Pakistan’s private TV news revolution under General Musharraf

Part 1 of a brief history of Pakistani media.

WrittenBy:Umer Farooq
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When Pakistan’s last military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, assumed power on October 12, 1999, he was hailed—both by the local and international media—as a liberal hero. He imposed no restrictions on the media, and within three years of coming to power, he allowed private news channels to become operational in the country.

Pakistani media was free like never before. It was making fun of everybody under the sun—military rulers, religious scholars and popular political leaders—in comedy shows that private news channels started to air within months of them becoming operational. It was considered the dawn of a new era of freedom of expression. Before General Musharraf was ousted from power, more than 40 news channels had begun airing news bulletins and current affairs programmes on their screens.

Former officials associated with his government point out that it was a well-thought-out move by the military government to enact new and liberal laws to create operating space for private news channels. It’s possible that it didn’t occur to the military establishment that the new forces of media freedom they had unleashed would eventually turn against them.

A retired official associated with Musharraf’s presidency says the military thought that Pakistani news channels would “pull the Pakistani public away from watching Indian news channels—a habit which was harming the country’s national interests badly”.

But for many, this media revolution was nothing more than an illusion. In their opinion, Musharraf’s regime had started using high-handed tactics against journalists much before the first political crisis his government faced in March 2007, when the legal community began a political campaign against his government. Musharraf had sacked the then sitting Chief Justice of Pakistan, which was followed by a countrywide protest by the legal fraternity. Many senior media personalities came out in the open against the government and in support of the lawyers.

Mazhar Abbas, the former secretary general of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, says, “Many people thought that General Musharraf banned the media on November 3, 2007, but the process had started much earlier. Early that year, channels received a show-cause notice stating: ‘No programme shall be aired which contains (a) aspersions against the judiciary and the armed forces, (b) any material amounting to contempt of court, (c) contain any abusive comments that when taken in context, tend to or are likely to expose any individual or group or a class of individuals to hatred or contempt’.”

Kargil and the introduction of private channels

The government’s move to liberalise media laws in Pakistan was sparked by a military campaign in 1999 when General Musharraf was serving as Chief of the Army Staff and had not yet staged a coup.

In May 1999, Musharraf launched an incursion into Kargil, a mountainous region of Indian Kashmir. Here the Pakistani and Indian armies faced each other at 18,000 feet. In the spring of 1999, Musharraf sneaked his troops in early, taking the empty Indian positions without a fight. The subsequent war had Pakistan beaten back, withdrawing under US pressure.

At that time, Pakistan Television (PTV) was the only source for television news. Ironically PTV’s credibility among the Pakistani public was so low that the latter turned to Indian news channels for the latest information on the Kargil military crisis. In those days, the prices of illegal satellite dishes soared, since it was the only source to receive transmissions of Indian news channels.

“While the Pakistan military was fighting the Indians in the mountains of Kashmir, the Pakistani public was more eager to listen to Indian reality created by Indian news channels,” says a senior official of the Musharraf government. The retired government official says this was when Musharraf made his plans to introduce private news channels in Pakistan—and his opportunity came when he became President after an October 1999 coup.

The Pakistani media turned out to be highly nationalistic. But at the same time, some sections of it transformed into highly pro-democracy force. This was worrying for the Musharraf government. M Zia-uddin, a veteran journalist and the former editor of Dawn, says the media, as a public sector industry, emerged as “the only pro-democracy force in the country”, something corroborated by senior journalist and political analyst Fasih-ur-Rehman.

The Musharraf government was ousted from power before it could do anything to force any change in the media. But the media’s later “excesses” compelled Musharraf’s successors in the military to contemplate a shift in policy towards the press.

Geo TV and the attack on Hamid Mir

Five days after the attack on the life of renowned Pakistani journalist and television anchorperson, Hamid Mir—he received six bullet injuries—his brother Amir Mir read out Hamid’s statement outside the hospital ICU where Hamid was undergoing treatment. Hamid had been severely injured in a gun attack on April 19, 2014, outside Karachi airport. He had landed half an hour ago and was on his way to the head office of Geo TV to host a special talk show on the increasing violence in Karachi.

Amir Mir, also a senior journalist, told the small group of press people gathered outside the ICU: “My brother has appealed to the media community in Pakistan to be united in the face of growing threats to journalists and our right of freedom of expression from state and non-state actors.”

Hamid’s appeal made perfect sense in the face of growing tensions and war of words in Pakistan’s media industry in the wake of his attack. Within hours of the attack, the division in the Pakistani industry surfaced. Most news channels began accusing Geo TV of serving Indian interests by trying to malign national institutions like the Pakistan Army and intelligence services.

Hamid’s family directly accused the Director-General of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lt General Zaheer-ul-Islam, of masterminding the attack. Hamid endorsed this allegation as well, after regaining consciousness, in the statement his brother read out:

“A few weeks back, a senior ISI official visited my home and told me that my name has appeared on the hit-list. I asked him who made the hit-list, but he didn’t care to inform me about it … I had told the intelligence official who visited my home that in the present circumstances I feel that the threat to my life is coming from the ISI. ISI was not happy with my stance on Balochistan, my support for the trial of Pervez Musharraf and the issue of missing persons (thousands of people who have been allegedly kidnapped by Pakistani intelligence).”

Geo TV broadcast the family’s allegations as breaking news even before Hamid gave his statement. For six hours, the channel emphasised that Lt General Zaheer-ul-Islam was the man behind Hamid’s attack, showing his photo and video clips of his official meetings. Geo TV was utterly alone in this—the rest of the news channels almost entirely blacked out the news of the attack on Hamid apart from brief updates which stated that a senior journalist had been attacked in Karachi.

Almost every channel accused it of hurting national interests and acting as an “Indian agent”. A senior Pakistani journalist said, on condition of anonymity, “It soon became clear that Geo was isolated and rest of the channels were completely siding with the ISI.”

On behalf of the ISI, Pakistan’s Defense Ministry submitted a written complaint to Pakistan’s media regulatory authority (PEMRA), accusing Geo of going against the interest of Pakistan. The four-page complaint—which included the script of news bulletins, tickers and breaking news—stated that “the said reporting has violated the specific terms and conditions of [Geo TV’s] license”, and demanded the immediate cancellation of the license.

There was no dearth of Pakistani journalists and analysts appearing on other news channels supporting this demand. Meanwhile, the Army authorities passed orders to block Geo’s transmissions in cantonment areas.

This would have been an unexpected turn of events for authorities—private news channels which were allowed to operate in Pakistani society to counter the India media were turning their guns against their “creators”. This led the Pakistani state machinery to institute two kinds of countermeasures to prevent private channels from going astray:

a) Hard measures like the discontinuation of giving advertisements to private media.

b) Soft measures like creating a group of cheerleaders among journalists who praise state institutions (no matter what they do) and malign all those who criticise the high-handedness of state institutions.

The result is that Pakistani television channels are now much more pliant than they were four years ago.

This is part one of a three-part series on Pakistani media.


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