December Issue 2007

By | News & Politics | Published 17 years ago

The more things change in Pakistan, the more they remain the same. When the army chief staged another coup on November 3, 2007, the standard operating procedure was employed for the putsch: soldiers were mobilised, a media blackout was engineered, flights were disrupted, key political figures were arrested and, amid a flurry of rumours, the coup maker came on air on state-run Pakistan Television, as usual around midnight, dishing out the hackneyed justification that the country was in danger and the constitution was not good enough to provide the required remedies.

What distinguished this coup from others was that it was staged in the presence of a vibrant private broadcast media: dozens of television channels and FM radio stations providing Pakistanis news in real time. At least until that moment. Musharraf made sure his team pulled the plug on all TV channels (including foreign ones) and radio stations before the state of emergency was formally announced on PTV — whose control, in keeping with tradition, was also seized beforehand.

What was shocking about the coup was that it was not ostensibly against the government of the day (Musharraf’s own) but against the judiciary and the media. Both were blamed for the deterioration of law and order and proliferation of terrorism.

“Glorification of violence by the media,” said Musharraf, was a major factor in his decision to impose the emergency.

Even before the emergency was officially announced, draconian curbs were imposed on the media. The measures to control and restrain the media included suspension of broadcasts of all national and international news channels, except the dour PTV, until further notice. Non-government satellite TV channels were prevented from uplinking to satellites and banned from carriage on domestic cable networks — the source through which most Pakistanis have access to independent TV news. At least 34 Pakistani channels were taken off air, including a dozen popular 24/7 current affairs channels such as Geo, ARY, Aaj, Dawn News, KTN, and Khyber TV, as well as international news channels such as CNN and BBC.

Cable television operators in Islamabad said that “strangers who refused to identify themselves” entered their offices at key distribution points just ahead of the emergency and ordered them to do as they were told or risk arrest and closure of business. The “strangers,” who were clearly intelligence personnel, took charge of dropping all news and current affairs channels from the airwaves, while retaining Indian entertainment channels and non-news international channels such as National Geographic, Animal Planet and Discovery to fill up the channel feed lines for public access.

Hours later, the government notified the media of curbs imposed on them through two decrees amending the PEMRA Ordinance and the Press, Newspapers, News Agencies and Books Registration Ordinance, prohibiting printing or broadcasting of “anything which defames or brings into ridicule the head of state, or members of the armed forces, or executive, legislative or judicial organs of the state.” Non-compliance with the new restrictions could be punishable by the suspension of a newspaper publication for up to 30 days, and, in the case of television stations, by imprisonment of up to three years, a fine of Rs.10 million, or both.

The amendments also prohibited the media from publishing or broadcasting “any material that is likely to jeopardise or be prejudicial to the ideology of Pakistan or the sovereignty, integrity or security of Pakistan, or any material that is likely to incite violence or hatred or create inter-faith disorder or be prejudicial to maintenance of law and order.” The amendment to the PEMRA Ordinance bans television discussions on “sub judice matters or anything which is known to be false or baseless or is mala fide or for which there exist sufficient reasons to believe that the same may be false, baseless or mala fide.”

The amendments restricted the publication or broadcast of photographs or video of suicide bombers, terrorists (except if required by the law-enforcement agencies for the purpose of investigation), bodies of victims of terrorist activities, statements and pronouncements of militants and extremist elements and any other thing which may, in any way, promote, aid or abet terrorist activities or terrorism, or their graphic and printed representation based on sectarianism and ethnicity or racialism. Private Pakistani radio and television stations are also banned from signing broadcast agreements with foreign news media without PEMRA’s permission, while cable operators and distributors can be sentenced to up to a year in prison for breaking the new rules.

Within minutes of the emergency, PEMRA raided two private radio stations, FM99 in Islamabad and FM103 in Karachi, confiscating their broadcast equipment. Both these stations are known for their ‘nose for news’ and emphasis on journalism. Several staff members of FM99, according to Station Director Najib Ahmed, who is also the president of the Association of Independent Radio, were roughed up and the station was ransacked.

Soon after, the police raided the Islamabad office of Aaj, seeking to confiscate broadcasting equipment. According to Talat Hussain, the channel’s director of news and current affairs, the police wanted to impound a van that is used to broadcast live coverage. The office refused to hand over the equipment as the police team did not have the necessary legal documents. Three days later, the police stormed the Aaj offices again, interrupting the satellite signal it was using to transmit internationally. Police also seized the van.

musharraf-media-2-dec07It did not take long for media organisations, including the All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS), the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE), the Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA) and the Pakistan Association of Independent Radio, to condemn the repression. Huma Ali, president of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, described the government’s actions as “the worst kind of repression against the media in Pakistan in 30 years.”

