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.
Lodhi’s predictions on television’s role in the elections are proving to be reasonably accurate. But while many expected private television to be an important forum for debate during the elections, few anticipated that the broadcasters would get sucked so deeply into the power politics, or that the elections would become a trial by fire for television news.
The election season began with a bang at the end of September. Opposition groups, including a vibrant civil-society movement led by the country’s lawyers, filed suit in the Supreme Court challenging Musharraf’s eligibility to seek reelection while still serving in the Army. The decision had the potential to redefine the civil-military power equation in the country, which has worked against the sustenance of democracy for decades. Once again, as they had earlier in the summer, the media’s (and by extension, much of the country’s) complete attention fell on the Supreme Court, where Musharraf’s—and some said the country’s—fate hung in the balance.