Pakistan’s News Media No Longer Silent, but Musharraf Has Muted His Critics: NYT

Pakistan’s News Media No Longer Silent, but Musharraf Has Muted His Critics
By SALMAN MASOOD and DAVID ROHDE; New York times, December 11, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Dec. 10 — Nearly all private television channels blacked out last month by President Pervez Musharraf’s emergency decree are back on the air. But the country’s once-thriving television news media remain largely muzzled by sweeping new restrictions that journalists and Western diplomats say stifle criticism of the government.

After the blackout cost leading channels tens of millions of dollars in lost advertising revenues, owners of all but one channel agreed to stop broadcasting the country’s highest-rated political talk shows and signed the government-ordered “code of conduct.”

And under a new ordinance, unilaterally enacted by Mr. Musharraf, television journalists face up to three years in jail for broadcasting “anything which defames or brings into ridicule the head of state” and other restrictions. The law will remain in place after Mr. Musharraf ends the state of emergency, which he has promised to do on Saturday.

“He’s getting away with it, really, because the Western support is there again,” said Talat Hussain, a popular talk show host whose program is no longer aired on two stations, "Aaj TV" or "Today TV." “There isn’t enough pressure.”

Western and Pakistani observers say Mr. Musharraf has reversed one of his greatest achievements: fostering a vibrant independent news media. His crackdown has deadened private television and radio outlets that were widely seen as increasing political awareness, educating a largely illiterate population and curbing the spread of militancy.

“The level of self-censorship is very, very high,” said a Western diplomat who asked not to be identified. “Everybody’s got the orders.”

Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, the chief executive of the Jang Group, one of Pakistan’s largest news media companies, said he had rebuffed government requests that he fire two popular television talk show hosts on the Geo network and three investigative reporters from The News, a newspaper. He has refused to sign the code of conduct, and Geo remains the only major news network that the government has not allowed back on air.

“We are not accepting their main demands of terminating a few people,” he said, adding that the code of conduct was “absolutely illegal and arbitrary.”

Nisar Memon, Pakistan’s acting minister of information, said Geo was off the air because it had still not signed the code of conduct. He said the only restriction on which the government insisted was not airing gory pictures of suicide-bombing victims, which officials said can reduce public morale and make terrorists seem like heroes.

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