The print media faced equal scrutiny and intimidation. The Press Information Department (PID), at the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in Islamabad, created a special bureau with instructions to monitor at least 21 national dailies and 13 leading regional newspapers to see that they respect the censorship rules introduced in the new print media ordinance. The newspapers under surveillance include The News, Dawn, The Nation, Daily Times, Jang, Nawa-e-Waqt and Khabrain. The provincial governments were also instructed to monitor compliance with new reporting restrictions. Officials say the PID started sending a report at 4 p.m. every day to the head of the ministry’s Home Publicity Department.

In the following three weeks, things got much worse, at least as far as legal and technical restrictions on the media and physical violence against journalists was concerned. Reacting to the stringent curbs on the media sector, journalists across the country adopted an overt mode of resistance and triggered an unprecedented series of protest demonstrations across the country.

In several cases, these protests elicited a violent response from the security agencies. In one instance, on November 20, a record 190 journalists were arrested in a single evening, several of them badly beaten up by the police, in Karachi, as they protested the arrest of 12 of their colleagues earlier in the day. At least 20 of the detained journalists were women. While most of them were released the next day (with several journalists taken to hospitals for medical care), the numbers are surely an international record of sorts — a dubious distinction for Musharraf’s media policies that are incongruous with the stated policies of the past five years. In the three weeks following the state of emergency, more than 340 journalists were arrested, surely another record.

While Pakistan’s working journalists braved batons on the streets, media owners faced their own intimidation horrors. On November 17, the Dubai authorities summarily gave Geo Television Network and ARY Digital less than two hours to halt their broadcast after reportedly persistent pressure from the Pakistan government. They were two of the leading Pakistani television channels that had refused to sign on the dotted line of an unpublicised 14-page code of conduct (even those signing were not given a copy; the representatives of channels were asked to come to the PEMRA office to read it there and sign) as some other channels had. Both channels, which were registered in Dubai after being denied terrestrial licenses in Pakistan, had already been unavailable to Pakistanis through cable TV distribution networks since the emergency was imposed, although they continued to broadcast via satellite and the Internet. This marked a new chapter in the browbeating of the Pakistani media by Musharraf: he peddled his influence outside Pakistan to get his way against the media of his own country.

This unprecedented development did not go unnoticed by international rights groups. “Musharraf isn’t content with muzzling critical media coverage of his repression within Pakistan — now he is pressuring Dubai to abet his crackdown on independent reporting,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The US should publicly call on its close ally in Dubai to lift the bans. Dubai’s government should refuse to be an accomplice to Musharraf’s assault on free speech in Pakistan. By making itself a party to Musharraf’s repression of the Pakistani media, Dubai is damaging its own international reputation. This move sets an appalling precedent and raises serious questions about Dubai’s viability as a regional hub for the international media.”

Although Geo complied with the orders of the Dubai authorities, it went on the offensive against the Pakistan government by announcing that it would shift its broadcast base to a freer country and continue broadcasting.

After that, matters only got uglier. On November 15, Mir Shakilur Rehman, the owner of Geo, emailed his senior staff informing them that he had received a “threatening telephone call last night” from the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), adding that he had been taken to an ISI safe house in Islamabad where he was given a warning by an ISI operative who told him, “I would like to advise you to please follow the laws, especially the newly promulgated law.” MSR, as Rehman is known to his staff, also forwarded an email from a person identifying himself as “Sabir,” saying, “Pakistan army is the backbone of Pakistan, don’t try to damage it, if u do, u and your family who have looted billions would be hunted down like rats. It will just take a few people to smash your studios, offices, vans.”

There was more: MSR told a joint meeting of the APNS, the CPNE and the PBA that he had been subjected to great pressure and threats since the beginning of 2007, including an attempt on his life, for which he had filed a criminal complaint in a city police station in Karachi. He said that he faced the pressures and challenges to the best of his ability, but found it necessary to inform the media community of the situation. He said one of the more serious threats he had received was an email, ostensibly from a Taliban outfit, threatening to blow up his printing presses and the staff of the Jang Group publications unless they stopped printing photographs of young women.

Geo, part of Pakistan’s largest media group, has sustained severe financial losses as a result of the ban on its transmission. The government has withdrawn advertising from its main newspapers, Jang and The News, as punishment. The government is the largest advertiser in the country, and under well-established procedures agreed between journalist bodies and Pakistan’s Ministry of Information, advertising is supposed to be equitably distributed among publications on the basis of such criteria as newspaper circulation, language, geographic reach and target audience.

