The Story of How The Media Rose To Be A Power Center In Pakistani Society
When Pakistan’s most recent military ruler General Pervez Musharraf, assumed power on the 12th of October 1999, he was hailed—both by the local and international media—as a liberal hero.
He imposed no restrictions on the media, and within three years of coming to power, he allowed private news channels to become operational in the country.
Pakistani media was free like never before. It was making fun of everybody under the sun—military rulers, religious scholars and popular political leaders—in comedy shows that private news channels started to air within months of them becoming operational. It was considered the dawn of a new era of freedom of expression. Before General Musharraf was ousted from power, more than 40 news channels had begun airing news bulletins and current affairs programmes on their screens.
Former officials associated with his government point out that it was a well-thought-out move by the military government to enact new and liberal laws and thus create operating space for private news channels. It’s possible that it didn’t occur to the military establishment that the new forces of media freedom that they had unleashed would eventually turn against them.
A retired official associated with Musharraf’s presidency says the military thought that Pakistani news channels would “pull the Pakistani public away from watching Indian news channels—a habit which was harming the country’s national interests badly”.
But for many, this media revolution was nothing more than an illusion. In their opinion, Musharraf’s regime had started using high-handed tactics against journalists much before the first political crisis his government faced in March 2007, when the legal community began a political campaign against his government. Musharraf had sacked the then sitting Chief Justice of Pakistan, which was followed by a countrywide protest by the legal fraternity. Many senior media personalities came out in the open against the government and in support of the lawyers.
The government’s move to liberalise 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 staged a coup.
In May 1999, Musharraf launched an incursion into Kargil, a mountainous region of Indian-held Kashmir. Here the Pakistani and Indian armies faced each other at 18,000 feet. In the spring of 1999, Musharraf sneaked his troops in early, taking the empty Indian positions without a fight. The subsequent war had Pakistan beaten back, withdrawing under US pressure.
At that time, Pakistan Television (PTV) was the only source for television news. Ironically PTV’s credibility among the Pakistani public was so low that the latter turned to Indian news channels for the latest information on the Kargil military crisis. In those days, the prices of illegal satellite dishes soared, since it was the only source to receive transmissions of Indian news channels.
“While the Pakistan military was fighting the Indians in the mountains of Kashmir, the Pakistani public was more eager to listen to Indian reality created by Indian news channels,” says a senior official of the Musharraf government. The retired government official says this was when Musharraf made his plans to introduce private news channels in Pakistan—and his opportunity came when he became President after an October 1999 coup.
The Pakistani media turned out to be highly nationalistic. But at the same time, some sections of it transformed into highly pro-democracy force. This was worrying for the Musharraf government. M. Ziauddin, a veteran journalist and the former editor of Dawn, says the media, as a public sector industry emerged as “the only pro-democracy force in the country”.
The Musharraf government was ousted from power before it could do anything to force any change in the media. But the media’s later “excesses” compelled Musharraf’s successors in the military to contemplate a shift in policy towards the press.
Five days after the attack on the life of renowned Pakistani journalist and television anchorperson Hamid Mir—he received six bullet injuries—his brother Amir Mir read out Hamid’s statement outside the hospital ICU. Hamid had been severely injured in a gun attack on the 19th of April, 2014, outside Karachi airport. He had landed half an hour ago and was on his way to the head office of Geo TV to host a special talk show on the increasing violence in Karachi.
Amir Mir, also a senior journalist, told the small group of press people gathered outside the ICU: “My brother has appealed to the media community in Pakistan to be united in the face of growing threats to journalists and our right of freedom of expression from state and non-state actors.”
Hamid’s appeal made perfect sense in the face of growing tensions and a war of words in Pakistan’s media industry in the wake of his attack. Within hours of the attack, the divisions in the Pakistani industry surfaced.
Most news channels began accusing Geo TV of serving Indian interests by trying to malign national institutions like the Pakistan Army and intelligence services.
Hamid’s family directly accused the Director-General of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lt General Zaheer-ul-Islam, of masterminding the attack. Hamid endorsed this allegation as well, after regaining consciousness, in the statement his brother read out:
“A few weeks back, a senior ISI official visited my home and told me that my name has appeared on the hit-list. I asked him who made the hit-list, but he didn’t care to inform me about it […] I had told the intelligence official who visited my home that in the present circumstances I feel that the threat to my life is coming from the ISI. ISI was not happy with my stance on Balochistan, my support for the trial of Pervez Musharraf and the issue of missing persons (thousands of people who have been allegedly kidnapped by Pakistani intelligence).”
Geo TV broadcast the family’s allegations as breaking news even before Hamid gave his statement. For six hours, the channel emphasized that Lt. General Zaheer-ul-Islam was the man behind Hamid’s attack, showing his photo and video clips of his official meetings. Geo TV was utterly alone in this—the rest of the news channels almost entirely blacked out the news of the attack on Hamid apart from brief updates, which stated that a senior journalist had been attacked in Karachi.
Almost every channel accused it of hurting national interests and acting as an “Indian agent”. A senior Pakistani journalist said, on condition of anonymity, “It soon became clear that Geo was isolated and rest of the channels were completely siding with the ISI.”
On behalf of the ISI, Pakistan’s Defense Ministry submitted a written complaint to Pakistan’s media regulatory authority (PEMRA), accusing Geo of going against the interests of Pakistan. The four-page complaint—which included the script of news bulletins, tickers and breaking news—stated that “the said reporting has violated the specific terms and conditions of [Geo TV’s] license”, and demanded the immediate cancellation of the license.
