BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. In 1979, Pakistan's military dictator, General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, instituted a set of laws collectively known as the Hudood Ordinance. Based on Muslim custom, but not necessarily Islamic law, the rules covered adultery, fornication, alcohol consumption, lying and stealing. The Hudood Ordinance imposes harsh ancient punishments, such as stoning, for women, even rape victims, convicted of adultery. Pakistan's current military strongman, Colonel Pevrez Musharraf, has tried to reverse or moderate the Hudood Ordinance, only to be stymied by hard-line Islamist objections. But this year, an independent TV station called GEO-TV opened up the issue for debate, not as a matter of social policy but as an interpretation of the Koran. As a result, the law is now being reviewed, permitting Musharraf to release more than 1,000 accused women from prison on bail. Their cases are still pending, but it's a start. Gretchen Peters is covering the story for ABC News. She joins us now from Islamabad. Gretchen, welcome to the show.
GRETCHEN PETERS: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: At least two previous governments before Musharraf have actually attempted to either repeal or substantially amend the Hudood Ordinance but failed completely. But this television show on GEO-TV seems to have just changed everything. Tell me about GEO-TV and its background, please.
GRETCHEN PETERS: GEO and a handful of other private networks have all sprung up over the last five years. Before that, Pakistan had nothing other than its state TV program, Pakistan TV. And when I first started working in this country about a decade ago, when you'd go to press conferences, you'd see nothing else but the Associated Press camera, Reuters Television. Sometimes the BBC would be there, and PTV. These days, there are about 30 private channels. A lot of the big ones, like GEO, are broadcast out of other countries, out of Dubai or Abu Dhabi, presumably because of fears that the Pakistan government might shut them down. They've been very critical of the Pakistan government on many occasions, most especially in the weeks after the massive earthquake that struck this country last year in October. GEO has proved to be very feisty both in terms of the entertainment that it puts on but also its breaking news coverage, and people tend to be glued to it across the country. This program about the Hudood Ordinance again turns a corner at the role that private television is playing in Pakistan.
BOB GARFIELD: The talk show, "Zara Sochieye," "Just Think," took an interesting approach, because in discussing the Hudood Ordinance it did not have sort of the usual suspects. It did not have women's rights groups. It did not have representatives of foreign NGOs or academics other than Islamic scholars. Tell me why.
GRETCHEN PETERS: Well, one of the reasons past governments have failed to repeal or amend the Hudood Ordinance is that the religious parties here, and they are very powerful, although they are a minority – the minute anyone tries to go against something like this, whether it is the Hudood Ordinance or other religious edicts that have become law, they denounce the person or the group as un-Islamic, and then the entire public swings behind them. And, of course, we have a relatively uneducated populace here in Pakistan, so that's something that has been a major stumbling block for previous efforts to do something about the Hudood Ordinance. This program took a very, very clever approach to the situation by bringing Islamic scholars, some of them moderate, some of them more conservative. It's also a debate that has Pakistani people, for the first time in public, using the Internet, using telephones. The public is calling in, taking part in this discussion. That's the real issue here.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I mean, before we get too irrationally exuberant about this, I guess we should observe that however the Hudood Ordinance has been, let's say, effectively moderated, would I be wildly condescending to suggest that this is sort of dragging the country, kicking and screaming, into the 19th century?
GRETCHEN PETERS: Well, certainly you could say that, and it would only be the 19th century, not the 20th. One issue that comes up here is that in the villages, no matter what law is in place, tribal law will prevail. We routinely read things in the local newspapers about a young girl being given as a bride to a rival family because there's been some dispute over land, you know, women being given to other families as a way to settle some sort of dispute between the two tribes. So getting rid of the Hudood Ordinance is not going to go very far unless they can implement some kind of justice that reaches the countryside, and provide better education for their people.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, as to the role of the media in all of this, do we have any reason to think that this is the beginning of a trend?
GRETCHEN PETERS: Well, I think that's what a lot of Pakistanis, and certainly a lot of us who watch Pakistan closely, are waiting to see. President Musharraf has ordered one amendment already to the Hudood Ordinance and has asked legal scholars to look at other amendments to it. So I think we're seeing the beginning of something that could spawn changes to this very draconian and medieval set of laws. And I think many Pakistanis quietly hope that will happen. I think not enough people in the world realize that there exists a very quiet majority here who would like to see Pakistan become a more moderate, more open and more democratic country.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, Gretchen. Well, thank you very much.
GRETCHEN PETERS: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Gretchen Peters is a reporter and producer. She works for ABC News from Islamabad.