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Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Thank you Musharraf: The real news from Pakistan

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.


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 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.


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.


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