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TV station fights military rule

ROBIN McDOWELL

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – TV journalist Asma Chaudhry runs from baton-wielding police, shields her face as they fire tear gas and then describes to viewers how yet another protest against Pakistan’s military ruler has been brutally crushed.A tape of her broadcast is rushed to one of Geo TV’s secret transmission sites and fed to the United Arab Emirates. Within minutes, millions of Pakistanis are watching it via satellite or Internet – thanks to newly created online video streams.When President Gen. Pervez Musharraf announced a media blackout following his imposition of emergency rule on Saturday, he underestimated the determination of independent television networks and the desire of the country’s 160 million people to get news.”The media didn’t cow down, they struck back,” said Adnan Rehmat, who heads Internews Pakistan, a Washington-based media watchdog. “As soon as channels were taken off the air, they quickly created and found new ways to ensure that the flow of information did not stop.”The television news landscape has changed dramatically since Musharraf seized power in a 1999 coup, when the only available option to viewers was state-run Pakistan TV. Twenty independent stations have sprung up since then. There are also at least 5 million Internet users, nurturing a huge dependence on real-time information.The government’s response was to cut access to cable, the source of the news.”They thought, somehow, if we turn off TV sets, no one will get any information,” said Rehmat, recalling the local expression ‘close you’re eyes and the mountain goes away.'”Well that’s not really a sophisticated take on things, especially when you look at how the country has progressed on the IT front.”Geo TV, the most popular of the independent TV stations that started hitting the airwaves in 2002, has always transmitted news to Dubai via satellite and maintained facilities there – in part, owner Imran Aslam said, “because we realized there would be a time when, eventually, we would face a situation like this.”There have been numerous attempts to muzzle the press throughout Pakistan’s 60-year history, much of which has involved military rule.Immediately after Musharraf imposed his state of emergency, authorities installed a nearby satellite system and matched frequencies with Geo TV, jamming the signal and forcing the station to change its transmission tactics, said Hamid Mir, the company’s executive editor in the capital, Islamabad.”Not even the producer knows where we’re feeding from now,” he said. “We change the site every few days.”It is one of many challenges the station is facing, the most pervasive being concerns over security.The Geo TV office, which runs on a bustling street across from parliament, is now ringed by dozens of police, many clutching bamboo sticks.”They’re not here for our protection,” quipped Mir, a 20-year news veteran, who for the first time in his career has guards at his office and at home. “We’re trying to survive on an hourly basis, not day-to-day or weekly, because we don’t know when they will storm in and arrest me.”Police raided Geo TV in March after it aired live coverage of clashes between police and lawyers supporting Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, the independent-minded chief justice who was removed from his post following Musharraf’s state of emergency. Equipment was broken and journalists were beaten.Keeping the news coming has also been difficult. Reporters say even close sources within the government are no longer answering their phone calls. Journalists have also been barred from covering some events, like parliament’s rubber-stamping this week of Musharraf’s emergency decree.Government officials are also hesitant to go on camera.One solution has been to send several analysts and political activists to Dubai, so programs could continue to be churned out. Though the anchors refrain from editorializing, the opposition view in this way continues to get out.”We are fighting that our screen should not be empty, we cannot go black,” said Mir, who sees Musharraf’s stranglehold of the media as a sign of his imminent demise. “I can tell you from past experience. This is a last desperate attempt to save himself.”But perhaps the most dramatic changes in recent years have come with greater access to the Internet, said Rehmat, who said there are about 5 million users.”With several people in each house having access as well, the real number is probably closer to 13 million, and that’s a huge number,” he said, noting that there are also about 70 million mobile phone users, further speeding the spread of news, mostly by text message.As soon as Musharraf ordered the media stranglehold, GEO TV started live video streaming – a sequence of moving images that are sent in compressed form over the Internet and displayed by the viewer as they arrive.The number of simultaneous users immediately jumped from 100,000 to more than 300,000. That forced the Web site to go “light” by removing all other content except for text updates, said Asif Latif, the Web master at GEO’s Karachi headquarters.”We were completely flooded,” he said, adding that at times more than 700,000 hits are now tallied.The crackdown is taking a financial toll as well, with a loss in advertising revenues.”It’s a huge amount of money that we’re losing” said Aslam, the station’s owner, though he was unable to provide any dollar figures. “It’s going to have an impact, obviously, on our staff and the industry as a whole.””There are already signs of nervousness,” he said, referring to security jitters. “As soon as it hits people’s wallets, I’m afraid they will walk away.”But reporters say the crackdown has only emboldened them.”If anything, it’s given me more courage,” said Chaudhry, 27, one of the few female journalists in Pakistan who goes regularly into the front lines to cover the deepening political crisis.”Five years ago, I was a very shy girl. I was not at all outspoken,” Chaudhry said. She gives credit to her mother, who died four years ago, for encouraging her to accept an on-camera job even when other relatives said it was no place for a Muslim woman.Today they too are calling her for constant updates, sometimes while she’s fleeing a melee.”Now I’m used to speaking freely and I’m definitely going to tell the Pakistani people what their rights are,” Chaudhry said. “I feel it’s my duty.”


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