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Pakistan: Blackout

Editor's Note: David Montero reports from Pakistan for our upcoming February 26th broadcast story, Pakistan: State of Emergency. Stay tuned for more dispatches and interview excerpts from his recent visit to the North West Frontier of Pakistan where young radical extremists allied to the Taliban are taking control of much of the region.

Talat Hussain's television studio in Islamabad looked like a ghost town. There was no one to operate the cameras, and no guests seated on the set. His political talk show, "Live With Talat," had been unceremoniously pulled off the air by the government just weeks before Pakistan's national elections, then scheduled for January 8th.

Hussain, whose 6-foot frame and good looks give him the appearance of an actor, does not hesitate to say why his TV station was censored.

"We were exceedingly critical of the many fallibilities of this government, run by President [Pervez] Musharraf. And we were raising issues, which of course didn't sit well with Musharraf," he told me in his crammed office. "These were issues of the rule of law and the constitution -- words that Musharraf is not particularly fond of."

Hussain and his station, Aaj TV, represent the difficult issues facing Pakistan's new independent media. Five years ago, there was only one state-run television channel. Today, there are more than 50 private channels.

Hussain and his station, Aaj TV, represent the difficult issues facing Pakistan's new independent media. Five years ago, there was only one state-run television channel. Today, there are more than 50 private channels operating on cable satellite, and there are more coming on line each day.

The Musharraf administration likes to take credit for the proliferation of new media outlets. In fact, it was Musharraf who authorized the establishment of private television channels in 1999, a sign, his administration says, of the president's commitment to democracy. But Hussain balks at this characterization.

"Make no mistake about it, Pakistan's free media history didn't begin with Musharraf," he insists. "No freedom is given. Anyone who has any sense of human history will realize that freedom is always gained through struggle. And Pakistani media has struggled a lot and has gained its freedom." Hussain says media operators have had to push hard to get media licenses, and now they face a government crackdown.

Hussain has made a name for himself by being particularly outspoken. Five nights a week, he invites four or five guests into his small studio, including government ministers, analysts and other members of the political elite. Audiences at home are treated to a spectacle of controversy and irreverence: Hussain verbally pummeling the government with his caustic wit and sarcastic charm.

Aaj TV station.

In December, just weeks before the scheduled national elections, Aaj TV and other stations continued running limited news coverage, but Hussain's feisty show, "Live With Talat," was kept off the air.

But now that freedom is under attack. It began in March, when Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the chief justice of Pakistan, ruled several times against Musharraf in court. The general is rarely rebuked so publicly, and Chaudhry's bold step made him wildly popular with a population exasperated by the general's nine-year rule.

When Musharraf retaliated by sacking Chaudhry, the issue exploded. Thousands of lawyers took to the streets to protest the removal of the chief justice; columns of police were deployed to stop them. Aaj TV and other private news channels began running nonstop coverage of the protests. Many televised images featured policemen ruthlessly beating lawyers, a highly respected community in Pakistan. It became a national drama played out in the homes of millions of Pakistanis. And it crystallized just how unpopular the Musharraf regime had become.

While battling with the lawyers, the regime faced another crisis: Islamic extremists widened their campaign of violence. Pakistanis watched on TV as suicide bombings and other attacks spread from the tribal border of Afghanistan to areas once considered safe. Aaj and other stations broadcast live coverage of the carnage. Whether it was lawyers on the street shouting down the regime or gruesome explosions, the impression grew that the government was neither popular nor in control.

This is not the kind of coverage an administration wants when it's running for re-election. On November 3rd, Musharraf declared a national state of emergency, suspended the constitution and imposed martial law, saying extremists threatened Pakistan's democracy. But Musharraf's first move was not to go after the extremists. Instead, he targeted the two pillars of popular opposition: On November 5th, he arrested about 5,000 lawyers throughout the country, and then he went after the private media channels.

"There was a suicide bombing...and all of a sudden we saw on the television live coverage, all these body parts and limbs flying through the air! You can't just show all these things," said Tariq Azim Khan, a government spokesman.

Hussain came to work that evening expecting to air his show. Instead, he found a van of policemen outside his office. He says the officers told him they had orders to confiscate the satellite equipment Aaj relies on for broadcasting. Hussain refused to hand over the equipment, but the government ultimately prevailed. Officials told him and other channel operators that by showing footage of protests and riots, television stations were actually inciting the riots. They were told to cease and desist.

And so in December, just weeks before the scheduled national elections, in one of the most important votes Pakistan was to face in its modern history, the media was severely restricted. Aaj and other stations continued running limited news coverage, but Hussain's feisty show was kept off the air.

When I asked Tariq Azim Khan, a government spokesman, about the media crackdown, he said it was because the national networks were acting irresponsibly. "There was a suicide bombing near a political office. And all of a sudden we saw on the television live coverage, all these body parts and limbs flying through the air! You can't just show all these things. Anywhere in the world, there are ethics and limits," he said.

Khan has a point. Some coverage of the terrorist bombings was excessively graphic. His criticism underscores the fact that Pakistan is still testing the boundaries of acceptable news coverage of suicide bombings.

