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Analysis: Pakistan’s emergency over, but not for the media

BBC Monitoring

Analysis by Steve Metcalf of BBC Monitoring on 17 December

After six weeks of emergency rule, Pakistan's private television channels have been quietened but not completely silenced. There have been contradictory official statements about exactly what they are, and are not, allowed to broadcast. But the government appears to be calculating that the threat of punitive fines, and the perception by some quarters of the public that the channels had overstepped the mark, will be sufficient to encourage them to apply a certain degree of restraint, or self-censorship.

More restrictive environment

The shutting down of private news channels was the main feature of the media curbs that accompanied the declaration of emergency. With the exception of Geo TV, all the channels have now been allowed back on the cable networks which are the primary means of distribution in Pakistan.

Geo News is currently broadcasting on satellite from its base in Dubai and via the internet. The company says it is in discussions with the private media regulator, PEMRA, over signing up to a code of conduct, which would thereby allow the resumption of its cable transmissions

But the broadcasters are operating in a much more restrictive environment than before the emergency. A number of prominent presenters and talk show hosts, such as Talat Hussain of Aaj TV and Kashif Abbasi and Asma Shirazi of ARY One World, have been taken off air. And the authorities have signalled that they will take a much tougher line over live broadcasts, backed up by t! he threat of imprisonment and heavy fines.

Less live coverage

On 11 December, PEMRA issued a directive to the private channels warning them against "airing live coverage and taking live telephone calls from [the] public which contain baseless propaganda against Pakistan and incite people to violence". It also ordered them to install time-delay equipment for their broadcasts.

The authorities say that these are not new restrictions and that they are merely insisting on the implementation of existing regulations. An earlier attempt to enforce such regulations, in June this year, was withdrawn after coming under severe criticism.

This time, however, the government appears more determined to have its way. Nisar A. Memon, information minister in the caretaker government overseeing the elections, told the official APP news agency on 13 December that there was no bar on live broadcasts. But live broadcasts needed to be subject to time-delay so that "unethical words or obscene scenes" co! uld be avoided, he said.

In another APP report on 13 December, the minister said that the regulations were intended to limit "ball by ball" coverage of political leaders during the election campaign, as such coverage could create panic and affect law and order. An Associated Press report said that Memon's statements were "likely to dissuade networks from giving live coverage of fiery speeches of opposition leaders like Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto".

Worth the criticism

The moves against the private broadcast media taken since the start of the emergency have produced a number of results. They have limited the previously extensive live coverage of rallies, clashes and the aftermath of bomb attacks. They have silenced some of the more polemical and controversial journalists. And they have reduced the degree of satirical mocking of politicians, by Geo in particular.

This has been done at the expense of much domestic criticism and international disapproval. Observers have seen it as an apparent rollback of President Musharraf's much trumpeted policy of media liberalization. But if the result is a calmer and more controlled media atmosphere during the election period, the president may see it as a successful tactical manoeuvre.

On 13 December, the Washington-based International Republican Institute published the results of a survey of Pakistan public opinion conducted between 19 and 28 November.! The findings showed widespread opposition to the imposition of a state of emergency and to the measures that accompanied it.

For example, the closure of private TV news channels was opposed by 76 per cent of respondents. However, 22 per cent said that they supported the action.

Irresponsible media

This divergence of opinion was reflected in the comments on a number of Pakistani weblogs. Ayeshah Alam, herself a breakfast talk show host on Dawn News TV, sparked one debate when she wrote on her blog that the media was sometimes not very responsible, because of a tendency to report rumour and speculation as fact.

The issues of media freedom and responsibility were also discussed on the websites All Things Pakistan and Metroblogging Karachi. While the majority of contributors were opposed to the closure of the private TV channels, a number of strands of criticism did emerge.

This included criticism of the sometimes very graphic coverage of violence, such as the showing of dead bodies or the severed head of an alleged suicide bomber. Some channels were accused of making the news seem like a never-ending soap opera.

Geo News was seen by some as suffering from lack of balance and compared with the US network Fox News; ! others complained of its sympathetic coverage of the radical clerics and students at the Red Mosque in Islamabad, stormed by security forces after a week-long siege in July.

Geo's position

Geo says that its present stand-off with the authorities has cost it revenue losses of over one billion rupees (16 million dollars) and threatens the jobs of thousands of staff.

But Geo still seems determined not to bow to the government's key demands, for example the removal of key presenters and journalists such as Kamran Khan, Hamid Mir and Shahid Masood. After being off air for much of the first month of the emergency, all three resumed their shows at the beginning of December, albeit to a smaller, satellite audience.

The removal of certain journalists, including Kamran Khan, was one of the demands made during a previous showdown between Geo's parent company, the Jang publishing group, and the government.

Nawaz Sharif

This confrontation, triggered by Jang's investigative reporting about political corruption, occurred in late 1998 and early 1999 during the second premiership of Nawaz Sharif. In a special report on Pakistan published in February 2000, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said: "Sharif distinguished himself among Pakistan's democratically elected premiers only by the scale of his campaign against the independent press, not by its character."

Over a period of several months Jang had its bank accounts frozen, government advertising was withdrawn and it was denied access to newsprint. It was reduced to printing skeleton editions of its flagship papers.

The dispute was eventually resolved without any explicit climb-down by Jang. But, according to the CPJ report, a number of journalists were told to "lie low" for a while or pursue less controversial stories, and the newspaper adopted a culture of self-censor! ship.

Nine years later, Pakistan's private media would appear to have been largely compelled to adopt the same position. A report on the media restrictions in the New York Times on 11 December quoted an unnamed Western diplomat as saying: "The level of self-censorship is very, very high. Everybody's got the orders."

Source: BBC Monitoring research 17 Dec 07



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