Imran Aslam, a senior Pakistani journalist, is president of Geo TV Network, where he oversees content for Geo News, Geo Entertainment, Aag (a youth channel) and Geo Super (sports). In 1983, he became the editor of The Star, an evening newspaper that blazed a trail in investigative journalism during the regime of Gen. Zia ul Haq. Working with a team described by renowned Pakistani journalist Zamir Niazi as “typewriter guerillas,” The Star was the samizdat of Pakistan journalism in those oppressive days. Having time and again crossed the line of “permissible criticism,” Aslam was given the choice: Soft-pedal or resign. He resigned. In 2002, Aslam was part of the team that launched Geo News. Geo has taken a position on sensitive societal and political issues and has helped to enlarge the space for public discussion, dissent and debate. The network was shut down for over two months when Gen. Pervez Musharraf imposed a state of emergency in November 2007, a bald attempt to strangle Geo financially. Geo and Aslam refused to comply. Kamran Asdar Ali, an anthropologist based at the University of Texas-Austin, talked to Imran Aslam about the relationship between the media and the state in Pakistan during the journalist’s 2009 visit to the US.
How does the relationship between the media and the state compare between the military regimes of Zia ul Haq and Pervez Musharraf?
In essence, the role of the media is and should be adversarial. I say that because as a member of the media, one is essentially the opposition to anti-democratic forces in government. Ultimately, both regimes were usurpers who came to power through extra-constitutional measures. And both tried to coopt the media. But inevitably fissures emerge as the leaders realize that reporting is critical of their rule. They clamp down on the press.
During the regime of Zia ul Haq, the relationship between the news media and the government was openly adversarial. The press saw a lot of pre-censorship and “advisories.” If you did not heed warnings, you faced imprisonment or the possibility that your publication would be shut down. As a result many good journalists indulged in self-censorship, which was the most debilitating consequence.
In the 1990s during the period of civilian rule, there was a small opening. Still, the government attempted to buy or coerce journalists to report favorably. Since working journalists could not be bought, the management was targeted through tactics such as news print quotas and cutting government advertising.
During Nawaz Sharif’s second term in office in the late 1990s, and even during Benazir Bhutto’s rule before him, we received visits from government officials. Hussein Haqqani, the current ambassador to the US [then a close political advisor to Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples’ Party government], I remember, came into our office one day. We were running a story about the corruption allegations against Asif Zardari [Bhutto’s husband and the current president of Pakistan]. Haqqani tried to persuade us to drop the story.
Sharif’s government also used intimidation and blackmail to have its way with the media. When I was working for the News, the owner, Mir Shakil ur-Rahman, was asked to fire a number of his news staff. He refused and the following morning when he arrived at his office he found 18 tax notices on his table from decades back, which they had probably kept as a weapon to be used at the appropriate time. The government confiscated our newsprint and forced us to reduce to about four pages. But we continued to fight. We called it a “war on Jang.” [Jang is the parent newspaper; the term in Urdu means war.]
Shakil ur-Rahman gathered journalists at the press club and announced that the government was blackmailing him. He had taped conversations with Saifur Rahman and Mushahid Hussain [two high-level functionaries in the Sharif government] in which they openly asked him to sack these journalists and promised that they would make the tax notices go away if he complied. Once the tapes came out, it created a lot of waves and the government backed off.
In 1999 when Musharraf came to power, there was initially a little hope. In his first speech, he talked about opening up the airwaves, which sure enough he eventually did.
About a year after the 9/11 attacks, we launched a television news channel called Geo TV from Dubai. We had to operate from Dubai because, despite Musharraf’s claims of opening up the airwaves, the license to operate in Pakistan was not forthcoming. The reason he gave for not allowing us to operate within Pakistan was cross-media ownership — print and broadcasting. They said it was too much of a monopoly.
Geo TV had a formidable impact because it was reaching many more people than a local television station could. Initially people in power didn’t understand technology — how were things being shipped out of Pakistan? How was the footage being sent to Dubai? I’ve never before seen the kind of impact we were able to create in a very short period of time.
In 2003, as the Iraq war was starting and there was excitement and turmoil in Pakistan, things were changing in very interesting ways. To his credit, Musharraf tolerated a lot of criticism, parodies and ridicule. So we assumed that this was a benevolent dictator, somebody who wanted to be loved. We talked critically about his uniform and about the military’s role in politics.
