WaPo : Political Talk Defies Ban in Pakistan

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Political Talk Defies Ban in Pakistan

Forced Off Television, Popular Panel Shows Set Up in the Street

By Pamela Constable | Washington Post Foreign Service | November 25, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Nov. 24 -- Pakistan's popular TV talk shows, once touted by the government as proof of democratic progress but now banned from broadcasting, took to the streets this week, drawing enthusiastic crowds around a sidewalk stage that replicates a studio set and engaging politicians and pundits in vigorous debates about the country's political crisis.

Most Pakistanis cannot see or hear the shows, but the phenomenon has quickly become a significant forum for opinion and grievances under emergency rule, imposed by President Pervez Musharraf on Nov. 3. It has also become a gleefully subversive form of political theater, circumventing official efforts to silence more sophisticated forms of critical communication.

On Friday, hundreds of spectators gathered for the open-air edition of "Capital Talk," a panel show on Geo television hosted by journalist Hamid Mir. His headline guest was Imran Khan, the former cricket champion and opposition leader fresh from a week in prison, who called on all political parties to boycott "illegitimate" national elections scheduled for January.

The crowd cheered Khan, booed a rival politician, threw rose petals on the stage and chanted, "Go, Musharraf, go!" An elderly man wandered about, holding up a poster of his missing son. A sound van played Pakistani rock; an open truck carried a protester tied to a cross. Riot police, watching from a distance, barred traffic but did not intervene.

Despite the raucous atmosphere of the live shows, the struggle to keep press freedom alive and information flowing under emergency rule has become a determined, sometimes dangerous crusade. The government, having encouraged news media to flourish more boldly than at any time in Pakistan's history, has now decided to sharply rein them in, ostensibly in the name of political stability and anti-terrorism.

Protests by journalists in several cities have been met by stick-wielding police, and dozens of reporters have been detained. Popular talk shows have been forced off the air, and broadcast media have been required to accept a detailed "code of conduct" that, among other things, says they may not transmit material that could "defame or ridicule" the government or its officials.

"Basically they are saying we cannot criticize at all, so what is the use of journalism?" demanded Mir, 41, who is the Islamabad manager of Geo.

"Pakistan's media has tasted freedom now, and it will never be satisfied with less," he added. "The government is trying to stop critical coverage, but the common people and the elites are telling us not to back down. Nobody can stop the change."

Although the print media, especially the English-language newspapers read by the country's tiny elite, have been allowed to continue publishing acerbic anti-government commentary and cartoons, the native-language broadcast media -- far more important in a country with a high illiteracy rate -- has come under aggressive attack.

In addition to banning the celebrity-hosted political shows that are de rigueur nightly viewing for the country's educated classes, officials have confiscated satellite dishes from stores and asked foreign countries to stop the transmission of cable channels into Pakistan. Geo, which has broadcast from Dubai since 2002, is now totally off the air.

"Musharraf was fighting for survival and he had his back to the wall. As far as he was concerned, the source of his problems were the judiciary, the legal community and the electronic media," said Ayaz Amir, an influential newspaper columnist. "The printed press has gone on the offensive, but it is physically much easier to block electronic media and make the screen go black, so they did it."

Viewers tuning to Geo in Pakistan today see only static with a sign saying, "Dear Users: Please note that Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) has temporarily suspended transmission of independent news TV channels until further instructions."

Another cable channel, ARY One World, was shut down for 18 days and returned this week after entering into an unofficial agreement to stop broadcasting its major talk show. Staff members celebrated Friday night with a candlelight vigil outside the station's offices. Inside, staffers edited excerpts from the sidewalk edition of "Capital Talk" to mention in their newscast later that night.

"We have agreed to some issues, but we have not accepted their dictates. We are giving full coverage to all political activities," said Mohsin Raza, the Islamabad news director. He said that the government had squeezed the channel by detaining several correspondents but that authorities were under international pressure not to shut down independent TV entirely.

A third channel, Aaj, was also returned to the air after dropping another popular talk show. Its host, journalist Talat Hussain, said that for the past several years, the late-night panel discussions and their high-profile anchors had "defined issues and given people perspectives" that often contradicted the official version put out on state media.

"We always had an uneasy and dangerous existence, and our transmissions were constantly being interrupted," Hussain said. "This time, they were going for the bigger kill, so they decided to black us out."

If his show were on the air today, he added, "we would say that Musharraf has abrogated the constitution and imposed martial law. But you will not see that issue debated in Pakistan now. Until the country is back on a constitutional, normal path, I can't see this problem being resolved."

For English speakers and foreign communities in major cities, there is still ample access to a variety of political views, including anti-government newspaper commentaries and cartoons, and carefully mild political debates on daytime TV talk shows. Even under emergency rule, columnists have freely lambasted Musharraf as a dictator, often in heavily sarcastic language.

The Jang Group corporation, which controls the News International newspaper as well as Geo, has confronted Musharraf and emergency rule head on. In a scathing editorial last week, editors at the News said they would stand up for press independence even if it meant losing millions of dollars. They accused Musharraf of "paranoia" verging on "madness" and demanded that he end his "draconian reign of terror."

But newspapers have tiny circulations in this country of 165 million, so only a handful of Pakistanis will ever read such stirring calls to resistance, let alone hear them on Geo. Despite pleas from Jang officials, the United Arab Emirates government, washing its hands of Pakistani politics, agreed to pull the plug on Geo's transmissions last week.

Now, the only way for Pakistanis to tune in to "Capital Talk" is to physically follow its host, guests and studio set -- complete with a semicircle of chairs around a coffee table with a fake-flower arrangement -- to the national university campus, where it was held Thursday, or the sidewalk in front of the ramshackle offices of the Islamabad-Rawalpindi Press Club, where it was located Friday.

As the street audience cheered and cackled, applauded and hissed at comments from various speakers on the stage, Mir seemed to be presiding over one of the few genuine -- if messy -- democratic events Pakistan has seen in a long time.

"It is our duty to tell the people what is happening in our country, and we will continue to do so, even if we have to conduct our programs in the footpaths," he vowed.

Below the stage, the audience -- a hodgepodge of opposition activists, sidewalk vendors, old men in religious caps, students with irreverent posters and even a retired army officer or two -- burst into wild applause.