Karachi's upstart cable channel Geo TV is at the forefront of a media revolution—taking on dictators and Islamist militants alike. Now the revolt is being watched by Britain's Pakistanis tooby James Crabtree / July 27, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
Ten years ago Pakistan had one television channel. Today it has over 100. Together they have begun to open up a country long shrouded by political, moral and religious censorship—taking on the government, breaking social taboos and, most recently, pushing a new national consensus against the Taliban. One channel in particular, Geo TV, has won a reputation for controversy more akin to America’s Fox News than CNN or Sky News. Some Pakistanis see it and its competitors as a force for progress; others as a creator of anarchy and disorder. Certainly, the channels now wield huge political influence in a country where half the population is illiterate. But their effect is now felt beyond Pakistan’s borders too—revealing an underappreciated face of globalisation, in which access to television news means that immigrant communities, and in particular Britain’s 0.7m Pakistanis, often follow events in their country of origin more closely than those of the country where they actually live.
I went to Islamabad this April to learn about what many Pakistanis call their “media revolution.” The previous month, during a spate of anti-government protests, Geo TV had again demonstrated its influence by using its popular news programmes to support a “long-march” by opposition groups on the capital Islamabad, and even hosting a celebratory rock concert on the city’s streets when the government caved in to demands to reinstate the country’s most prominent judge.
I had chosen a tense time to visit. On my first day a man loyal to the Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud walked into an army camp two blocks from where I was staying and blew himself up, killing eight soldiers. That same day news channels first aired a grainy video of a Taliban punishment beating in the Swat valley on the northwest frontier. A girl had been accused of infidelity and in the clip she was pinned face down by two men in a dusty village square while a third beat her with a stick. It topped the news for days, causing controversy for its brutality and for exposing the reality behind a “peace deal” to hand Swat over to the Taliban.
The video marked the start of an important new phase in Pakistan’s internal battles, with the army launching a bloody offensive to retake Swat in May, and a further push against the Taliban’s mountainous strongholds during July. Pakistanis have often felt sympathy for the Taliban, seeing their struggle as an understandable reaction to America’s military presence. This view began to change as militants launched more frequent bombings in major cities. But media coverage of Taliban brutality—beheadings, murders and most gruesomely the exhumation of a corpse to be hung in a public square—swayed opinion further. At the beginning of June one story in particular captured the country’s attention: a young army captain, killed on his birthday in a battle with Taliban fighters in Swat. The night before he had written to his father, worrying that he might die, but asking his family to be proud of him and his country. Pictures of his distraught mother ran for days, further pushing anti-Taliban opinion with far-reaching implications in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. And behind this shift lies a new power in Pakistan’s normally rigid hierarchy, which now rivals the ability of politicians, generals, spies and mullahs to shape events: the media itself.
Pakistani television’s great unshackling was sparked by an earlier military campaign. In May 1999 Pervez Musharraf, then head of the army, launched an incursion into Kargil, a mountainous region of Indian Kashmir. Here the Pakistani and Indian armies faced each other at 18,000 feet, in conditions so inhospitable that both abandon the area in winter. In the spring of 1999 Musharraf snuck his troops in early, taking the empty Indian positions without a fight. The subsequent war saw Pakistan beaten back, withdrawing under US pressure. In the aftermath Musharraf launched a coup to become president. But he also took a more unusual lesson from his defeat.
At the time Pakistan Television (PTV) was the only source for television news. The state broadcaster was closely controlled, earning the moniker “seeing is not believing.” In desperation many bought illegal satellite dishes, tuning in to Indian television during the war, which while jingoistic was broadly truthful. Musharraf would later paint his decision to loosen media restrictions as evidence of his liberalism. But it was a calculation born of losing both an actual war and a PR one: if India had a private television sector, so must Pakistan.
Pakistan has long had a vibrant print media, both in Urdu and English. Television was different: the elite could get CNN and the BBC World Service but access for most Pakistanis was strictly limited. Just as limited, says Rana Jawad, Geo TV’s Islamabad bureau chief, was the news that did make it onto air. Bulletins had a familiar pattern: “First you had what the president had said that day, then prime minister, then minister of foreign affairs, and so on… it had no credibility.” Musharraf liberalised the system in 2002. It was a decision that, six years later, would play a major role in his downfall.