Musharraf was very telegenic and used the media as much as possible to get his positions across. There was a little [economic] boom taking place thanks to the influx of American aid. Some governance issues were being resolved; banks were increasing the amount of available credit. There was a telecom boom, too. Investment was coming into Pakistan and the stock market was performing well. These were the pleasant days of Musharraf. We were lulled into a feeling of security and thought we could keep pushing the envelope. But after the two assassination attempts against him, he went back into his shell. There was a whole series of bomb blasts and suicide attacks. He felt his hold slipping.
When Musharraf forced Chief Justice [Iftikhar] Chaudhry to resign in March 2007, the media found a new cause. The coverage of protesting lawyers in support of the chief justice, 24 hours a day, was unprecedented. When Chaudhry arrived in Karachi in early May 2007, the city exploded in violence. Most of the people who were killed in the riots belonged to the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) which was part of the agitation to bring the chief justice back to office. That day, one of the Karachi TV channels was under attack and gunshots were being fired at the office by opponents of the chief justice. Previously, we had had people just barge into our offices and beat up our people. But the power of the media at that point was that all of this was going out live.
In this period the two main civilian leaders, Sharif and Bhutto, were out of the country. To shore up his legitimacy, Musharraf started to make political deals. And one of the deals he made was with Bhutto. In October 2007, he issued the National Reconciliation Ordinance in order to facilitate the deal. The press realized the Ordinance virtually whitewashed all the previous financial crimes and misdemeanors that Bhutto, her husband [Zardari] and others had committed. People in Pakistan were very disgusted. There were talk shows and discussions criticizing the Ordinance.
As support for Chaudhry and the lawyers’ movement gained momentum, Musharraf acted like dictators are wont to do. On November 3, 2007, he declared emergency rule and banned all television channels.
Slowly, channels came back. But we were told that we had to sign a code of conduct in order to operate, which was like a death sentence on an independent press. Plus, there was a list of people whom the government would not allow to conduct talk shows. Not only did Musharraf ban news channels, he banned entertainment channels, the youth channel and our sports channel. This caused a huge financial loss for us. But luckily people came out in support of the channels. They arrived with flowers and wreaths and danced in the streets. The atmosphere became like a carnival. It gave the owners of the channels and all of us in the independent media confidence that we could take a stand. Finally, when Musharraf lifted the emergency decree, we came back on TV just in time for the February 2008 elections.
But Musharraf was so obsessed by this Frankenstein monster that he went to Dubai to pull the plug on our station. The last chance of us beaming out to the rest of the world was killed. So you see, nothing really changes. Both Musharraf and Zia ul Haq proved similar in the end, even if their styles were different.
What needs to be stressed is that technological change and the instantaneous nature of the news today caused a change in the whole dynamic between the government and the media. The reaction time to events has become very small. The information sectors of government were caught by surprise and unable to react instantaneously. Often the media would break the news and the government wouldn’t know about it. You would call them for a response and they would say, “We’re just seeing this on your channel.” I don’t think they understood how to respond.
There are these ebbs and flows in your relationship with the current government as well.
This [PPP] government has actually done what the others did: They call us, they tell us to moderate our stories, they put the same kind of pressures on us, but in a more subtle way. But some government officials openly said to us, “You had better not back the judges because if you do, we’ll pull the plug.” We asked for some compensation for the period that we had been shut down by Musharraf’s government. Zardari told the owner of our channel that if we backed off on the judiciary issue, he would make sure the courts paid up. We refused this bargain. But of course there were other demands about toning down the type of criticism and removing some of the anchors whom the government felt were enemies of the ruling party. Again, nothing really changes.
What may have changed is that we are at a moment in Pakistan’s history where we have a range of ways in which cultural expression is present: debates and talk shows, theater, film, women in full veil, women in Western clothes. These are not only represented in the media but in society as well. Everything is happening simultaneously and the media is trying to capture and convey it.
Pakistan is a country that has lived with all these dimensions. It’s an unevenly developed state: There are tribal areas, rural areas, bourgeois areas, proletarian areas and absolutely globalised areas as well. The coexistence among these forces has been the juggling act of our society. That people have different values, different systems and more or less extreme forms of the same beliefs had been accommodated in people’s minds.
Recently, this has been shifting in people’s minds and that’s where the danger lies because forces diametrically opposed to each other are moving towards a zero-sum game. In the past, we had periods where one set of forces dominated the other but they never tried to physically exterminate each other with the force of a gun. This time around, there seems to be an element that has emerged which is either disenfranchised or disillusioned with the exercise of electoral politics. Some people feel either completely marginalized or that their own space is being threatened, or they feel that they have no stake and no say in the particular democratic experiment that is evolving.
