With only three weeks left until elections on January 8, Pakistan's President Musharraf is trying to set the stage for free and fair elections by lifting the Emergency Rule he had imposed on November 3. While declared in the name of the war on terror, the 42-day Emergency Rule was used to eviscerate the judiciary by sacking independent judges and replacing them with Musharraf supporters. It was also used to crack down on the press, a press that had become one of the few checks on the military government. It's hard to consider the upcoming elections as legitimate when two key democratic institutions-the judiciary and the press-have been destroyed.
In the crackdown on the press, Musharraf did not go after the print media, since just a small fraction of Pakistanis read newspapers. Instead he targeted TV and radio stations, closing them down, beating journalists, seizing equipment. To return to the air, the stations had to sign a code of conduct promising not to broadcast anything that "defames or brings into ridicule the head of state or the military." Most of the stations signed this under duress and resumed broadcasting, but journalists all over the country continue to protest the restrictions and the nation's Press Clubs have become centers of anti-Musharraf activities.
One TV station that has still not been allowed back on the air is GEO, the nation's largest station. The government has a particular vendetta against GEO, closing not only its news channel, but also its sports, entertainment and youth channels-costing the station about $500,000 a day and jeopardizing the livelihoods of some 2,500 employees.
Ironically, it is precisely under Musharraf's rule that private television began to thrive in Pakistan. The General was used to controlling the airwaves through the state-run PTV, which the public had dubbed with the slogan "On PTV, seeing is not believing." People realized that state-run TV was government propaganda, and there was a thirst for independent TV outlets. While the Arab world saw the blossoming of Al Jazeera and other independent networks, Pakistan saw the creation of GEO.
"The channel ran into problems from its inception in 2002, as Musharraf tried to control it," GEO TV's charismatic President Imran Aslan recalled as he gave us a tour of the station's sprawling headquarters in Karachi. At a meeting with government officials in early 2002, the owner of GEO, who heads a powerful media conglomerate called The Jang Group, was informed that key members of the GEO team were unacceptable. He was told that if he hired a different crew, the station could go forward. "But what the government officials didn't know is that the owner had taped the entire conversation," laughed Aslan. "The next day we went straight to the Press Club and played the tape. The government was so embarrassed that it allowed GEO to go ahead."
The feisty station was launched in August 2002 with a talented team that innovated an all fronts, not just the news. They revived sports that were dying out-boxing, hockey, volleyball, football, polo. Ignoring the threats of religious fundamentalists, they televised marathons where men and women ran together. On the youth channel, they had call-in shows where young people from around the country could say whatever they wanted, unedited, uncensored.
They changed the debate on women's rights, launching a campaign to openly discuss Pakistan's controversial rape laws that blame the victim, threatening her with lashings or even stoning to death. Since they were enforced by Zia ul Haq in 1979, these laws have been regarded as untouchable for fear of a backlash by powerful religious extremists. GEO took the issue head on, and not from a more obvious feminist perspective, but by airing debates between religious leaders about whether these practices were in conformance with Islam. The debate, which included religious leaders labeling these practices are un-Islamic and immoral, led to the drafting of new laws more favorable to rape victims.
But what landed GEO in hot water with the government was their news show. "We would get Musharraf and top government officials on our shows and ask them tough questions," famed talk show host Hamid Mir told us. "I asked Musharraf how he could be President while on the payroll as Army Chief, or how could he let Benazir Bhutto back in the country but not Nawaz Sharif-questions he found hard to answer."
GEO reporters and talk show hosts questioned the army about missing people, about their tactics fighting in Balochistan and the tribal areas. They even pressed Benazir Bhutto so hard about the assassination of her brother, questioning how it happened under her rule, that she got up and walked out in the middle of a show.
GEO brought irreverence and satire to the TV screen with the hilarious animated cartoon called "Pillow talk", which featured conversations between Musharraf and Bush. Sometimes the two leaders would be chatting in bed, with George Bush wrapped up in a Mickey Mouse blanket.
"We alienated everyone, so I guess we did our job," joked Imran Aslan. "We were innovative, we pushed the limits, we had fun--and the people loved us. In less than six years, we had a lead of 8-9 points on other stations."
By closing the sports, youth and entertainment channels, the government's goal is to cripple the station financially. The head of GEO Sports Channel Mohammad Ali had tried, unsuccessfully, to petition the court to get the 24-hour sports station reopened. "What does sports have to do with the war on terror?", Ali asked when we met him outside the Courthouse. "We just lost $15 million dollars we had paid for the right to broadcast the India-Pakistan cricket match. The people were deprived of seeing a match they love, and we are being ruined financially."
"This is just vindictive on the part of the government; it's a blatant effort to put us out of business," said Aslan after losing the court case. "My biggest regret is that the government is jeopardizing the livelihoods of so many wonderful staff, who are among the finest minds in this country."
With the upcoming elections, GEO had been poised to play a major role. It had a campaign called "You have the vote, don't' you?, " encouraging people to exercise their right to vote. They had anticipated airing debates, educating voters about the views of the different parties and candidates, and training young people all over the country to report on the campaigns.
While the Bush Administration has been touting the upcoming elections, it has been silent on the continued silencing of GEO. It was not even mentioned in the testimony of Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher when he testified before Congress on December 6 about continued aid to Pakistan. Boucher admitted that democracy requires not only elections "but accountable government institutions, including a free and dynamic press." But instead of using the opportunity to demand that press restrictions be lifted, Boucher gave the stunning conclusion that "Pakistan is making progress toward these goals."
The U.S. government, which gives over $100 million a month to Pakistan, should speak out forcefully against the banning of GEO, and withhold U.S. assistance until GEO is back on air. And when assistance is resumed, a portion of our aid should help GEO get on its feet financially.
An independent media is the backbone of a democratic nation. If the US government is truly committed to democracy in Pakistan, it should support GEO and Pakistan's courageous journalists in their struggle for a free press.