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."
Ayaz Amir, a political commentator who hosts a call-in program on rival channel ARY Oneworld, said his show was canceled this past week because of government pressure. "I've been branded as a person who's not favorably disposed to the government," he said.
Government officials deny they are censoring the news media. They say they are simply enforcing regulations that have been on the books for years but have often been ignored, including a requirement that stations get permission before they broadcast live.
"The independence of the media is something we take pride in," said Information Minister Mohammed Ali Durrani. "We'll take care of their independence."
Musharraf has made no secret of his displeasure with the way the controversy over the chief justice has been covered, and his top aides have accused the news media of exploiting the issue for ratings gains.
Last week, Durrani warned journalists against criticizing the army, an institution that has historically been revered in Pakistan but is increasingly attacked for denying the country a chance at civilian rule eight years after a military-led coup elevated Musharraf to power.
Durrani's remarks came after the independent channels broadcast marathon coverage of an anti-Musharraf rally at which demonstrators chanted slogans such as, "The generals are traitors" and "Save the country -- take Musharraf's skin off."
Since that rally, several of the channels have toned down their coverage of the crisis, and there is widespread speculation that they made deals with the government in order to continue broadcasting.
Until recent months, Musharraf had displayed an adeptness at using the media to his advantage -- giving occasional interviews and staging elaborate press events to showcase government accomplishments. The tactics worked: The president enjoyed widespread popularity and was considered virtually invincible.
But the chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, loomed as a potential obstacle because he was expected to rule on cases that could complicate Musharraf's plans to get himself elected for another five-year term by a lame-duck parliament.
On March 9, Musharraf invited cameramen to a meeting at which he expected Chaudhry to resign under pressure for alleged abuses of office. Instead, Chaudhry refused. The image of the judge moments before he stood up to the uniformed president became the first icon of the controversy.
The next came days later, when police raided Geo television's office in Islamabad as the station tried to film protesters demonstrating against Chaudhry's suspension. Tear gas filled the office, and police began beating journalists with batons, but the cameras continued to roll.
Two months later, in Karachi, Aaj's office came under attack as demonstrators clashed in the streets outside in violence that would ultimately claim more than 40 lives. During six hours of live coverage, Aaj's anchors repeatedly called for help from the police, to no avail, on a day when government security forces were widely blamed for standing by as the city burned.
A note on the Geo Web site Sunday said: "The government has blocked the transmission of the Geo News TV channel across the country due to the reasons best known to them. . . .
"The citizens, social and political circles have condemned the ban on transmission of Geo News and they have demanded of the government to immediately lift ban on the transmission of the Geo News and give complete freedom to media in the country," it said.
The chief justice and his supporters have used television to their advantage, staging exuberant, day-long parades from one city to the next, earning them hours of continuous coverage.
By contrast, political observers say, the government has tried to use force and intimidation to end the controversy, but has consistently misjudged how its efforts would play on television. As a result, Musharraf's problems have only intensified.
"What they did not take into account was that the crisis was going live to every bloody Pakistani household," said Aamer Ahmed Khan, Pakistan editor of the BBC World Service and a journalist here for more than two decades. "That is what is making them nervous now."