BOB GARFIELD: This week, the news was filled with pictures of protestors in Pakistan clashing with police. But what pictures are they seeing within Pakistan? According to Shahan Mufti, a journalist based in Islamabad, president and military leader Pervez Musharraf is locked in a standoff with an independent Pakistani media that he helped create.
Back in 1999, then just General Musharraf led what was supposed to be a secret incursion into India, and if you were watching Pakistan's one state-run news channel, it was a secret. But India had a fledgling independent media that flooded the battle zone and embarrassed Pakistan with international coverage.
Months later, when Musharraf seized power in a coup, he encouraged an independent television market that quickly flourished, changing the country in the process. SHAHAN MUFTI: It was a phenomenal cultural breakthrough. This is a very illiterate society in Pakistan, one of the most illiterate countries in the world. Pakistanis were used to being told things through state television.
When this independent media boom began, all of a sudden Pakistanis were exposed to, pretty much overnight, all the different points of views and all the different ways of thinking that went into fashion and music, religion and definitely politics. It allowed all sort of voices of all political persuasions to appear on TV. So then the mushrooming of channels began, being backed by a lot of political groups and also just businessmen. BOB GARFIELD: Another major turning point came with Musharraf's dispute with the chief justice of the Pakistan Supreme Court and rulings about Musharraf's anti-democratic leanings. Tell me how the media played in that standoff. SHAHAN MUFTI: Well, this began in March. This is when Pervez Musharraf decided to get rid of the chief justice of Pakistan who had become a nemesis for Musharraf because he had passed a lot of rulings exposing some government corruption.
When the chief justice was removed, this battle of the judiciary became a public event. These massive rallies, these were covered by the media minute to minute. During one of these rallies in Islamabad, GEO Television, which is the largest private news television channel in Pakistan, their offices were raided by the police security forces, and this whole confrontation was broadcast live on television. This was the first time that Pakistanis all over the country saw, and the television media experienced, what a crackdown could look like.
After this confrontation at GEO, the government introduced some new laws. What journalists felt most upset about was the restrictions on live coverage. The government realized, obviously, that breaking news had a huge effect on mobilizing people. BOB GARFIELD: And then almost immediately a test of the media. This past summer in the standoff at the Red Mosque, when Musharraf's forces liberated it from Islamic militants holed up inside and killed dozens or hundreds of people, including women and children, tell me about the coverage. You believe the media failed that test, don't you? SHAHAN MUFTI: The battle of the Red Mosque really did become a test for journalists, and this is something that they admitted to themselves. Journalists not only got caught up in negotiating a settlement between the government and the leaders of the Red Mosque through on-air negotiations carried out by anchors, but the channels also got blocked out from covering the news because of the new stringent laws and curbs introduced by the government. So their treatment of the Red Mosque issue became really muddled, and many said that they failed the litmus test. BOB GARFIELD: We are nearly a week into a state of emergency in Pakistan, where Musharraf has consolidated power still farther. Today's headlines: the arrests of 500 political opponents, including legislators. Tell me what effect this is having on the media, and to what extent the crackdown has been felt there. SHAHAN MUFTI: Well Bob, the first inklings of any suspicion that I had is when I turned on the television and found that all the news outlets that we have been talking about were selectively missing from my cable signal. So right now, Pakistan is in an effective media blackout. All Pakistanis are dependent on the state television to provide them their news and information right now. This has pretty much thrown [LAUGHS] back society eight years. Nobody remembers living like this, and it is leading to a lot of frustration.
During President Musharraf's address to the nation, he described a negativist media that was creating an environment that encouraged terrorism in the country and it was also standing in the way of governing. So he really pinpointed the media as one of the reasons why he had to dismiss the constitution and introduce effective marshal law in the country. BOB GARFIELD: Let's just say that Musharraf's position becomes untenable and the army steps in, as he did in the past, to take over, what do you think it will do with the free media? SHAHAN MUFTI: This is a million-dollar question, Bob. [LAUGHS] Private media has never known anything but Pervez Musharraf's military rule. Many journalists I spoke to remember working for the print media and getting dragged out of bed in the middle of the night for writing a wrong story. A lot of journalists also express despair with how so-called democratic leaders in this country, how their insecurities might just make for a wholly different and much more oppressive media environment.
But many are quite confident that the expectations that people in the most remote villages have linked to having free access to information now in Pakistan. It has really become a backbone for the democratic movement in this country. It will be a very hard process to roll back. BOB GARFIELD: All right. Shahan, thank you so much. SHAHAN MUFTI: It was a pleasure. BOB GARFIELD: Shahan Mufti is a freelance journalist reporting for The Christian Science Monitor in Islamabad. His article, “Musharraf's Monster,” is in this month's Columbia Journalism Review.