Islamabad, Asharq Al-Awsat – “Kamran Khan and Dr. Shahid Masood listen very carefully. We will cut off your hands if you don’t shut your mouths immediately.” This was the threat made to Pakistan’s two leading news anchors by the ruling party leader, Rana Aftab Ahmed, whilst addressing a public rally in Lahore two months ago. At the time, President Asif Ali Zardari and the Pakistan People’s Party government were facing a deteriorating political crisis over the allegations of financial corruption and money laundering and Pakistan’s independent news channels were making the situation more difficult for the government by discussing the corruption scandals in depth.
The anchors, Dr. Shahid Masood and Kamran Khan, from two popular talk shows, were targeted by the ruling party because of their one hour long tirades against the ruling party during prime time, as many Pakistanis remain glued to their television screens.
The crucial role played by Pakistan’s powerful media in the demise of the government of former President Pervez Musharraf has given these news channels the confidence to take on any government that dares challenge and question their role as an imaginative vehicle for the dissemination of information and ideas in society.
Within a few minutes of receiving the threat, talk show host Kamran Khan was appearing live on Geo Television Network issuing counter warnings to the government not to embark on any “misadventure.” “Don’t even think for a minute that this threat will deter us,” Kamran Khan said during the live telecast, as repeated video clips were broadcast of the ruling party leaders hurling abuse and making threats at Pakistani journalists.
In a developing country like Pakistan, where social inequality and economic hardships push the people towards opposing anything related to the government, Kamran Khan was clearly the winner in this nationally televised war of words. “That day we received thousands of emails in which people expressed their support for Dr Shahid Masood and Kamran Khan,” said an official from Geo television working in the management of the news channel.
Officials from the credible and private opinion poll agency, Gallup International, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the viewership of anchorpersons like Dr Shahid Masood and Kamran Khan reaches millions. Both of them and many other anchors of popular talk shows are the product of Pakistan’s media revolution, which has broken all social and political taboos and was the main force behind the ousting of former President Pervez Musharraf’s government and is advocating a new form of political morality. This media revolution has recently been described as a main force behind the formation of consensus in Pakistani society to oppose religious extremism and militancy.
Many television presenters have become popular figures in Pakistani society. “I have been so concerned about the safety of journalists in times of political crisis that I always call offices of TV channels and ask them about the wellbeing of the well-known journalists and anchor persons,” said Shahnaz Khan, a young teacher in a high school.
But not everyone is so sympathetic towards the private news channels. “The role of private news channels is not at all positive, and especially in times of political crisis they become more aggressive in their presentation of the news and talks shows,” said Azeem Ahmed, a journalist-turned-politician who was close to the Musharraf government.
Ten years ago Pakistan had only one news channel and that was owned and run by the government. Now the number of news channels exceeds one hundred operated by a combination of professional journalists and business entrepreneurs. “Together they are keeping the Pakistani masses glued to their television screens,” said one media expert. It could be about any aspect of Pakistani life; politics, religion, the fashion industry, terrorism or maybe family disputes. “You will find it on Pakistani channels” said the expert.
Tahira Naqvi, a middle-aged kindergarten teacher who spends a fair amount of her free time watching news programs and political talk shows, said, “I am a working woman and it is very difficult for me to participate in political activities, but watching these private channels, these talk shows and news programs give me the feeling that I am part of what is going on.”
The media revolution started to creep into Pakistani society in the early years of former President Pervez Musharraf’s rule. Former officials associated with General Musharraf’s government pointed out that it was an intentional move of the military government to enact new and liberal laws to create operating space for private news channels.
But it never would have crossed the former military ruler General Musharraf’s mind that the new forces of media freedom he was unleashing in Pakistani society would turn against him and would ultimately lead to his removal from government.
“General Musharraf was of the opinion that Pakistani news channels would pull the Pakistani public away from watching Indian news channels, a habit that was harming the country’s national interests badly,” said a retired official associated with Musharraf’s presidency.
The government’s move to liberalize media laws in Pakistan was sparked by a military campaign in 1999, when General Musharraf was serving as Chief of the Army Staff and had not yet carried out his coup.
In May 1999 Pervez Musharraf launched an incursion in Kargil, a mountainous region of Indian-administered Kashmir. Here the Pakistani and Indian armies faced each other at 18,000 feet. In the spring of 1999 Musharraf’s troops infiltrated early, taking the empty Indian positions without a fight. The subsequent war however saw Pakistan’s defeat as it withdrew under US pressure.
