The real news from Pakistan

by: James Crabtree

Courtesy: Prospect, 23rd July 2009 — Issue 161

Ten years ago Pakistan had one television channel. Today it has over 100. Together they have begun to open up a country long shrouded by political, moral and religious censorship—taking on the government, breaking social taboos and, most recently, pushing a new national consensus against the Taliban. One channel in particular, Geo TV, has won a reputation for controversy more akin to America’s Fox News than CNN or Sky News. Some Pakistanis see it and its competitors as a force for progress; others as a creator of anarchy and disorder. Certainly, the channels now wield huge political influence in a country where half the population is illiterate. But their effect is now felt beyond Pakistan’s borders too—revealing an underappreciated face of globalisation, in which access to television news means that immigrant communities, and in particular Britain’s 0.7m Pakistanis, often follow events in their country of origin more closely than those of the country where they actually live.

I went to Islamabad this April to learn about what many Pakistanis call their “media revolution.” The previous month, during a spate of anti-government protests, Geo TV had again demonstrated its influence by using its popular news programmes to support a “long-march” by opposition groups on the capital Islamabad, and even hosting a celebratory rock concert on the city’s streets when the government caved in to demands to reinstate the country’s most prominent judge.

I had chosen a tense time to visit. On my first day a man loyal to the Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud walked into an army camp two blocks from where I was staying and blew himself up, killing eight soldiers. That same day news channels first aired a grainy video of a Taliban punishment beating in the Swat valley on the northwest frontier. A girl had been accused of infidelity and in the clip she was pinned face down by two men in a dusty village square while a third beat her with a stick. It topped the news for days, causing controversy for its brutality and for exposing the reality behind a “peace deal” to hand Swat over to the Taliban.

The video marked the start of an important new phase in Pakistan’s internal battles, with the army launching a bloody offensive to retake Swat in May, and a further push against the Taliban’s mountainous strongholds during July. Pakistanis have often felt sympathy for the Taliban, seeing their struggle as an understandable reaction to America’s military presence. This view began to change as militants launched more frequent bombings in major cities. But media coverage of Taliban brutality—beheadings, murders and most gruesomely the exhumation of a corpse to be hung in a public square—swayed opinion further. At the beginning of June one story in particular captured the country’s attention: a young army captain, killed on his birthday in a battle with Taliban fighters in Swat. The night before he had written to his father, worrying that he might die, but asking his family to be proud of him and his country. Pictures of his distraught mother ran for days, further pushing anti-Taliban opinion with far-reaching implications in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. And behind this shift lies a new power in Pakistan’s normally rigid hierarchy, which now rivals the ability of politicians, generals, spies and mullahs to shape events: the media itself.

Pakistani television’s great unshackling was sparked by an earlier military campaign. In May 1999 Pervez Musharraf, then head of the army, 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 conditions so inhospitable that both abandon the area in winter. In the spring of 1999 Musharraf snuck his troops in early, taking the empty Indian positions without a fight. The subsequent war saw Pakistan beaten back, withdrawing under US pressure. In the aftermath Musharraf launched a coup to become president. But he also took a more unusual lesson from his defeat.

At the time Pakistan Television (PTV) was the only source for television news. The state broadcaster was closely controlled, earning the moniker “seeing is not believing.” In desperation many bought illegal satellite dishes, tuning in to Indian television during the war, which while jingoistic was broadly truthful. Musharraf would later paint his decision to loosen media restrictions as evidence of his liberalism. But it was a calculation born of losing both an actual war and a PR one: if India had a private television sector, so must Pakistan.

Pakistan has long had a vibrant print media, both in Urdu and English. Television was different: the elite could get CNN and the BBC World Service but access for most Pakistanis was strictly limited. Just as limited, says Rana Jawad, Geo TV’s Islamabad bureau chief, was the news that did make it onto air. Bulletins had a familiar pattern: “First you had what the president had said that day, then prime minister, then minister of foreign affairs, and so on… it had no credibility.” Musharraf liberalised the system in 2002. It was a decision that, six years later, would play a major role in his downfall.


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