With news banned from TV, Pakistanis find it on the Web

Musharraf's crackdown on news and dissent has managed to miss a vibrant Internet community.

When Hamzah Tariq, the owner of a small software-development firm, returned home on Saturday night after Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf had declared a "state of emergency," he discovered that all of the news channels were missing from his cable signal. The only option: PTV, Pakistan's state-run news channel.

"There was a ridiculous show about bridal makeup and then I read the ticker at the bottom: 'Chief of the Army Staff declares emergency. Suspends 1973 constitution,' " says Mr. Tariq. After half an hour of meticulously applied mascara, there was a news bulletin. "The newscaster came on and read out those same lines, nothing more, and said "and now, some sports."

So Tariq and millions of other Pakistanis, faced with a ban on about a dozen domestic and international TV news stations and curbs on newspapers, are finding breaking news in live video feeds and special blogs set up online – the only forum of public discourse that the media ban has missed.

Indeed, Pakistan today is a very different country from the one Musharraf took over eight years ago. In his 1999 coup, the military had only to target the offices of PTV, the only TV news source in the country at the time, and cut off all phone lines provided by the state-owned company to complete an information blackout.

Since then, Musharraf has allowed for a blossoming of free and independent media – a force with which, ironically, he now finds himself in contention.

As if to thumb his nose at the media ban, deposed Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, the unlikely hero of the movement against Musharraf's military rule, managed to call a group of lawyers from a concealed cellphone on Tuesday while under house arrest. A digital recording of his speech has since been leaked to the Web, where Pakistanis can download it from the BBC's Urdu service.

"By shutting private media down, they thought they could control the political message," says Adnan Rehmat, who heads Internews Pakistan, a Washington-based media watchdog group. "But it's only encouraged people to come up with new and creative ways of constructing a message and passing it around."

Before this weekend, PTV faced stiff competition from a panoply of informative news stations. GEO-TV was the first private news channel to go on air in 2002 and ever since, whether originating in Pakistan or beaming in from nearby Dubai, Pakistanis have had a buffet of TV viewing options. Today, there are over 60 independent TV channels, and that number was expanding rapidly. Many of them broadcast news exclusively.

An accompanying boom in Internet access and mobile phone ownership has fundamentally transformed the information environment in the country.

A recent Gallup report suggests that today, more than 15 percent of urban Pakistanis now have Internet access. A small percentage compared with some nations, but a good chunk of Pakistan's politically active middle class. There are also estimated to be more than 60 million mobile phone users, says Mr. Rehmat. Together, the technologies have connected people in ways unimaginable a few years ago and fed a growing hunger for real-time news.

As a result of the ban, which pushed all TV news off the air, GEO-TV's news website added streaming video. But the typical 100,000 simultaneous logons that the website allowed quickly proved insufficient. Citing "enormously heavy traffic," the website went "light" on Sunday by removing all other content except for text updates of breaking news. Later that day, the channel upgraded its servers to allow 500,000 simultaneous users.

"We're getting millions of unique hits," says Asif Latif, the webmaster at GEO's Karachi headquarters. "But our viewers were feeling deprived, so we decided to go online with our telecast and sacrifice the website content."

Blogs and social networking sites have also managed in the past three days to organize protest rallies, start international petitions, and plan strategies for opposing military rule. Many independent blogs are now also hosting channels like GEO-TV, AAJ-TV, and ARY. While not shown on TV in Pakistan, TV news networks here continue to send reports abroad via satellite. So, Pakistanis living in London or Los Angeles get the news. They, in turn, are putting the footage on their own websites, enabling Pakistanis back home to see the news.

"We Oppose Emergency in Pakistan," a group on the social networking website Facebook, now has more than 3,000 members. The website has appointed officers and coordinators in at least 30 different cities across the globe. From Pakistan to New York, London, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Switzerland, expatriate Pakistanis are organizing protests and discussing strategies for the days to come. The group helped stage a protest outside the Pakistani embassy in London on Monday, which drew hundreds.

"This just isn't sustainable," Rehmat says of the government crackdown. As an example, he mentions the rumors that circulated Monday about a possible military coup against Musharraf. The rumors were so pervasive, the president had to publicly deny them. The government, he says, is digging its own grave by cultivating a credibility deficit.

"People had become very used to knowing," says Rehmat. "You can't just take that away from them. It's only going to create more hate."

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Pakistan's media crackdown

• No coverage of suicide bombers, opinions "prejudicial" to national sovereignty, or anything that ridicules the president or the Army.

• No contracts with foreign news media without official permission.

• Authorities may seize newspapers and confiscate broadcast equipment.

• Violators face up to three years in prison and a $164,000 fine; cable operators face up to a year in jail.

Source: Reporters Without Borders

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