For that reason alone — although there are others — the West should not buy Musharraf’s line that he is now returning things to normal, that he is draining the heat from the crisis, and that the elections due in January will be free and fair.
Giving the green light to private media is one of Musharraf’s bravest achievements. Like trying to push forward women’s rights, it underpins his claim to being liberal, modern and having Pakistan’s best interests at heart. Even while his military rule stifled the rest of political life, the new channels he licensed gave space to the pent-up views of a very verbal country, where people are fluent in putting words to their predicament.
This week, in reversing his past courageous policy and ordering new permanent curbs on the channels, Musharraf has created an explosive new focus of opposition to his rule. It is as damaging to the stability of the country as the jailing of protesting lawyers and will undermine the claim that the elections will be fair. It would be a serious mistake for the US and Britain to let this pass.
The two dozen new private television channels that have leapt into existence in Musharraf’s eight-year tenure constitute an extraordinary phenomenon. Cookery, films, showbiz, and music tumble over each other.
Half consist just of news, spliced together with hyper-talkative political chat shows, whose hosts, dressed in sharp dark suits, have become nationwide stars. They summon political figures from across the country to their sofas, and criticise everything from the vanity of Benazir Bhutto’s rally on returning from exile to Musharraf’s attack on the judiciary.
They are just extending their reach out from the cities, but in a country where only half can read, they brought politics alive, and their potential impact is huge.
This week Musharraf insisted that if the stations wanted to return to the air, they had to sign a code of conduct promising not to broadcast anything that “defames or brings into ridicule the head of state” (Musharraf). The stations have been told to drop about half a dozen of the best-known hosts and anchors. There are also guidelines against insulting the military and against covering live events, such as rallies by the opposition or lawyers.
Even though Musharraf has ordered Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, the country’s leading politicians, not to hold big rallies, for fear of terrorist attack, he has now removed the means of campaigning over the airwaves.
The effect has been crippling. Most of the channels are back, but without their freedom to comment, and film of live events is noticeably absent. Geo TV, one of the largest networks, is still off the air; its owner, Jang Group, the largest media company in Pakistan, has refused to agree to the curbs.
The press, so far, has escaped such restrictions. Musharraf has apparently reckoned that as it lacks the impact of television, and given the low literacy rate, he does not have much to fear from it. Musharraf, in his eight years, had scarcely tried to curb the press, in sharp contrast to his predecessor, Nawaz Sharif, and previous military regimes. But the threat must be there, given his treatment of television.
The response of Britain and the US to the new curbs has been silence. They appear to be so glad that Musharraf has eased Pakistan back from last month’s extravagant drama that they will overlook such infringements of the democratic ideal.
They should not. Pakistan’s media, in the absence of a free opposition, has been one of the few checks on the military Government. By removing it now, Musharraf undermines the ability of politicians to campaign properly, and will store up explosive opposition to his own presidency.
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