November Issue 2007
Filling the Void
Three silent and serious faces confronted me when I walked into the office Monday after the general imposed a state of emergency. “Have you heard the rumours?”
My blank expression must have said it all. I hadn’t spoken to anyone all morning, except for my maid, but she’s not the most plugged into the national political scene.
“Musharraf’s been arrested.” From there I’m sure my expression morphed into one of confusion. “General Kayani’s arrested him and taken control.”
The phones had started ringing around 12:45 p.m. Experienced journalists from around the country, Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, were all relating the story to Newsline’s editor.
But no one could confirm it.
Still, it was hard to refute outright: this rumour had strength. The story had infiltrated media circles, office buildings and even schools. “It’s spread throughout all of KGS,” remarked a colleague whose sister is a student there. As such, our editor was dialling everyone she knew, and trusted, for more information. At the same time, we were fielding more calls. Calls from family members around the country and SMSes, like the following one, from colleagues:
“wats d latest news? d news goin
around is that mush has been over
thrown…not true, yes?”
In the midst of a political crisis and a television news blackout, Pakistan had reverted to old-fashioned personal connections to get the news. But the telephone wasn’t the only tool at hand: the Internet was proving more indispensable than ever.
The scramble for television news alternatives had started two days earlier. Shortly after 5 p.m. on Saturday, a call came into the office saying that satellite television channels across Pakistan were blocked. We had already received a call early in the day that an emergency was imminent. I ran up to check the TV. Little was coming through. Then, after a few channels of darkness, Animal Planet popped up. “At least we have The Crocodile Hunter,” I remarked. Then Discovery and a host of stations showing Hindi films. I found PTV at the bottom of the dial, but it presented nothing political, or pertinent. Television had been, in the eyes of the government, reduced to a few benign broadcasts.
Back downstairs the Internet was down too. But we were still getting information, again via telephone. It looked like it was official. A colleague’s mother, who was watching Star News (thanks to a decoder), informed us that Najam Sethi, editor of the Daily Times, gave an interview, saying that the government was declaring emergency, had blacked-out television channels, but would still hold elections as scheduled.
With the broadband out, we resorted to dial-up. Chief Justice Iftikar Chaudhry declared the emergency illegal, said one online report. Aaj TV, via their website, reported that Musharraf had sacked the chief justice. DÃ©jÃ vu.
Soon after, PTV confirmed the reports via an on-screen ticker: the chief of army staff has proclaimed a state of emergency.
When I reached home at 10 p.m., the Internet was running. Pakistan was headline news across the world. And there was already an entry in Wikipedia, entitled “2007 Pakistani State of Emergency.” It included coverage of Benazir Bhutto’s speedy return to Karachi where “she was greeted by supporters chanting slogans,” links to the original text of both the Proclamation of Emergency and the Provisional Constitutional Order, and reference to the headline “Sharif labels Musharraf as a terrorist.” By 11:45 p.m., the country heard the news straight from the general’s mouth.
But somehow, the clampdown on the electronic media missed Al Jazeera. The Doha-based network’s reports focused on the hundreds of lawyers, judges, activists and opposition politicians who had been arrested. Interviews with Hameed Gul, Talat Masood, Asma Jahangir and Imran Khan were all aired. Then suddenly, as various emergency-related blog entries were being read, my TV screen went black. It was 3:42 p.m. The invisible hand smote the last impartial views on my television.
By Monday afternoon, the Internet had secured its place as the go-to medium for this crisis — for access to printed news reports and even access to television: Geo News broadcasts were available online.
But it would take more for Pakistanis to lose their need for TV. As relatives from abroad called, enquiring about the well being of loved ones here, many television news-deprived citizens of Pakistan enquired as to what was being talked about on CNN and BBC. And in response, some were even told what Geo News was saying. We were getting national news from a local channel after it was beamed via satellite halfway across the world and then repeated back, reduced and paraphrased, over the telephone. Only in Pakistan.