Talat Hussain

Aaj TV News Director, Talat Hussain.

But most analysts agree that the media blackout had nothing to do with carnage, and everything to do with silencing the opposition in an election year. When I met with Hussain in mid-December, he scoffed at the idea that Pakistan had any chance of holding a free election.

"There cannot be any election in America minus the media," he said. "Much less a free and fair election. Can there be a free and fair election [here] when your whole constitution is held in abeyance?"

As we parted that day, Hussain predicted that the election campaign would be marred by chaos and violence.

Two weeks later, on December 27th, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, Musharraf's chief political opponent, shocked the world. Riots rocked the country. Elections were postponed and tentatively rescheduled for February 18th.

"We had to negotiate very hard with the government to bring the show back," Hussain told me. "So [the] opinion part of criticizing the government is still banned." Some subjects, like direct criticism of Musharraf, remain off-limits.

In mid-January, I visited Hussain again at the Aaj station in Islamabad. This time, he was in full swing, broadcasting a live program. His guests, political heavy weights videoconferencing in from studios around the country, were discussing the aftermath of Bhutto's death. During a break, I asked him how his show had come to be back on air.

"We had to negotiate very hard with the government to bring the show back," he told me. "So [the] opinion part of criticizing the government is still banned." Some subjects, like direct criticism of Musharraf, remain off-limits.

Pakistan's elections are scheduled to go ahead on February 18th. Hussain's show -- and other programs -- will be watching. But he wonders how much his station can really report and when the government might, once again, pull the plug.

"We do not know if the next day the show will be on air," he said. "My show is five days a week, so we have to live for the daily show because we don't know if the next day there will be a show or not."

More Coverage from Pakistan

David Montero's reporting from Pakistan is a joint project of FRONTLINE/World and The Christian Science Monitor. Below are links to some of his recent stories in the paper.

Will Iraq Playbook Work in Pakistan?
David Montero reports from Pakistan on how pitting Sunni tribes against Al Qaeda-allied tribes has worked in Iraq but asks whether it will work against the Taliban in Pakistan.

Pakistan: Push For Polls Despite Suicide Bombing
Following a suicide bomb attack in Lahore, the first since Bhutto's assassination, David Montero reports for the Monitor on fresh worries about security for the February 18th elections.

Bhutto's Death Helps Further Al Qaeda's Pakistan Agenda
In further coverage from Pakistan, Montero reports that a string of attacks on many of the country's prominent figures indicates a potent new strand of militancy in Pakistan.

From Our Files

Pakistan: Burn, Baby, Burn
Pakistan correspondent Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy reports from a chaotic and still-burning Karachi following the murder of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.

Pakistan: The New Taliban
Correspondent Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy's third in a series of dispatches focuses on the rise of fundamentalist political forces challenging President Musharraf's government.

Pakistan: The"Other" Bhutto
Watch Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy's interview with Benazir Bhutto's niece Fatima Bhutto, who blames her aunt for the 1996 murder of her father. Educated in the U.S. and fast becoming a prominent figure in her own right, the 25-year-old could turn out to be a serious political player in the coming years.

Pakistan: "The Liberal Dictator"
Read Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy's first dispatch in this series and watch the accompanying video where she interviews activists gathered in an upscale neighborhood of Karachi about Pakistan's political future.

Pakistan: Disappeared
Amina Masood Janjua was an ordinary Pakistani housewife, proud of her country and loyal to its military. But all that changed in July 2005, when her husband never came home. FRONTLINE/World correspondent David Montero reports on how her campaign to find her husband sparked national protests challenging Pakistan's feared intelligence agency, the ISI, and led to events that would severely test Musharraf's power.

REACTIONS

Jhon Man - California, Florida
I am closely watching what is happening in Pakistan and to its media freedom. It is very strange that only one master liar and treachrous cheater Pervez Musharraf is continuely defrauding the world community in the name of the so called "war on terror" and squeezing the civil rights of its population. It is now crystal clear that he is an unlawful and outlaw dictator of Pakistan,who cares for no one but himself and his staying in power only. This is the prime reason that he has frozen all the media freedom and turned all the media in to his slave by stopping them first from broadcasting and then allowing them to restart their broadcasting only after accepting his terms and conditions...I admire the courage of journalists like Talat Hussain who tried to stand in the way of a brutal dictator and tried to fulfill his duties as a journalist with full honesty. I also admire the Chief Justice of Pakistan Mr Iftikhar Choudhry for his brave stance against Musharraf. I am confident that Pervez Musharraf's days are numbered and very soon Pakistan and its media will get rid of this fraud and dictator.

Allen, Texas
After watching this video, I reflect on our society and on how there probably wouldn't be a single television network still on the air if we were like Pakistan, because all our TV networks have all said at least one negative thing about President Bush throughout the past seven years. I don't agree at all with [the censorship] that is going on in Pakistan, and it should not be allowed since it is written in their Constitution. Sure President Musharraf is upset because he is being attacked by the media, but not everyone is going to like or agree with what he says or does. I just feel very fortunate to live in the country I live in, and that we have the freedom of press and freedom of speech.