Quake emboldens Pakistani TV

Images of desperate victims have irked the government, already under fire for a slow response.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Television anchor Hamid Mir may have crossed the line in the town of Bagh, at a school under which 1,500 boys lay either dead or injured along with 100 teachers.

"I'm asking the only surviving teacher, putting pressure on him for a sound bite. At the same time, I hear 'Help!' coming from the rubble," recounts Mr. Mir, a prominent anchor with GEO TV, one of Pakistan's new private television channels. "So we started digging with our bare hands, and then again I'm asking the teacher to continue with the interview, but he's crying and shouting that the government is not there."

Raw moments like this have made reporters like Mir both heroes and villains, at once praised and scorned for broadcasting the truth. NATO troops would later tell Mir they came to Bagh because their officers saw his report. But Pakistan's military-dominated government would later accuse him of inciting anger against it.

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Pakistan's earthquake, while at once a story of national tragedy, is also the coming of age story of the country's fledgling private television channels. Their unflinching coverage of the disaster, beamed into millions of homes on a scale unseen in Pakistan's history, showcases an era of unparalleled media freedom and influence. But it has also, by creating rifts with the government, underscored the very limits of that newfound freedom.

It is an irony worth noting, media analysts say, that the Musharraf administration, although not prompted by altruistic intentions, must be credited with expanding media freedom. State-run television used to rule the airwaves, but in 1999, seeking to counteract Indian satellite television in Pakistan, the administration gave out licenses to Pakistan's first private television operators.

Since then private television, which today reaches 35 percent of the country's 150 million people, has broken political and cultural barriers, offering a level of debate, including critiques of the government, that viewers have never had before.

As the earthquake highlights, that newfound freedom has proved something of a genie the administration cannot force back into its bottle.

Television reporters have for weeks been trudging up mountainsides and walking for miles on foot to broadcast this story. Their images are indelibly pressed into the national consciousness, offering a vision of Pakistanis united in response to the tragedy.

But not all of those indelible impressions have been positive. Their coverage, whether intended or not, has also pointed out the shortcomings of the government's response, particularly through clips that featured angry villagers lambasting the military.

"Private television has brought out all sides of the story - both the successes and shortcomings," says Adnan Rehmat, executive director of Internews Pakistan, an organization tracking media freedom. "And that's generated debate about the performance of the Army."

News producers say they were just answering the call. Mohsin Raza Khan has covered wars in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq for ARY One, a leading private television channel. But he says they hardly compare to the emotional intensity of covering the earthquake. "Weeping children, the dead bodies under the debris of schools - being a human, it is very hard to report."

Khan and others argue that such devastation warranted an intense and uncensored approach. So they began broadcasting live just hours after the quake, portraying a picture of disaster the government was slow to acknowledge.

"If we don't show the people crying, the viewers will not be able to understand the gravity," argues Mir, who credits the coverage with motivating volunteers to rush off to the quake zone.

The camera lens couldn't hide, however, a sense of simmering anger against the government. "We heard so many complaints, it was very difficult for us to hide those facts," says Mir.

The candid approach wasn't one the government entirely favored. "Instead of helping the people, the government is calling me, saying that I'm trying to instigate the people against the government," alleges Mir.

The negative coverage has helped the government learn that it's better to try to use the private TV channels to its advantage than trying to control them, analysts say. But the damage has already been done, they add, paving the way for more negative reviews.

The result has been unthinkable, Rehmat says, with a stream of programs critically evaluating the performance of the government, particularly the military. That criticism existed before, but not to this extent, he adds, and not backed by powerful visuals.

Some say it has proven more relevant and powerful than Parliament. Khan stood commandingly over his production team on a recent evening in Islamabad, where ARY One was about to broadcast live. Ruling and opposition members of Parliament sat in a small studio outside, debating the government's response to the earthquake. "He is criticizing the government, he is defending the government," explained Khan, pointing to the politicians. "Whatever questions you can't raise in the Parliament, you can raise here."

Media analysts say shows like this have set a precedent for the future, one that can strengthen democratic impulses here.

"People are talking now. They have a forum to discuss the delays, the incompetence," says Zarafullah Khan, director of the Center for Civic Education in Islamabad. He and others say the legacy will be more openness, more scrutiny of the way government acts.

But media analysts also see in the scrutiny an opportunity for the military. "It's helping the Army to seem more human," Rehmat says, adding that coverage of the Army's losses has helped win them sympathy. "For the first time we saw a military officer cry on television."

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