Keeping Pakistanis in the Dark

A man rolls his newly purchased satellite dish through traffic in Lahore. Broadcasts by private TV stations have been blocked since Saturday.
A man rolls his newly purchased satellite dish through traffic in Lahore. Broadcasts by private TV stations have been blocked since Saturday. (By K.m.chaudary -- Associated Press)
By Emily Wax and Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 9, 2007

LAHORE, Pakistan, Nov. 8 -- At a popular neighborhood tea shop, day laborers, bricklayers and rickshaw pullers rushed in after work Thursday to talk with friends over tin cups of steaming, milky chai. But something was missing from their twilight ritual: the evening news.

For the sixth straight day, President Pervez Musharraf's government had blacked out the country's booming independent news channels, a move that has left much of the population in the dark about what's happening under emergency rule.

"I feel deaf, dumb and blind without TV," lamented Abdul Razaq Bhaddi, a 40-year-old bus driver. "We all talk about how we have no idea what is happening. It's all rumors now. We feel so frustrated. I would protest, but I don't even know where to go."

Trying to fully cut off information in the digital age is like trying to stop the rain and wind in a monsoon: impossible. In university computer labs and at Internet cafes, Pakistani students and others are blogging about emergency rule, posting online videos of protests and publishing daily newsletters. News is also being transmitted through e-mails and cellphone calls, including some placed by rights activists under house arrest. Students, opposition leaders and Pakistani housewives have posted highly political comments on Facebook, the social networking site.

Still, the TV blackout has been highly effective at controlling information -- and, by extension, large-scale uprisings -- because of the realities of Pakistani society.

In a country where half the population is illiterate and where only those with money can afford satellite dishes, television news stations here have been a lifeline for large swaths of the population. In poor villages, Pakistanis gather in teahouses and barbershops to watch the news, since few farming families have their own sets. Sitting down for the nightly broadcast is seen as a community activity.

Not so for wealthier families in Islamabad or Karachi.

"The economic divide is truly staggering," said Qasim Nauman, 24, a technology and political writer with the Daily Times, Lahore's independent newspaper. "You would think you couldn't have this type of control in the digital age. But it's there, massively. Just walking on the street, you can hear the difference in what people know."

Many point to TV as the fuel for Pakistan's boisterous street protests over controversial Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad as well as widespread protests earlier this year following the suspension of Pakistan's chief judge. The nation was transfixed this year by live coverage of police beating lawyers, pro-Musharraf groups cracking down on demonstrators and the chief justice speaking to ever-larger audiences.

This week, however, although video images of police beating lawyers and firing tear gas canisters to disperse crowds were broadcast around the world, they remained virtually unseen in Pakistan.

All cable transmissions of news broadcasts, whether foreign or domestic, had been cut since Saturday. Thursday night in Islamabad, BBC and CNN, along with some of the domestic business news channels, appeared for the first time this week. State TV, meanwhile, has been readily accessible. But all of the popular Pakistani news stations have remained dark.

Pakistanis with satellite access can still watch the news, but the number who own dishes is extremely small. And the government has been trying to keep it that way. A headline Wednesday in the independent newspaper the Nation read: "Hands off democracy. Hands off our dish antennas." Earlier this week, the government closed down satellite-system retailers and wholesalers across the country.

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