There was no dearth of Pakistani journalists and analysts appearing on other news channels supporting this demand. Meanwhile, the Army authorities passed orders to block Geo’s transmissions in cantonment areas.
This would have been an unexpected turn of events for authorities—private news channels, which were allowed to operate in Pakistani society to counter the India media were turning their guns against their “creators”. This led the Pakistani state machinery to institute two kinds of countermeasures to prevent private channels from going astray:
a) hard measures like the discontinuation of giving advertisements to private media.
b) soft measures like creating a group of cheerleaders among journalists who praise state institutions (no matter what they do) and malign all those who criticize the high-handedness of state institutions.
The result is that Pakistani television channels are now much more pliant than they were four years ago.
By the middle of the last decade, the Pakistani media became a player in the power politics of the country. Popular journalists started to pretend and claim that were the force behind the political change in Islamabad in 2008—the year Musharraf was ousted from power. By this time, many in the media community claimed the media was instrumental in dislodging him from power. Veteran journalist M Ziauddin says some media houses become immensely powerful at the political level.
General Musharraf, however, played no small part in making these media houses so powerful as to make them capable of orchestrating a political change in the country. Ziauddin says, “There was a law in the country which prevented cross media ownership. A media house which owned a newspaper could not own a television channel […] Musharraf changed the law to allow a television channel to the owner of the Jang group.”
Jang was the largest Urdu newspaper in Pakistan and it was owned by Mir Shakeel-ur-Rehman, who also owned the largest English newspaper, The News. With Musharraf’s change in the law, Shakeel-ur-Rehman now also owned Geo TV, a channel with the largest reach. “They became very powerful. They thought they can make and break governments,” says Ziauddin.
The demise of the Musharraf regime allowed the return of parliamentary democracy in the country. The Pakistan People’s Party and Pakistani Muslim League (Nawaz) took turns to run the federal government in Islamabad. The political class which came to governing positions in the next 10 years were on friendly terms with the media—or at least with the leading journalists and media houses of the country. This meant less friction between the successive governments and the media community.
In this situation, the Pakistani media mostly continued its pro-democracy tradition. However, there were increasing signs that the military establishment was making inroads into media houses, making space with the counter-argument that democracy has given nothing to the country. As a result, some of the media houses ran campaigns to malign the political class who ruled country from 2008 till 2018 in the post Musharraf period.
Media house owners were increasingly tilted against the political class, which by default was representing democracy in the country. The new news channels launched massive campaigns to malign former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and former President Asif Ali Zardari by labeling them as most “corrupt politicians” in the history of the country.
This increasingly fluid situation allowed some new businessmen—usually known as influence-mongers—to launch news channels of their own. In this period, Pakistan witnessed a ghee mill owner and a bakery owner starting their own popular news channels. Both channels turned out to be highly pro-military and highly anti-democracy. It is not difficult to understand who lobbied them to launch campaigns against the political class.
M Ziauddin says Pakistani media owners have never been pro-democracy, “They have always sided with the government of the day […] and in most of the past decades , the government of the day had been military. The owners of pro-democracy traditions in the media houses are the workers of the media […] They are the ones who always sided with democracy.”
However old media houses were not very far behind in the campaign to malign the political class at the behest of military establishment. In mid-October 2010, the Pakistan Supreme Court asked the government of Pakistan to inform the court in black and white as to whether it was ready to follow the orders of the court in writing to the Swiss authorities for opening money laundering cases against President Asif Ali Zardari.
The government was unequivocal in its position that Asif Ali Zardari as President enjoyed constitutional immunity and no criminal case could be instituted against him while he remained the President of Pakistan. The proceedings in the Supreme Court were not criminal in nature as the court was hearing a constitutional petition under its civil jurisdiction. However the Supreme Court in one of its orders had asked the government to initiate money-laundering cases against President Asif Ali Zardari in Swiss court.
Thus the government came forward with the objection that the Pakistani Constitution specifically provides immunity to the President against any criminal proceedings. The overwhelming majority of constitutional experts in Pakistan agreed with the government that Pakistani law was very clear on the point: no criminal proceedings could be initiated against President of Pakistan.
Not everyone was satisfied with government’s answer. Pakistan’s leading news channel, Geo TV, launched a public message campaign urging President Asif Ali Zardari to appear before the court in line with the great Islamic history, where even Caliph Umar (RA) appeared before Islamic courts and explained his positions to the Qazi. It was an incessant public service messages campaign and the television channel used to broadcast the long skit repeatedly, at the start of hourly bulletins and at the conclusion of every talk show. This was coupled with the talk shows and special reports, in which the public is routinely informed about the past and ongoing rampant corruption in the government’s ranks.”
The public service message campaign proved to the proverbial last straw and the government and ruling party started to react. A senior official of PPP announced in a press conference that no parliamentarian and party leader would participate in any of the talk shows of Geo TV and the whole party would completely boycott the publications and TV programs of their owner, the Jang media group.
There had been other cases of friction between the ruling political elite and journalist community in the period from 2008 to 2018. But these frictions remained restricted to verbal clashes. No untoward incident was reported during the tenures of two elected governments in which the civilian government was said to be instrumental.
A senior journalist, Saleem Shahzad, who served as the Pakistan Bureau Chief of Asia Times Online, was killed in 2010 after he disappeared in mysterious circumstances from Islamabad. But nobody accused the civilian government of being behind his disappearance or killing. He was famous for unearthing the militants’ nexus with Pakistani security apparatus.
The last four years have, however, seen gruesome brutalities unleashed against Pakistani media people, especially in Islamabad.
Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.