While Musharraf was one of the losers of Pakistan’s media revolution, there were winners. During my stay in Pakistan, I visited Hamid Mir, the host of Geo TV’s Capital Talk, the country’s most popular political talk show. He welcomed me into his office on the third floor of Geo TV’s Islamabad bureau, an anonymous tower block in the city’s increasingly fortified central “blue zone.” From the outside the building looks more like a shabby warehouse than a media HQ. No logos are visible and two guards sit on plastic chairs by the entrance, acting as receptionists and cradling pump-action shotguns. Sitting behind his desk in a drab, file-strewn office Mir told me how he made the leap into television. A prominent print journalist, he joined the start-up channel in May 2002 after its owners, the Karachi-based Jang media group asked him to launch an Islamabad office.
Today Mir’s Capital Talk is on most nights at primetime, featuring an hour of discussion with politicians, retired army generals, or religious leaders. It is consistently Pakistan’s most watched political show, and has made its host a celebrity in his own right. Mir is chubby, bubbly and engaging, with boot-polish black hair, a bushy moustache and an endearing habit of referring to himself in the third person, while making sweeping claims for his role in national events.
Geo became the country’s first private television channel in 2002, on 14th August, Pakistan’s independence day. Over the next five years it grew rapidly in audience and influence, alongside competitors like ARY Oneworld and Aaj TV. The channels let Pakistanis see their nation’s dramas live for the first time: Kashmir’s deadly 2005 earthquake; the 2007 siege of Islamabad’s red mosque; the 2008 shoot-out in Mumbai; and US drone strikes and numerous domestic suicide attacks. Geo, in particular, seemed to invite controversy. Phone-ins tackled taboo subjects, from incest to wife beating. Shia and Sunni clerics debated doctrine. Shaadi Online, a spin on Blind Date, scandalised conservatives as women quizzed potential husbands. And religious talk show Aalim Online upset liberals by letting mullahs rant about the Jews and the Hindus.
But it was politics that made Geo’s name. Mir hosted debates between elders from the tribal areas and discussions on the role of Pakistan’s feared intelligence service, the ISI. He accused Musharraf of abandoning victims of the 2005 earthquake and interviewed the Archbishop of Canterbury. Just as revolutionary was the sight of politicians being questioned and debating among themselves. Political spats previously seen as damaging to national unity were now fair game.
Such openness created a simmering discontent between the media and Pakistan’s embattled dictator, which broke into the open in March 2007 when Musharraf sacked chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. The decision caused outrage. (I was in Lahore at the time and saw police baton-charging groups of protesting lawyers.) For the next two years the chief justice and the rule of law he represented became a focus for reformers. It was a cause the media, and Geo especially, vocally backed. Sensing he was losing public support, Musharraf launched a campaign to bribe and intimidate the channels. Less than two weeks after Chaudhry’s sacking, police stormed Geo’s Islamabad office, ransacking equipment and attacking staff. Mir, in particular, was roughed up. “I was beaten right here,” he told me, pointing at his desk. “The raid was a turning point for me, and for Geo. The rest of the media stood behind us, and we decided we would resist.”
In the face of public outrage, Musharraf retreated, reinstating Chaudhry temporarily. But worried that the judge might upset a deal allowing Benazir Bhutto to return from exile, the general called a state of emergency in November. The constitution was suspended, police stormed the supreme court, and Chaudhry was placed under house arrest. Pakistan’s television channels were shut down. New “voluntary” media rules were introduced and, facing commercial ruin, the channels caved in, one by one signing up to the regulations. When the 42-day emergency ended in December all were back on air—except Geo. Losing about $0.5m a day, the channel lasted two more months until it too was forced to capitulate. Musharraf added a special rule before the most rebellious channel could return: Mir, along with a handful of other talk show hosts, must remain banned. He was banned for four months. Only when Musharraf’s party lost the February 2008 election, following the murder of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007, did he return to the screen.
