Political Talk Defies Ban in Pakistan

Hamid Mir offers his popular TV show outdoors in Islamabad after authorities silenced his station.
Hamid Mir offers his popular TV show outdoors in Islamabad after authorities silenced his station. "Basically they are saying we cannot criticize at all," Mir says. (Pamela Constable - The Washington Post)
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, 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."

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