At the time Pakistan Television (PTV) was the only source for television news. Paradoxically, PTV’s credibility among the Pakistani public was so low that the Pakistani people turned to Indian news channels for latest information regarding the Kargil military crisis. In those days the prices of illegal satellite dishes soared, as it was the only way to watch Indian news channels.
“While Pakistan’s military was fighting the Indians in the mountains of Kashmir, the Pakistani public was more eager to listen to the Indian reality created by Indian news channels,” said a senior official of the Musharraf government. “This was the time when General Musharraf made plans for introducing private news channels in Pakistan,” said the retired government official. Soon fate gave him this opportunity when he became the President of Pakistan after staging a coup in October 1999.
General Musharraf’s wish was granted as Pakistani news media turned out to be highly nationalistic in tone and tenor. But there were some unintended consequences. “At the cultural level Pakistani media is highly pro-democracy and vigorously opposed to the military’s involvement in politics,” said Fasih-ur-Rehman, a political analyst and television commentator. “Primarily because the strength of news channels is their viewership, the more viewership you have the more powerful you are in the corridors of power,” said Fasih-ur-Rehman.
This tendency to view issues from the perspective of the people has led the Pakistani media in the direction of popularizing the debate on religious subjects. For decades the format of religious programs on Pakistan’s state-owned media included a religious scholar giving lectures to a completely silent group of people.
Pakistan’s two leading news channels – Geo Television and Duniya Television – broadcast the most popular religious talk shows in the country. “Both channels have tried to popularize the religious debate by including the people’s voice in the programme,” said a media expert.
In the first religious program, the leading religious scholar of the country, Dr Javed Ghamidi faces a group of university students (both male and female) who come up with highly sceptical questions. The second religious program, ‘Alim Online’ is hosted by Dr Amir Liaquat Hussein who invites religious scholars from different sects to answer questions posed by the everyday viewer on the telephone.
The recent surveys conducted by opinion polls agencies indicate that ‘Alim Online’ is the most popular talk show ever hosted in the history of Pakistani television.
This has led to a drastic change in the form of religious learning at least among Pakistan’s middle class. “There is a drastic reduction in the number of people who come to us to buy religious books,” says Muhammad Yousaf, owner of Islamabad’s biggest book store, ‘Mr Books.’ “It seems people are more interested in listening to religious scholars like Dr Javed Ghamidi than reading his books”.
It is not the case that Pakistani media is creating trouble for the government; most serious political analysts agree that Pakistan’s powerful media is behind the prevailing consensus in Pakistani society to oppose extremism and militancy.
“Most consistently Pakistani news channels have been the source of creative ideas to counter the extremist philosophies espoused by Pakistani Taliban in the tribal areas,” said Fasih-ur-Rehman.
“Actually it is the news channels that have brought home the idea to the Pakistani public that religious extremism is an aberration and Pakistani society has a long history of liberal political thought and religious tolerance,” said Fasih-ur-Rehman.
The debate between religious groups and liberal sections of society are played out every day on the television screens of Pakistan’s private news channels through the medium of popular talk shows.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani on numerous occasions has personally expressed his gratitude to Pakistani news channels for taking a consistent stand against religious extremism and militancy.
The apparent agreement between the government and news media in opposing the threat of extremism has not stopped the news channels and their anchors from launching a lethal campaign against President Asif Ali Zardari. It was these daily hour-long tirades during prime time against President Asif Ali Zardari that led to recent tensions between Pakistani news channels and the Pakistan People’s Party government.
Every evening millions of Pakistanis watch the popular talk show host Kamran Khan predicting the imminent fall of the Zardari government in his hour long talk show, ‘Aaj Kamran Khan Ka Saat’ (Today with Kamran Khan). “For almost six months Dr Shahid Masood’s talk show ‘Mera Mutabik’ discusses nothing but the downfall of the Zardari government,” says Faisal Raza Abdi, the political secretary to President Asif Ali Zardari. “This is unfair”.
But this time round the results of media campaigns against the government are panning out differently. Unlike the Musharraf government, the Zardari government hasn’t collapsed under the pressure of the Pakistani media. “Either the media will grow up as a result of this experience, or otherwise if the trends in the media persist then we may see another showdown between the government and the media,” said a media expert.