Geo TV is hard to place on the political spectrum and it has many exotic allies. There is, for example, a popular political rock band in Pakistan called Laal (meaning red in Urdu) which has been given plenty of airtime by the channel. The band’s lead guitarist, Taimur Rahman, is a young Marxist-Leninist academic who is finishing a PhD in London. I met him recently at a greasy spoon café close to his academic home at London’s SOAS. He wore a peaked Che Guevara-style cap with a red hammer and sickle badge over his dark, floppy fringe. In conversation, he enthused about music and politics, cracking more jokes than one might expect from a central committee member of his country’s Communist Workers and Peasants party. Rahman told me how Laal’s singer Shahram Azhar (also finishing a PhD at Oxford) was once his student in Pakistan, where both worked as community organisers. The band was a hobby, he said, although the rallies they organised also helped to build a repertoire of songs. Rahman says audiences were especially enthusiastic when they first began borrowing words from a previous generation of leftist Urdu poets, notably Habib Jalib. Both eventually moved to Britain to study, becoming involved in British protests against Musharraf. The band helped to organise protests outside Downing Street, and celebrated when the dictator finally resigned in November 2008. This might well have been the limit of their political involvement were it not for a chance meeting with Pakistani film director, Taimur Khan. At a party in London he heard the band play a song based on Habib Jalib’s poem Main Nay Kaha (“I said”). Originally a swipe at postwar Pakistani authoritarianism, its lyrics resonated with many Pakistanis’ despair at their country’s intractable divisions. Khan says he “knew immediately it was a hit. The lyrics were so timely, they represented the state of the country so simply in one song.”
Khan convinced the band to make a video, shooting it himself in a few hours outside the scruffy London tower block where the band lived. The video was put on YouTube and got around 40,000 hits in its first week. (Even a chart-topping Pakistani video might get only 15,000.) The clip was spotted by Geo’s London office, and forwarded to the channel’s owners in Karachi. Months later, the band was bound for Karachi to record their first album. The tab—for the recording, plane tickets, even a new guitar—was picked up by Geo.
Laal’s album came out in January 2009. By then, optimism over Pakistan’s return to democracy under Musharraf’s successor President Zardari had turned to frustration. Close co-operation with the US continued, including more hated drone strikes. Homegrown militancy was on the rise, with frequent explosions in major cities. Discontent began to focus on chief justice Chaudhry again, who had been released from house arrest but not reinstated. The lawyers’ movement, as the reformers were known, managed to unite Pakistan’s feuding opposition parties with calls for a long march to Islamabad in March 2009. Geo’s management took the chance to promote their new talent. The video for Main Nay Kaha was played regularly on its news channel, turning Laal into icons of the protest movement. When the movement succeeded and the chief justice was reinstated this April, Geo arranged the celebration concert in Islamabad, with Laal headlining—and Hamid Mir clapping alongside them onstage.
The band’s rise from obscurity in Britain to stardom in Pakistan would have been much less likely only a few years ago. But since 2005 the rise of Urdu language television in Britain has helped to forge closer links between Britain’s Pakistani diaspora and their homeland. At the time of London’s 7/7 bombings only two such channels were available—Prime and ARY Digital—both on subscription. Geo launched here the same year, winning big ratings by broadcasting free on satellite. Its name became synonymous with Urdu news in Britain, just as it was in Pakistan. Last year Geo switched to subscription, losing viewers to free channels like ARY and PTV (channels 806 and 810 on Sky). Today more than 50 Asian channels compete for Britain’s 0.5m Pakistani satellite viewers. It’s a competitive market, and Geo faces a challenge in appealing beyond the elderly viewers and recent immigrants who follow its news most closely. Recent upheavals, however, have deepened the interest many British Pakistanis feel in their homeland.
Few places better illustrate the long reach of such media than the scene each night at the Shandar Tandoori, in the heart of Blackburn’s Asian-dominated central district. It’s a cheap and cheerful place where the largely Asian clientele rub shoulders with occasional off-duty policemen or late-night revellers. On the wall is a single giant menu in English, used by the few non-Asian customers. In one corner, a group of elderly Pakistani men hand round pages from an Urdu language newspaper. A television plays Pakistani news in the background and the men talk politics late into the night. Topics, a customer told me, include “American attack in parts of Pakistan” or the “latest actions by Zardari and his government that confirm he is a puppet of the Americans.” Very few would ever read a British newspaper or watch the BBC.