This conflict is complicated by the fact that it is also enmeshed with an international dimension. It is a war that is being fought on different levels: On one level, it is about the soul of Pakistan; on another, it is about territory, values, ethnicity. We used to believe that the 2002 electoral victory of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal [a coalition of religious parties] in the Northwest Frontier Province was purely a reaction to what had happened in Afghanistan. We thought it was purely an ethnic response confined to Pashtun areas and informed by anti-American sentiment. But this time around it seems more than that.
As democracy, hopefully, deepens in Pakistan, there should be one system that provides justice for everyone, that provides at least a modicum of education, economic opportunities, employment and access to health care — the demands Pakistanis have been making for the past 65 years. Instead, we have different kinds of legalities, no unitary legal system. The country is becoming, de facto, balkanized. If one is committed to this entity called Pakistan, how does one mitigate these kinds of contradictions?
The state is responsible for not being able to resolve these contradictions. If you look at India, right from the beginning, through all sorts of methods, they brought about the amalgamation of all those 400 odd princely states into an Indian union and subsequently demarcated India along regional linguistic lines. They integrated the state and later moved towards a uniform justice system and education system. Not one of those issues in Pakistan has been resolved.
The debate about Islam and the role it plays in our polity and the reason for the creation of Pakistan has not been resolved. You are seeing it now clearly. Some talk of Pakistan being made the “land of the Pure” again, while others are grappling with regional autonomy. And we have so many different systems of law — anti-terrorist squads, federal shari‘a courts, local shari‘a courts in which the laws keep changing — and they are all ineffective.
The constitution and its distortions have not been resolved. The role of the military in Pakistan has not been resolved. Neither has the question of our stakes in foreign relations with countries like the US, India and China. We cannot protect our sovereignty in the face of attacks that take place on our territory by foreign aircrafts. We have no say in the matter and we are not even able to allow some of our most strategic assets, like the Gwadar port [at the border of Balochistan and on the Persian Gulf] to start functioning. It is a trade route that has been created for us but we are not able to use it. We have gold and copper in Balochistan but we don’t have access to it. There is talk of a pipeline running from Iran to India which could have become the basis for a subcontinental common market, but we are not able to do that. So we are hemmed in with all these contradictions. And the leadership has neither the vision nor the will to resolve the issues.
Are saying that the way in which one hoped for a post-colonial modern state to come into its own never happened?
Yes, but having said that, something else did happen. You have a society that exists and has an informal economy, an agricultural hinterland, an integrated route for supplies, road and communication networks, and the movement of goods and people. These are all the elements that go into making a functional state. There are no major shortages of commodities, even if there are some deliverables that are not readily available, like electricity and potable water.
But political strife is a major obstacle. We need to understand what the Islamist militants really want. If the international dimension were not there, this would be just an internal dispute that could be resolved — maybe not to the satisfaction of everybody. But the militants have made a point. They are armed and wiling to fight, and their fight is not confined to Pakistan. Somebody needs to say, “Let’s negotiate.” But the will to resolve these problems is not there, or the leadership is looking elsewhere for directions.
Does this mean that if this crisis is to be avoided, we must at least rethink our strategy with respect to those elements that have taken up arms against the state? These differences are not new, but have particular intensity at this stage. If one is invested in some kind of geographic space called Pakistan, negotiation is imperative. But if one isn’t, everything is up for grabs.
Yes, but the media is helping to create a sense of shared concerns. Because of the media, an incident can occur anywhere in Pakistan and it will be instantly on the radar. There will be a debate and there will be reactions. This creates a sort of shared belief in a destiny.
But at the same time there are large segments of the population that do not have a stake in this particular state and feel threatened by it. Every time the state takes strides in the direction of stability, these forces emerge.
As you have suggested, the prosperity that Pakistan has seen is not universal. There are people who have been marginalized and although some of their anger may be coming out in nationalist terms, it is essentially about class. Some of what is happening is the effect of privatization, globalization, removal of subsidies and the abdication of state responsibility towards its own people in terms of providing access or means of social mobility. That has also encouraged people to seek other avenues, madrassas or other spaces where political groups compensate for the shortcoming of the state.
The only safety nets that remain are kinship, and these are also breaking up. They are under a lot of pressure because of the effects of globalization locally.
Let’s move towards a scenario where there is some hope. You have talked about ways in which the intensity of conflict can be lessened. You mentioned negotiations for a future distinctly different from the present, where coexistence can develop. Within that scenario, there are other actors, including Islamists.
Yes, Islamists, the media, the judiciary, civil society. There is a youth bulge which has its own aspirations and energy. Leadership is critical at this juncture. When you have so many crises, you need a legitimate and visionary leadership to navigate through them. Dialogue requires leadership. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is happening now. But you never know. We can hope that a leadership emerges that can take on these very large issues.