create a voluntary code of conduct. The chairman of PEMRA, a former chief of the capital police force, put it to me quite simply: “If the media polices itself, there will be no more policing left to do.”
Some broadcasters, like Shakeel Masood, the CEO of Dawn News, saw this as an opportunity. “Of course the government would like to dictate: ‘You can talk about this; you can’t talk about that,’” he said. “But having this code is part of becoming a mature media.” Many journalists, though, believe that the chances of getting a code that protect independent journalism were slim. Unless the broadcasters produce a code that satisfies government concerns, they argue, the onerous new laws will remain in effect and the government will withhold some $20 million-worth of campaign advertising. Nevertheless, the code is in its final stages and will be done this year, although the substance of it has not yet been made public. “It’ll be something permanent but we need to get it done before these elections,” said Masood. “The media can’t afford to have this unsettled when covering what might be the most important election in the country’s history.”
But the question is more fundamental than that. The journalists want clearly defined rights, not just a short-term fix that allows them to cover the elections. Many journalists fear that if the private broadcast media don’t establish a clear, independent role in this critical period of transition to democracy, they risk getting overrun by the many political forces that are attempting to use them.
Last June, Maleeha Lodhi, one of the country’s most celebrated female journalists who now serves as Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.K., spoke to a gathering of university students in London about the upcoming Pakistani elections. “Unlike in the past, this time there will be dozens of private TV networks to cover the entire electoral process from start to finish,” she said. They would be Pakistan’s first televised elections, and the private media would play a role in shaping political behavior like never before.