MARGARET WARNER: The newsroom is still humming with journalists working at Geo Television in Karachi, but most Pakistanis can no longer watch the fruit of their labors. Five years after the independent channel came on the air, thanks to a flowering of independent media introduced by President Pervez Musharraf, Geo was taken off the air by the very same president as part of his state of emergency.
IMRAN ASLAM, President, Geo Television: We’ve been effectively blacked out in Pakistan, and news has become a contraband item.
MARGARET WARNER: Imran Aslam is Geo’s president. Until early this month, it was the country’s number-one Urdu-language network, with four channels for news, sports, entertainment and young people.
But on Saturday, November 3rd, just before the army moved onto the streets of Islamabad, Geo, and the country’s other 60-some private channels, were suddenly blacked-out. Pakistanis were left with state-run PTV, which ran Musharraf’s announcement imposing emergency rule without commentary as their only option for news.
IMRAN ASLAM: There are moments in the lives of, you know, rulers when hubris sets in. And this media explosion that you see in Pakistan now was one of the achievements that General Musharraf used to talk about and very proudly point to as one of his great steps that he took. But it seems like, you know, he created in his mind a Frankenstein monster.
Pushing the boundaries
MARGARET WARNER: Over its five years, Geo's news and talk shows had tested the limits of the Musharraf government's tolerance, dealing with political and social issues formerly taboo on TV. And some of its programming was downright cheeky. The animated show "Pillow Talk" depicted Musharraf as being in bed politically with the deeply unpopular President Bush.
Tensions flared. In March, police attacked Geo's bureau in Islamabad, smashing offices and beating journalists. Later in the spring, Geo's live coverage of protests around President Musharraf's first attempt to fire the chief justice fueled larger demonstrations, as Pakistanis watching the protests at home decided to join them. That didn't happen this time.
Even the brand-new English-language Dawn News, which caters to the country's political and diplomatic elite, was shuttered just before emergency rule was officially announced. Dawn's news director, Azhar Abbas, believes the president was determined this time to control the information Pakistanis got about his move and smother any coverage that could spark a popular outcry.
AZHAR ABBAS, News Director, Dawn News: This time, Musharraf didn't want to take any chances. It was that fear in Musharraf in the establishment that if something actually will happen, the media will show it, and it may convert into an actual political movement.
MARGARET WARNER: The channels fought back, with streaming video on their Web sites, text message news alerts to mobile phones, and, in the case of Geo, continuing to broadcast internationally by satellite from its transmission headquarters in Dubai.
Though not many Pakistanis can afford satellite dishes, and their sale has now been banned, even this limited reach seems to have been too much for the Musharraf government. Late last Friday, with just two hours' notice, Geo's Dubai satellite uplink was shut down after the government there, on friendly terms with Musharraf, revoked Geo's license and that of another Pakistani private channel, ARY.
Backlash rises against restrictions
The one-time media titan Geo is now reduced to a stripped-down Web version, in a country where only 15 percent of the people have Internet access. This last blow infuriated Geo anchorman Hamid Mir, a high-profile personality whose talk shows were a particular annoyance to Musharraf's government.
The morning after the shutdown, still on assignment in Lahore, Mir was vowing to organize mass protests, which are illegal under emergency rule.
Do you risk being put in prison?
HAMID MIR, Anchor, Geo News: Yes. I have been told last night by a top government functionary that, "We cannot only arrest you; we can kill you in a road accident." I said, "OK, I am ready. And today, I am coming on road." If they want to arrest me, they are welcome. If they want to kill me in a road accident, they are welcome.
MARGARET WARNER: The Dubai shutdown galvanized Pakistan's media. Every day since then, journalists have organized demonstrations throughout the country, and many have been arrested.
A few ordinary citizens, like Ansa Nadeem in Karachi, are taking part, too. She joined yesterday's Karachi press protest, she said, to "save my country."
ANSA NADEEM, Schoolteacher: Without freedom, I don't think I'll have anything left in this country.
MARGARET WARNER: Are you a journalist?
ANSA NADEEM: I am not a journalist. I'm just a school teacher, and I'm still standing here, because my heart is crying out for my country. We need to protest, otherwise if we just keep going, nothing will change.
