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.