The media muzzle-puzzle

February 12, 2023

The media landscape changed drastically during the Musharraf regime, but how free was it?

The media muzzle-puzzle


en Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s dernier military dictator, was interred in Karachi on Tuesday after he was recalled by his Creator last Sunday. He had not been well for some time and passed away in self-exile in Dubai. Pakistan has had several military dictators since the 1950s. Musharraf, however, was different in many ways. Apart from mounting a coup against an elected government, starting a war with India and joining the US War on Terror, fought mostly in South Asia and the Middle East, Musharraf will be remembered for a few unique actions. Letting Pakistani journalism metamorphose from a predominantly print-based industry to a burgeoning electronic media business was one such step.

Some of Pakistan’s best known media houses had opened shop before the creation of the country in 1947. By 2000, some were established fighters for democracy, human rights, a plural society and tolerance. Their struggle was not without sacrifices, both professional and organisational. The predominantly-print journalism had started feeling the challenge posed by technological developments in the form of satellite television during the 1990s. When Musharraf overthrew Nawaz Sharif’s second government on October 12, 1999, Pakistan was witnessing what Zafar Iqbal, an Islamabad-based academic, describes as “militarisation of politics and politicisation of the military.”

Like Zia-ul Haq, Musharraf remained a global pariah for a while. However, 9/11 happened and the global warmongers needed Pakistan to mount an attack on Afghanistan. From a disdained dictator, within months, Musharraf transformed into a darling of the West. To feign ‘enlightened moderation,’ he decided to “let the people speak and vent their frustrations.” Broadcasting rights were therefore granted to several media houses, albeit after much hesitation with respect to cross-media ownership. Geo of the Jang Media Group led the way by starting test transmissions in August 2002. ARY was already broadcasting hourly news bulletins and a couple of current affairs shows from London.

Despite a limited broadcasting menu – primarily studio-based talk shows discussing politics – these channels became the stable diet of daily television. For several years, prime time talk shows set viewership records. Hence the government action to introduce “codes of conduct;” existing laws on defamation, libel and slander were deemed insufficient for the political debates. It was decided to open the floodgates of “freedom of expression” to any and every aspirant who wanted to own and run a news channel. It was time to make some money and stab the market leaders on the way.

From one state-owned TV channel until 2000, Pakistan could soon boast several dozen news channels. Pemra, the regulatory authority, doled out TV and FM radio licences to every Tom, Dick and Harry. Businessmen, who otherwise were finding it hard to get closer to power corridors, found a perfect route to the heart of the administration. While these licences were doled out, Musharraf regime found perfect competitors to counter established media houses, who not only started losing trained and popular staff but also a sizable chunk of their revenue pie. Gallup says Pakistan’s television revenues rose from negligible to a whopping Rs 27 billion (approx $240 million) by 2008-9. As the consumer market expanded, new technologies were introduced. Satellite and cable operations became lucrative businesses.

The news and entertainment channels opened up new employment avenues for young men and women. Soon there were over 30 categories of channels on the airwaves apart from the news and entertainment genres – sports, music, youth, religious, regional etc. Media schools cropped up in almost every major city and town, mostly dishing out substandard courses focused largely on theory and dated materials. Journalism and media studies now sat with the favourite list of subjects at undergrad as well as graduate levels.

All was going hunky-dory for Musharraf until destiny took a turn around 2006-7. His hounding of the political elite, his obnoxious treatment of the War on Terror prisoners, his crushing and killing of political dissent in the provinces were accepted by the West as collateral harm for the job he was doing for them. Then Lal Masjid happened and blood was spilled in Islamabad. The Lawyers’ Movement started gathering momentum like a perfect storm. The possibility of exiled political leaders returning to the country raised its head. TV channels now had too much masala to offer every evening. Musharraf and his minions felt that the freedoms given to the media were turning too hot to handle. Bureaucracy couldn’t come up with palatable solutions and resorted to time-tested tactics to crush the media.

However, times had changed and unlike Zia Musharraf could not flog journalists. But there were other tactics in store. So, TV channels started receiving show-cause notices stating that “no programme shall be aired which contains (a) aspersions against the judiciary and the armed forces (b) any material amounting to contempt of court (c) contain any abusive comments that when taken in context, tend to or are likely to expose any individual or group or a class of individuals to hatred or contempt.”

Market leaders including Geo were blocked. This blocking of TV channels became an international story. News programmes on global channels were wondering why a “man who liberated media in Pakistan is out to muzzle it.” Unable to come up with a better solution, the regime banned the BBC and CNN in Pakistan in ‘national interest’.

Like Narendra Modi who told a BBC journalist after the Gujarat pogroms in 2002 that he should have “dealt with the media” appropriately, Musharraf reportedly told a meeting on May 15, 2007, that he “will see the media myself.” This was three days after more than 40 people were killed in Karachi when Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry landed in the city to address the local bar. Cable operators were forced to pull the plug on private news channels for endangering “national security, sanctity of the armed forces and the judiciary.”

Criticism by the international rights organisations like the Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Amnesty International, the Reporters Sans Frontières and the Open Society swelled and pinched the administration. In a letter addressed to Musharraf, the Human Rights Watch wrote that they were concerned about concerted and increasing attempts by the Pakistani government to muzzle the media. “The attempt to silence Aaj TV, the violent attack on Geo TV, improper pressures on Dawn, and torture and other physical attacks on journalists in many parts of the country are only some of the well-known examples of attacks on the media.”

Pakistan’s international ranking on media freedom has hardly been worth anything. It had ranked 119 out of 166 on the RSF’s Press Freedom Index in 2006. Within weeks it slipped to 157. Musharraf’s attempts to portray himself as a “benign statesman” were badly ruptured. He had lost face. In one of the many TV interviews that I did in those days with international broadcasters who wanted to know from a Geo employee what had gone wrong with their favourite dictator, I remember telling CNN’s anchorperson Fionnuala Sweeney that Pakistan might have “experienced unprecedented freedom of expression after Musharraf imposed military rule but there was hardly any freedom after expression.”

The writer works for the Jang/ Geo Group. He tweets @aamirghauri

The media muzzle-puzzle