By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2010; 10:33 AM
ISLAMABAD - On a recent morning, readers of the News, Pakistan's largest English-language newspaper, awoke to an unusual front-page advertisement: Printed atop a photo of President Asif Ali Zardari was the allegory of a Muslim caliph who willingly submitted to the court after being accused of wrongdoing.
"Why not you Mr. President?" the advertisement asked. It was signed: "Geo with Justice."
Geo is not a political opposition group, but rather Pakistan's most popular television network. Zardari has been hounded relentlessly by news commentators to stand trial for a litany of alleged financial kickbacks from years ago, and the taunt was just one more indication that the country's media industry has become less a chronicler of the news than a political force in its own right.
In response to the ad, a spokeswoman for the ruling Pakistan People's Party angrily announced that its members would boycott Geo and the News, which are both owned by the Jang Group corporation, by refusing to participate in interviews and talk shows. The News fought back, running a front-page report this week that said the ruling party was "spewing venom" by calling journalists "Indian agents" and "enemies of democracy."
The media were instrumental in bringing about a return to democracy in Pakistan in 2008, but they've taken an increasingly antagonistic stance toward Zardari's administration in the two years since. With the government struggling to prop up a stagnant economy, fight religious extremists and provide flood relief, reporters have found an appealing target in Zardari, whose administration contends with weekly rumors of collapse. Whether this is a healthy free press at work or a destabilizing force in a tense and turbulent democracy is the subject of much debate.
"They are totally anti-government; they're not objective; they twist everything," said Fauzia Wahab, a Zardari confidante who is the ruling party's information secretary. "We do not mind a free press, but we definitely mind if somebody has an agenda or somebody is trying to destabilize the government and the country and create an anarchic situation."
This view might seem hyperbolic were it not for the events of the past week. Last Thursday, several television stations, citing unnamed sources, reported that Zardari had secretly decided to dissolve the Supreme Court in a bid to escape a potential trial. That prompted the court to convene an emergency hearing at which it demanded that the attorney general provide written assurance that no such action would take place. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani lambasted the stories as "baseless rumors" in a public address.
Reporters contend that the amount of time administration officials spend attacking the media reveals their misplaced priorities.
"Nowhere in developed society does the government go after the media in the way this government goes after us," said Rana Jawad, Geo's Islamabad bureau chief, who oversees 18 correspondents. "That leaves us no choice but to defend ourselves and serve our viewers by interpreting what the government does to us. Sometimes that may compromise our impartiality, but that's what happens when you're pitted against a government that is hell bent on destroying and muzzling you."
The free press is relatively new in Pakistan, which was limited to a few government-controlled outlets until Gen. Pervez Musharraf opened the doors to private media ownership in 2002. He wanted to wean residents from relying on Indian news broadcasts, but the general lacked the stomach for independent watchdogs: He shuttered Geo and other stations in late 2007 as their criticism of his government intensified.
The media have expanded rapidly under Zardari. Today, there are 90 television and 135 radio stations serving a country of 168 million, many of whom are illiterate and rely on broadcast news, said Adnan Rehmat, executive director of Intermedia, which advocates for freedom of the press in Pakistan. The number of journalists has grown from 2,000 in 2002 to 17,000 today, while the average age of a reporter has fallen from 47 to 23, he added.
"The lack of experience and increased competition ensures that the emphasis is not on investigation but on sensation and more opinion than fact," Rehmat said. "You find this perpetual cycle of political conflicts that do not have as much life as the media injects into it."
During last summer's massive floods that displaced millions of residents, news reports asserted that the government had intentionally broken levees to save property belonging to powerful officials at the expense of land owned by ordinary residents. Wahab contends that officials were instead acting to save critical infrastructure such as railways and roads.
"It's bitter criticism bordering on profanity," she said. "They're always talking negative and that leads to despondency [among the public]. Suppose this government falls, then what do you have? Do you want this country to become Afghanistan?"
Cyril Almeida, a columnist for Dawn, a major English-language newspaper, poked fun at the media's role in prompting the emergency hearing last Friday. Despite a courtroom packed with more than 100 journalists and 40 television cameras, Almeida wrote, "curiously, more than 12 hours after the story first broke, no reporter appeared sure of the veracity or the provenance of the allegations."
Fekhar Rehman, who broke the story for Aaj television, said he confirmed his report with three sources and speculated that the government killed the plan only after its disclosure sparked a public backlash. But Almeida believes the network jumped prematurely to juice its ratings.
"This crisis shows where the media can be dangerous. The echo-chamber affected relations between institutions of government," Almeida said. "But I blame the government, too. This administration has no interest in governance and things are catastrophically bad, so there are enough people out there who believe that something like this is possible."