Keeping Pakistanis in the Dark
Large Swaths of Population Affected by Musharraf's TV News Blackout

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.

"They're even checking the houses where they use satellite dishes and removing them," said Inamullah, 27, who has been told by plainclothes security forces that he's no longer allowed to sell dishes at his electronics shops in the garrison city of Rawalpindi.

Ironically, private TV stations flourished under Musharraf, who years ago took credit for bringing a free press to Pakistan. But he has turned sharply critical of the stations, saying their coverage has been "irresponsible."

The government has been pushing station owners to sign a new "code of conduct." Many journalists say it would cripple their ability to report and have refused to go along with it.

"They say that if we sign it, we go back on the air," said Talat Hussain, an anchor with Aaj Television, one of the main news channels.

Now journalists fear for their lives.

The chief executive of the largest independent television station in the country, Geo, was recently taken to a safe house operated by the country's intelligence service, the ISI, where he was held for several hours, according to station anchor Hamid Mir. Later, the executive received a follow-up e-mail in which the writer threatened to kill the executive's family.

At other stations, reporters have been detained; some have seen family members arrested because of reporting that was deemed overly critical by the government. Some journalists rarely -- if ever -- sleep at home, for fear of government raids.

Hasan Khan, director of news at AVT Khyber Television, said he had been threatened by a high-level official of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority.

"Don't cross the limits, otherwise we will be tough," Khan quoted the official as saying.

Musharraf was deeply unpopular in Pakistan before he suspended the constitution. But the TV blackout has made Pakistanis even more unhappy.

"I'm losing business because customers want their news, and that's part of why they visit our tea shop," said Liaqad Ali, 30, ladling the steaming brew into cups in Lahore. "Plus, I miss the news. Who knows what is going on beyond my shop? We feel afraid."

Special correspondent Shahzad Khurram in Rawalpindi and Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar contributed to this report.

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