Pakistan: Musharraf Mutes the Media

Shahid Masood's voice cracked during his last live appearance on Geo News. Broadcasting from Dubai, the Pakistani pundit and talk show host was defiant over the news that his nation's most popular private news channel had been ordered off the air. "We are proud of this moment," said a visibly shaken Masood, as a clock counted down the minutes to shutdown. Blaming the Musharraf government for pressuring the "government of the friendly country that is hosting us" into evicting the news channel, Masood added, "We did not buckle. We are going out fighting." Then, last Saturday at 1 a.m. Pakistan time, Geo News went black.

Geo TV Network is hardly the only Pakistani media outlet to fall foul of Musharraf, who blamed the media along with terrorists and the judiciary for his decision to impose a nationwide state of emergency on Nov. 3. But the shutdown of the network—part of one of Pakistan's oldest media empires—even though it was broadcasting from outside the country, lends a new dimension to Musharraf's media crackdown. Once credited as the leader who had brought new freedom to local outlets, Musharraf's new regulations now prohibit private news outlets from "ridiculing" the "head of state, or members of the armed force, or executive, legislative or judicial organs of the state." Employees who disobey can face up to three years in prison or a fine of 10 million rupees (about $164,000). On Tuesday police detained some 150 journalists staging a peaceful protest in Karachi against the regulations; they were released after several hours.

The silencing of Geo News and ARY One World, another private news channel broadcasting from Dubai, removes an important source of independent news for citizens in a country in turmoil. The two channels had been shown via satellite from Dubai's Media City; they were shut down because Dubai authorities reportedly felt they were "interfering in the politics of another country." Official sources told NEWSWEEK that Musharraf had personally requested that Dubai leaders keep the channels "on a short leash." It is unclear if or when they will be allowed to resume operation. While some private Pakistani news channels—including a channel owned by one of Musharraf's new ministers and another owned by his son's father-in-law—have been allowed back on the air during the emergency, they had to agree first to stick to the government's new regulations. The Musharraf government wants Geo and ARY to follow the same "code of conduct" and to sack "hostile" journalists before it will allow them to go back on the air.

Geo says it has no plans to concede to government demands. In a sign of protest, its satellite frequency is running a loop of its logo adrift on stormy seas. On Saturday, when the Dubai broadcasts were stopped, journalists at Geo's Davis Road office in Lahore pulled their office furniture out to the roadside. Surrounded by dozens of supporters chanting anti-Musharraf songs and slogans, the staffers stood solemnly behind desks covered with candles and flowers given to them by civil rights activists and regular citizens. Passers-by flashed victory signs in solidarity. "We are still refusing their demand to fire key anchors and journalists," says Mir Ibrahim Rahman, Geo's CEO, from Karachi. "We do not give in to threats and intimidation."

Rahman says his company is losing $500,000 per day and was not allowed to air the India-Pakistan cricket series, for which it paid $15 million in broadcasting rights. "They've closed all our channels worldwide, including our music, entertainment and sports channels, which have nothing to do with news," he says. Rahman, like many other Pakistani journalists, says he is especially shocked that it is Musharraf who led the crackdown. "The president was once all about tolerance," he says. "More than anything else, I can't believe the person [he] has become." As protests by journalists spread this week, others expressed similar views. "When Musharraf came to power, there was no free press, no independent media," says Khawar Naeem Hashmi, bureau chief at Geo's Lahore office. Hashmi spent five years in prison under Pakistan's previous military ruler, Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, in the 1980s and was blacklisted from official functions by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1990s. "In the last few weeks [Musharraf] has undone one of the greatest successes attributed to him," says Hashmi. [He] will have to restore media freedom in days, not weeks."

Musharraf is unlikely to heed that plea anytime soon. Indeed, Geo was silenced shortly after the Islamabad arrival of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who called on the Pakistani government to lift its restrictions on the independent media. Geo is still streaming some audio and video online and hopes to resume its transmissions from Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand or Afghanistan. But for now, Pakistanis will have to be satisfied with news from their privately owned channels that looks remarkably similar to that broadcast by state-owned Pakistan TV.