Sunday, November 18, 2007

Musharraf's Global War on Journalism - II

So Gen. Musharraf appears to be engaged in a global war on journalism after all. Two weeks after commencing his crackdown on Pakistani civil society, which effectively turned news into contraband, Musharraf has now begun to allow some independent television networks back onto cable television -- but only if they agree to a number of conditions, such as terminating television shows critical of the regime and signing an undertaking of "good behavior" permitting the government to interfere with their operations, seize their equipment, and terminate their licenses at any time. Some networks are now back on the air, albeit in "laundered" form -- AAJ TV, for example, is back but without a number of leading talk shows that have been critical of Musharraf. (The BBC and CNN are also back, but since they, along with Dawn News, are broadcast in English, the authorities are not as concerned about what they might say in their broadcasts.)

Musharraf's imposition of these conditions is the direct analogue for the electronic media of the mechanisms he has used to purge the judiciary. Just as he has required all judges to swear new oaths of allegiance to his provisional constitutional order if they wish to remain in office, Musharraf has now imposed a requirement on all "independent" media that in practice they swear loyalty to him if they wish to remain on the air. Having packed the courts with his "pocket judges," Musharraf now is trying to make sure that the only television journalists being seen and heard are his own "pocket journalists." But Musharraf is apparently not content with preventing individuals within Pakistan from hearing voices critical of his regime. Rather, he has now made his war on civil society truly a global one, pressuring the government of the United Arab Emirates to shut down two Pakistani television networks, GEO TV and ARY Digital, which originate and uplink from Dubai and are watched by many individuals outside of Pakistan:

Informed sources said President Pervez Musharraf himself intervened to stop all GEO news transmissions from Dubai, after a two-week standoff in Pakistan during which all major news networks were shut down by cable operators, who are directly controlled by the Pakistani authorities.

The shutting down of the Geo News was universally condemned by almost every political party and member of the civil society minutes before the anchors, almost in tears, signed off.

* * *

Popular news anchors came on Geo News around midnight Pakistan time to announce that their channel had been ordered to go off the air as result of the continued deadlock between the Pakistani authorities and the media channels, following the imposition of the emergency in the country.

In Pakistan all GEO channels were blocked by the military regime after the imposition of the emergency but on Friday two main channels, DAWN News and AAJ were back on air, with AAJ announcing that two its most popular talks shows, hosted by Talat Hussain, Nusrat Javeed and Mushtaq Mihas, were suspended temporarily. [link]

With his personal intervention with the UAE government to shut down GEO and ARY Digital, Musharraf has made his battle with civil society a global one. Many thousands of individuals all over the world, including Pakistani expatriates and others, have long relied upon these networks, and while Musharraf during the past two weeks has shut down domestic access to these channels via cable television, these channels have continued to be available via live video streams online and directly via satellite. As a result, many in Pakistan have continued to obtain news from these TV networks -- either directly, via live internet streams or satellite dish reception, or indirectly, as news is relayed to Pakistani citizens via phone calls and text messages from friends and relatives outside of Pakistan.

Ironically, when launching several years ago, both networks decided to originate and uplink their broadcasts from Dubai in part to try to minimize interference by the government of Pakistan with their operations. Musharraf's willingness to intimidate the UAE government shows that strategy wasn't foolproof. But one also has to wonder whether Bush administration officials tried to exert any counter-pressure with UAE officials and failed, or whether they simply did not bother. Neither possibility inspires much confidence.

* * *

Western journalists and Bush administration officials persist in calling Musharraf's coup a declaration of "emergency," as if it were responding to a temporary exigency and as if normalcy could be restored simply by "lifting" Musharraf's extraconstitutional declaration. It should be crystal clear by now that the damage to civil society wrought by Musharraf cannot be cured simply by "lifting" the current state of affairs. The proper constitutional category to describe Musharraf's extraconstitutional declaration is not "emergency," but rather "high treason," which Article 6 of the Pakistan Constitution defines as any move to "abrogate[] or attempt[] or conspire[] to abrogate, subvert[] or attempt[] or conspire[] to subvert the Constitution by use of force or show of force or by other unconstitutional means." The appropriate Western response under such circumstances therefore should not simply be to call upon Musharraf to "lift" his self-described emergency, but rather to insist upon "rollback" of Musharraf's extraconstitutional -- and now transnational -- effort to systematically undermine Pakistan's civil society institutions.

UPDATE (11/19/2007): A protest vigil outside GEO's offices in Karachi apparently attracted close to 1500 people:

The vigil itself started off at around 7pm but I am told the crowd was present there well before the specified time, when I reached there it was truly an amazing sight in the entire lane you could only see candles lit with quite a few heavy speakers blarring the signature Geo song Jeenay Do.

There were approximately well over 1500 people present most honding some sort of placard denocning the martial law but practiclaly everyone had a candle and sang the song Jeenay Do. There were a number of large TV screens showing the live feed from Geo which was being streamed via the internet. The best part of the vigil was when the Geo Musharraf-lookalike took to the stage and had some fun with the crowd with some unique imitations of the dictator. It was good to see people coming out to raise their voice against the censorship of the media. [link]

Posted by Anil Kalhan

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