Meanwhile, the government initiated talks with individual TV channels, principally Geo, Aaj and ARY and started making unreasonable demands in return for allowing the channels to be not just back on satellite transmission from Dubai but also to be available to viewers through the cable distribution network. While no official from each of these three channels was willing to be quoted, they separately outlined the same set of criteria from the government to their respective TV channels: a ban on all kinds of live coverage; zero criticism of Musharraf, the army and the “PCO judiciary”; a ban on showing visuals of suicide bombers, the bodies of victims either at the site of an incident or at hospitals and clinics, and close-ups of attack sites including damaged vehicles; and, an end to certain shows, including Geo’s Merey Mutabiq, Aaj Kamran Khan Kay Saath and Capital Talk, Aaj’s Live With Talat and Bolta Pakistan, and ARY’s current affairs shows conducted by Kashif Abbasi.

While the channels are willing to compromise on demands for zero or minimal criticism of Musharraf, military and the judiciary and minimising visuals of terrorist incidents, they originally stuck to their demand of the right to live coverage and their signature current affairs shows. However, when the channels did not budge, the government demanded that Geo sack Dr Shahid Masood, Kamran Khan and Hamid Mir (as well as not allow The News senior staffer Ansar Abbasi from appearing on any of their programmes), that Aaj fire Talat Hussain, Nusrat Javed and Mushtaq Minhas, and that ARY show the door to Kashif Abbasi and Asma Shirazi.

When Aaj and ARY agreed to drop the shows of Talat Hussain, Nusrat Javed, Mushtaq Minhas, Kashif Abbasi and Asma Shirazi, at least for the time being, they were promptly rewarded by the restoration of their cable network access in Pakistan. Geo, however, refused to fire its top journalists or drop their massively popular programmes.

This has meant that while some of the key news channels are back — complete with hourly bulletins and ‘breaking news’ — thanks to the unannounced code of conduct that now governs content of news, their news now seems little more than stylish versions of the drab PTV bulletins. To both comply with and simultaneously express defiance, ARY and Aaj are staging open-air “live” versions of their banned shows in public outside press clubs in Islamabad. As an expression of solidarity with ARY and Aaj, Geo is also hosting similar “live” shows of Capital Talk. It is no surprise these road shows quickly became popular and well attended, even with Islamabad’s otherwise stereotypically indifferent residents becoming passionately involved.

This is not the only example of defiance of the government’s unpopular measures to restrict freedom of expression and access to information. A symbiotic relationship between the media and the citizens started evolving virtually as soon as the state of emergency was imposed. The mainstream news channels set up live streaming on their websites where 24/7 coverage ensured that many of the country’s estimated 20 million Internet users logged on. Web news is available in both English and Urdu, and even in Sindhi, to satiate the growing hunger for news.

Interestingly, those in Pakistan with Internet — and therefore access to new sites — are not passively consuming information; they are passing it around through emails and blogs (dozens of blogs have sprung up, providing specific information such as where the next media protest will be held) are using the information to network towards mobilising resistance and arranging protests. This has resulted in independent websites increasing their content.

Because the government thinks in conventional ways, it had not seen mobile phones as a medium for news. However, Pakistan has 70 million mobile phone users. Calls are cheap and texting even more so. Hence, between calling the media and friends on their mobile phones, people are managing to get at least important bits of information every day. After the government disrupted cable TV distribution, most current affairs channels sent SMS text messages to millions of mobile phone users, telling them to log onto their website to get live transmission and text news. According to sources in the telecom sector, daily mobile phone calls have increased sevenfold and text messaging tenfold since the emergency was imposed, indicating the elevation of the status of mobile telephony as a formal source of information.

The radio sector — about 160 FM stations are licensed in the private sector of which around 70 are on air across Pakistan — however, has been severely hit as it is the most vulnerable. Only a handful of stations do regular news bulletins and current affairs programming. To make an example of them, two of the leading radio stations, FM99 in Islamabad and FM103 in Karachi, got the rough end of the stick: their transmitters and broadcast consoles were taken away (along with most other equipment), thereby silencing them. Transmitters are extremely difficult to come by in Pakistan — most are smuggled in and are expensive. Other stations have taken a cue from the crackdown and stopped doing news and information programming to avoid the confiscation of hard-to-come-by equipment. However, foreign radio stations such as BBC and Voice of America have increased airtime for emergency-related coverage and that has caused sales of radio sets to soar.

The week that the state of emergency was imposed by Musharraf, the international media watchdog Reporters sans frontières issued its latest annual ranking of media freedom. Of a total of 169 countries assessed, Pakistan was ranked a dismal 152. This was before November 3, the day the state of emergency was imposed. Thanks to Musharraf, Pakistan is now virtually at the bottom of the heap. So much for “Pakistan first.” As far as media freedoms are concerned, it is a case of “Pakistan last.”

Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.