As TV Coverage Feeds Protests, Musharraf Reacts

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 4, 2007

HARIPUR, Pakistan -- Every day, Taj Mohammed Abbasi wheels his cart through dusty streets, selling the oranges, guavas and litchis that are the pride of this rural outpost in the shadow of the Himalayan foothills.

But what he's seen recently on television motivated him this weekend to take to the streets for a different reason: to join a movement with the audacious goal of ousting the military-led government and restoring democracy to Pakistan.

"Watching television, I have become very angry," said Abbasi, 33, swatting flies from his cart. "I am not a political person. I have not been to a lot of rallies. But this time, definitely, I am going."

Pakistan might be in the midst of its first televised revolution. For nearly three months, a handful of fledgling independent stations have been broadcasting minute-by-minute coverage of what at first seemed a relatively obscure issue: the suspension of Pakistan's chief judge by the president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Since then, Pakistanis nationwide have been transfixed by live coverage of police beating lawyers, pro-Musharraf groups firing assault rifles at demonstrators and the chief justice speaking to ever-larger and more boisterous audiences about the dangers of autocratic rule.

As the cameras have rolled, opposition to Musharraf has surged, and he is considered more vulnerable now than at any time in his eight years in office. Even in rural areas where poverty is high, residents have gathered in hotels and barbershops around the few television sets available and watched the brewing crisis play out live.

Here in Haripur -- an hour's drive north of the capital, Islamabad, but a world away from its modern conveniences -- residents came out by the thousands on Saturday to demand that Musharraf step aside and allow elections to restore civilian rule.

Stung by the criticism, Musharraf has reacted by cracking down on what had been the government's signature defense against charges of authoritarianism: the independent television news networks.

The country's half-dozen networks all sprung up under his watch, and Musharraf has repeatedly bragged to the world about his efforts to free Pakistani television from state control and censorship for the first time in the country's history. But with his government teetering, Musharraf, a key U.S. ally, is threatening the networks' very existence.

"He allowed the genie out of the bottle. But he didn't realize how big it could become. Now he's trying to put it back," said Talat Hussain, director of news and current affairs for one of the channels, Aaj Television.

Aaj, along with others, has come under intense pressure in recent days to pull programming off the air and to cancel live coverage of opposition rallies. Aaj has continued to broadcast, but its transmission is being blocked throughout much of the country.

"I have no illusions about it," Hussain said. "They're going to shut us down."

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