Reliance on media from Pakistan is, of course, both a cause and a consequence of Britain’s history of poor integration. De facto segregation in towns like Blackburn creates a barrier between many British Pakistanis and other elements of British life, a trend only likely to be exacerbated with BNP gains in June’s European election. But the fact that many British Pakistanis choose to isolate themselves from Britain’s media should be cause for concern. The home office worries about tiny numbers of potential young radicals surfing jihadi websites. And much ink has been spilled on the rise of news channels such as Al Jazeera. But so far little attention has been paid to channels like Geo watched nightly by tens of thousands of British citizens—and the way they might increase the distance between British Pakistanis and Britain.
Yet if the media revolution brought about by Geo and others has passed largely unnoticed in Britain, it remains hugely controversial in Pakistan. All those I spoke to there agreed that the media has transformed the country’s balance of power. Geo’s campaign against Musharraf, alongside more recent support for the lawyers’ movement and military action in Swat, only confirmed this impact. Yet opinion remains divided over whether this influence is a force for progress. Of most immediate concern in the west: does a cacophonous media make Pakistan more difficult to govern, and thus a less reliable ally? Certainly, while news coverage isn’t unbiased, it is largely outside political control. Yes, the government still throws its weight around. Hamid Mir told me that Zardari offered him government jobs in a none-too-subtle attempt to get him off the air. But that is a trifle compared to the days when journalists were routinely beaten up or jailed. Pakistan’s leaders now must consider how any action will play in public. This has already had an impact, for instance in Zardari’s unwillingness to support US drone attacks in the tribal areas—and will continue to be a factor as the US and Pakistan try to roll back militant advances in the coming months.
Other critics see different problems. Conservatives think that the media lacks respect for traditional values. Liberals detect subtler threats. Mohammed Hanif works for the BBC in Karachi, and won the Commonwealth Writers’ prize for his novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes. He worries that Geo acts to tighten the grip of religion on public life. “The television owners said ‘Oh my God! This is so cheap!’ There were literally thousands of mullahs who would come on for free—and people would call in to ask for advice on their son’s schooling, or missing prayers.” Hanif is especially critical of Geo’s Alim Online, which gained notoriety when its host called for attacks on the minority Ahmedi Islamic sect in September 2008, after which a number of Ahmedis were killed. Others I spoke to made similar charges: Geo was a force for conservatism, quietly pro-Islamist and dismissive of human rights.
Geo’s president Imran Aslam rejects these charges. Liberals don’t complain, he says, when his channel celebrates Valentine’s day, or when its satirical shows poke fun at mullahs. He says critics fail to understand the balance television stations must strike between reflecting and challenging the often conservative Pakistani public, without whose audience the channels would fail and any liberal messages would go unheard. Nonetheless, he and others at Geo point to a track record of liberal campaigns, including the successful effort in 2006 to repeal the hudood ordinance, an odious regulation forcing women claiming rape to provide four male witnesses or face jail for false accusation. Even the channel’s talk shows and soap operas, he thinks, are opening up Pakistan, creating a “confessional society” in which people talk more openly about personal relationships. Orthodox liberals tend to be most annoyed when the channel criticises the hudood ordinance or the Swat valley beating as un-Islamic, rather than because it’s against human rights. But in Pakistan there’s a phrase about the need to win an argument solely on religious terms, which loosely translates as “you can only cut a beard with another beard.” It’s a tactic at which Geo has excelled.
Pakistan is often described as the frontline in a war against Islamic extremism. The coming months will be crucial for that battle, as the army follows its successful, but hugely destructive campaign in Swat with a push to take on militant groups in their mountain strongholds. The new anti-Taliban consensus in public opinion remains fragile, and could easily be reversed if this offensive fails, or if the roughly 2m refugees displaced during the Swat campaign are not returned to their homes, and their towns and villages rebuilt. Zardari’s government retains a precarious grip on power—one which could be easily loosened by the fallout from America’s attempts to beat back the Taliban across the border in Afghanistan this summer. In all of this Pakistan’s media will play a crucial role shaping and reflecting public opinion. Its influence will be felt especially on the young: those 100m Pakistanis aged under 25. In the 1980s, during the rule of Islamist dictator Zia ul Haq, there were signs pinned on the walls of coffee shops reading “political discussion is prohibited.” Today, the country is avidly, wildly political, as is its diaspora. It’s a conversation rich in drama and fuelled by a newly powerful 24-hour news media. We would do well to pay attention.