MARGARET WARNER: Today, Dawn News is back on the air, but only after extensive negotiations with the government over a new five-page "code of conduct" broadcasters were required to sign as the price of being restored. The code bans "casting aspersions" on the president and programming that undermines the, quote, "national interest."
Dawn News executives insist they signed the document only after amending it to preserve their journalistic independence, but still it rankles.
AZHAR ABBAS: There are certain norms, but I think we don't want the government to dictate it to us. I think the media organizations are quite capable of making their own voluntary code of conduct, and I think this will happen in future. This ban, these curbs cannot continue.
Desperate times, government argues
MARGARET WARNER: As Pakistan's private TV networks assert their need for independence, the Musharraf government is making an equally vigorous counterargument, that Pakistan is in the midst of perilous times and that those perilous times require urgent measures.
Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, who just left the job of chief minister of Punjab province, is a close political ally of Musharraf. He says the media shouldn't be criticizing or ridiculing the government while it's fighting terrorists.
CHAUDHRY PERVEZ ELAHI, Musharraf Ally: They cannot ridicule the army. They cannot ridicule the judiciary. I mean, these are the institutions.
MARGARET WARNER: How about the president?
CHAUDHRY PERVEZ ELAHI: The president is the institution. He's the representative of the federation of Pakistan. So the dignity of that office demands that he should not be seen in that way, how they were trying to show these channels.
MARGARET WARNER: The restrictions come at an inopportune time for Musharraf's political rivals, like opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, with parliamentary elections scheduled for January 8th, just six weeks away.
President Musharraf has given no indication that emergency rule will be lifted before then.
Future remains uncertain
MARGARET WARNER: In a weekend visit to Pakistan, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte urged Musharraf to end the media crackdown and the other emergency measures before the elections, and officials say he specifically raised the case of Geo.
JOHN NEGROPONTE, Deputy Secretary of State: Suppression of the media and the arrests of political and human rights leaders runs directly counter to the reforms that have been undertaken in recent years. Emergency rule is not compatible with free, fair and credible elections.
MARGARET WARNER: Many Pakistanis we spoke with agree. At a protest rally at Punjab University in Lahore on Monday, student Farah Sonam said voters can't make informed election choices if the media restrictions remain in force.
FARAH SONAM, Student: We don't know what's the true situation. We have no correct idea, that Geo TV that is banned or other news channels are banned. We have no true situation of the country.
MARGARET WARNER: Musharraf's political allies insist otherwise.
CHAUDHRY PERVEZ ELAHI: International observers will be there. They will see that elections will be free and fair.
MARGARET WARNER: And you think they can be free and fair, even if the press is not free to report?
CHAUDHRY PERVEZ ELAHI: The press is free to report. There is print media; there are lots of channels. They are free to report what they see.
MARGARET WARNER: At Geo, President Imran Aslam says the network hopes to find a satellite uplink alternative to Dubai, but that won't reach the majority of Pakistani voters who depend on cable or over-the-air. As he watches Geo's ambitious plans for campaign coverage crumble, he says the voters will lose the most, particularly when the threat of suicide bombings makes it perilous to see candidates in person.
IMRAN ASLAM: After the sad bomb blast on Benazir's rally, we felt that, you know, the normal ways of electioneering may not be possible in Pakistan. And we actually believed that the election would be fought on a 38-inch screen, and this would become the arena where, you know, most of the people would debate the issues, and make their speeches, have these great debates. I think this has all been shot down.
MARGARET WARNER: Dawn's Azhar Abbas doesn't think the Pakistani public or press will stand for restricting the media indefinitely.
AZHAR ABBAS: I don't think that Musharraf can sustain this. I don't think that now any ruler in Pakistan can sustain or curb media or bring or take us back to the '80s or the '70s. I think media has come of its age. They have actually tasted this freedom, and I don't think that it will go back.
MARGARET WARNER: But Pakistan's journalists have a battle on their hands to prove that. And unless the public, political parties, and the international community join them in pressing Musharraf, it remains an open question whether this country's president will lift the media curbs in time to ensure a vigorous, open campaign.