The year was 2002 and what Pakistanis witnessed on their television screens was unlike anything they had laid their eyes on before. On the then recently launched Geo News, a visibly shaken yet determined reporter, braving his violent surroundings was engaged in creating many milestones for himself and his organisation: live transmission from the field by a private news channel – a first in Pakistan and reporting on a police-terrorist encounter in Karachi.
The video was shaky due to the rapid movements of the cameraman and the reporter’s voice was shaky due to the constant firing in the background. The audience across Pakistan and journalists sending this transmission from the newsroom miles away in Dubai were all shaken by this live coverage, the likes of which they had seen earlier only in action movies. The reporter was Faheem Siddiqui and since then, he and Geo News have never looked back.
As a young news producer early in her career, there were many firsts I – along with other TV journalists and the nation as a whole – experienced through Geo News. Before the channel was launched, the entire team underwent extensive three-month training by foreign experts – unmatched by any other network. A whole new set of vocabulary in TV journalism was introduced: beepers, tickers, breaking news – conspicuously missing from Pakistani TV screens until then. The look itself of the news screen changed altogether. Geo News was striking, modern, informative, innovative and yet projecting societal values.
And then came the Iraq war. I remember vividly images and videos received in the newsroom and barely controlling my fearful excitement, managing their relay along with the content in the morning and afternoon transmissions. Headlines were updated on an hourly and even half hourly basis – also a first at the time. Videos were trimmed for appropriateness in a matter of seconds, a feat never performed before by the video editors. There was chaos, there were limitless deadlines, our bodies ached, our heads hurt, but the frenzy did not obstruct our team work with which we were able to inform a Pakistani skilled worker watching news in a café while sipping tea – yet another milestone of that time.
So when the news trickled discreetly – since it was debated selectively in print, widely in social and not at all in electronic media – that cable operators had taken Geo News off air, it was more than disturbing. From live coverage of events to breaking news to live Ramazan transmissions, all norms of TV news channels today in Pakistan owe their existence to Geo. The structure of the newsroom in a TV channel in Pakistan, its hierarchy and designation titles – all evolved from Geo. The now routine sights of brightly painted DSNG vans of news channels on the streets were made common by Geo. The news heads of almost all prominent television news channels in Pakistan are my dear colleagues and mentors – also from Geo.
Geo News has proved to be an institution. Its followers learnt the tricks of the trade well and fast, for electronic media in Pakistan is now quite competitive and Geo News also has to scramble with others for ratings. There have been many others who proved to be trendsetters and have brought innovations of their own to the field. But the sense of competition and survival ran prominently in others at a time when Geo News was braving obstruction to its transmission.
The allegation came out to be that the channel was not impartial and was biased in its views. It probably supported the wrong side, for biases are not uncommon on other platforms – the only difference being that they may be leaning to the ‘right’ side. Self censorship is now a growing practice in the print media, with there being some liberty in the way of voicing opinions of free-minded people and disclaiming their thoughts as an organisation. But television is louder, has farther reach, and more impact and reliability in the minds of the audience. A mistake aired can have more dire consequences than one printed. Geo News probably dabbled a little more than the acceptable limits of freedom, a contradictory concept in itself.
Geo News is now a household brand. The thora sa neela, thora sa peela concept has been liberally borrowed by shop owners and other free enterprise practitioners. The iconic jeem symbol is seen in many cheaper versions. Geo News has proved to be revolutionary. Channels can be closed, but revolutions – in thought and creativity – take considerable time to be shut down.
The writer is a freelance journalist and a former employee of Geo News. She has a keen interest in issues regarding women, religion and foreign affairs.