BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf continues to score points with the Bush administration as America's key ally in the war on terror, but despite his popularity abroad, Musharraf is in deep trouble at home. The opposition has mounted a fierce movement against the general remaining in uniform while president, paralyzing the Parliament for almost a year. Many are skeptical about his commitment to democracy, but even they agree the press has had more freedom under Musharraf than probably ever before. Even so, the press there walks a careful line through a mine field of military, political and religious influences. From Islamabad, Miranda Kennedy looks at the press in the first of a two-part series on Pakistani media.
MIRANDA KENNEDY: Traditionally, the Pakistani print media has had more space to breathe than the electronic media, no matter who's in power. That's largely because it is less effective. Of a country of over 140 million people, only some 2 million read newspapers, thanks to shockingly low literacy rates, and English language papers account for only a fraction of those readers.
M ZIAUDDIN: It is almost an indulgence of the elite in this country, the English press.
MIRANDA KENNEDY: M Ziauddin is the Islamabad editor of The Dawn, a sober and respected English language newspaper that was actually founded before Pakistan itself. Ziauddin says The Dawn survived decades of military dictatorships basically because it shamelessly toed the government line. Ziauddin recalls printing verbatim government press releases and letting the censor board remove entire pages. The Dawn can write whatever it wants these days, but that's because hardly anybody reads it.
M ZIAUDDIN: In the comments of the day became a veil, that look, if they let the English press alone, that's not going to make much of a difference.
MIRANDA KENNEDY: Even if the government largely leaves the English language newspapers alone, individual journalists aren't always immune. Najam Sethi, editor of the Lahore-based English newspaper The Daily Times, was thrown in jail under two earlier Pakistani regimes for his work as a journalist. He lived through the era when journalists were actually flogged as punishment for penning critical views. Najam founded his first paper, The Weekly Friday Times, after Pakistan's fearsome Islamist former president, Mohammed Zia ul Haq died, in 1988. Najam says that under Musharraf's government, the press is better off in many ways.
NAJAM SETHI: Everywhere he goes, he flaunts this to the Western World -- "The press is free." And to a large extent, that is the case. Unless there was extreme provocation of a personal nature against any of the generals, Musharraf basically let the press be. Musharraf has tread a very careful and balanced line --selected repression, targeted, but without leaving any fingerprints. But by and large, the press is free.
MIRANDA KENNEDY: The targeted repression Najam says he talks about has been well-documented by the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. They say there have been dozens of attacks on journalists just in the last year. Last January a journalist who wrote a book condemning religious fundamentalism was killed. Recently another journalist who criticized the government sports board was badly beaten. Mehdi Hassan is a Human Rights Commission board member and a journalism professor in Lahore. He says these violent incidents prove that the media in Pakistan is still inferior to that in neighboring democratic India.
MEHDI HASSAN: In Indian society, there are people, there are newspapers which condemn religious extremists against Muslims. In Pakistan, you can't condemn and you can't agitate against the doings of religious extremists and religious parties openly.
MIRANDA KENNEDY: Najam Sethi has a different take on the Indian versus Pakistani media. While he agrees that democracy is necessary for media to thrive, he thinks it often leads to an aligning of the press with government and business interests -- what he calls a democratic leveling. This is what's happened in both the U.S. and the Indian media, he says, because when you have an established democracy, reporters tend to fall into line based on consensus. So, according to his analysis, there is an up side to recent decades of media repression in Pakistan.
NAJAM SETHI: We've been under a, a lid, and when they took the lid off, we were so angry that we started sort of, you know, shouting and screaming, and the rules of the game in terms of what you can say and what you can't say and why not are not entirely clear. So for that reason, precisely because we've been under a dictatorship, and when you take the lid off, there tends to be a bubbling over. We are still very bubbly.
MIRANDA KENNEDY: Pakistani newspapers are very lively, both in English and Urdu, the national language of Pakistan. Irshad Haqqani is a senior editor and columnist at the Daily Jang, the largest Urdu newspaper in Pakistan. He criticizes the Musharraf government regularly in print.
IRSHAD HAQQANI: Although there are invisible pressures, there are behind-the-scenes moves, but by and large even if you criticize him personally, you don't think that you will be prosecuted or a case will be registered against you. But I can't say that everything is hunky-dory; everything is fine. They are bringing new defamation laws which are more stringent than the ones that are already there on the statute book.
MIRANDA KENNEDY: New laws proposed by the Musharraf government would impose new restrictions on journalists accused of defaming or slandering politicians. Critics point out that the law against blasphemy is used to settle personal scores and often targets journalists. In July, a Pakistani high court sentenced Munawar Mohsin, a junior newspaper editor, to life in prison for allegedly defiling the name of the Prophet Mohammed. It's a capital offense in this Islamic republic. President Musharraf promised he would reform that law when he came to office. Pressure from Islamic fundamentalists made him change his mind. But even so, Asma Jehangir, Pakistan's best-known human rights lawyer, sees some murmurings of hope for a free press.
ASMA JEHANGIR: Previous people were too scared even to discuss the law of blasphemy, and then there was a demand that this law should be looked into, and now you see newspapers writing about it. You've seen editorials denounce the manner in which it is abused. I think we have tasted a few months of relative freedom. Let me put it that way. And it's very difficult to reverse it, number one; and number two, of course it is another century, and you have to go forward.
MIRANDA KENNEDY: But accompanying small signs of change, there's caution. Editors, journalists and academics admit they censor their own work for fear of running afoul of the country's blasphemy and defamation laws. Pakistan still has a long road to travel towards press freedom. For On the Media, I'm Miranda Kennedy in Islamabad.