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How Pakistan's Satirists Poke Fun, Politically

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 28, 2007

LAHORE, Pakistan -- There's a certain darkness to the humor in Pakistan these days. Take the case of Fasi Zaka and "News, Views and Confused."

The program, a Pakistani version of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," features Zaka and a co-anchor. On a recent episode, the co-anchor teases Zaka about his scruffy, rumpled appearance.

"You look terrible. You need to accessorize," he tells him.

The co-anchor pulls out a black armband, the widely recognized symbol of protest across Pakistan since President Pervez Musharraf declared emergency rule Nov. 3. The audience cheers. Zaka feigns naivete, quipping, "I'd like to join this fashion movement," and puts the armband on.

These are not easy times to be a journalist in Pakistan, let alone an irreverent political comic. Musharraf's government for several weeks blacked out the country's lively independent news channels and temporarily detained scores of journalists. Zaka's show aired last Wednesday night for the first time since the emergency measures took effect.

Musharraf's government has also sought the help of allies to contain news coverage. On Nov. 17, the United Arab Emirates agreed to shut down two of Pakistan's largest and most popular networks, Geo TV and ARY, which had been broadcasting news of events in Pakistan via satellite from Dubai.

But dissent is difficult to shut out completely, and in Pakistan, comedy is emerging as an important tool of government critics, much as underground satire and thinly veiled jokes were once powerful forces in the Soviet Union.

Ironically, it was Musharraf who first encouraged independent media in Pakistan after he took power in 1999. He saw invigorating the mass media as a way to compete with the plethora of cable stations based in Pakistan's arch rival, India. Musharraf himself seemed a darling of the Western media, even appearing in September 2006 on "The Daily Show," where he sipped jasmine green tea with Jon Stewart and joked about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.

Now, Musharraf is requiring TV news stations to sign a code of conduct that subjects journalists to fines and jail time if they ridicule him or other government officials. Certain television personalities were targeted in the recent crackdown, with several talk show hosts being pressured to sign the code of conduct, both by the government and by their own bosses, who are worried about lost profits if they stay off the air.

In a recent interview, Musharraf said it was a sensitive time in Pakistan because of rising extremism. "The media should not agitate," Musharraf said. "It should join us in the war on terror."

But many leading journalists here say a free press is an important tool to question the actions of the state, and sometimes to make fun of it.

"Views being aired and irreverence and laughter are a healthy thing," said Jugnu Mohsin, a longtime Pakistani satirist who writes a monthly humor column called "Mush and Bush" for the Friday Times, a weekly English-language newspaper based in Lahore. "You can't crush the human need to laugh," she said. "It lets off steam."

During times of crisis and political drama, there is plenty of material to use for comedic purposes. In one of Mohsin's recent unsigned columns, Musharraf appears as a wily Bush ally. The two talk about terrorism but end up plotting to get a Burger King and a McDonald's into Afghanistan.

"Mush: I thought you decided to partition Afghanistan.

"Bush: Yeah, then we can call it Halfganistan."

Mohsin also writes a satirical column that has targeted former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and what she calls his "dim and authoritarian personality, his intolerance of dissent."

"I thought Musharraf was different," said Mohsin, publisher and managing editor of the Friday Times. "Sadly, he's conforming to the type."

Leaders are not the only targets. Mohsin's sister Moni Mohsin writes a column called "Diary of a Social Butterfly," which lampoons the country's elite.

Jugnu Mohsin has so far remained out of prison, but she and husband Najam Sethi, editor in chief of the Friday Times, have suffered hardships -- threats on their lives, attacks on their homes -- under previous military governments that were less than amused with their sense of humor. Sethi has been jailed three times from the 1970s to the '90s

While TV shows were largely cut off under Musharraf's crackdown, small newspapers were allowed to continue publishing. They represent a vociferous source of opposition and humor.

In one example, a law professor and a journalist teamed up to write a version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," which appeared in the News, an English-language newspaper.

Theirs begins: "On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me a state of emergency; on the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me two Taliban and a state of emergency."

It ends: "On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me twelve bombers' bombings, eleven laathi charges, ten Swat beheadings, nine majors gloating, eight foreign sanctions, seven lawyers tortured, six house arrests, no BBC, four militants, three rallies, two Taliban and a state of emergency." A laathi charge is a police tactic involving batons.

"We take rich people and powerful people too seriously here," said Ahmad Rafay Alam, a professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences and co-author of the "Twelve Days" parody. "We should be able to talk about everything, and misery requires a good sense of humor."

Modern political satire in Pakistan is rooted in a popular 1980s TV show called "50/50," which managed to use subtle codes to convey humor. That's the type of comedy now flourishing in Pakistan.

"We were told to tone it down. But there's always a subtle way of doing it," said Saad Haroon, a comic with "The Real News," a satirical live TV show. "At first we were really shocked, we didn't know what we were going to do. But then we realized that we can make fun of the fact that we can't make fun of anything."

Zaka is trying the same type of comedy. At the end of last Wednesday's show, his cellphone rings.

"It's an emergency," he yells out. Then the TV blanks to an image of a snowy screen, just as it did after emergency rule was declared.

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