Laugh till you protest: Satire at forefront of TV revolution

The White House phone rings. President George Bush, tucked up in bed under a Mickey Mouse duvet, answers, pretending to be an answering machine.

“Don’t try to fool me Bush, I know it’s you,” snaps President Pervez Musharraf from distant Pakistan, snuggled under a khaki blanket. “I’m running out of credit.
Let’s make this quick.”

“Well then, catch me a terrorist,” fires back Bush. “Just put him in a box, wrap it nicely and send it to Guantánamo Bay with a note: ‘To Bush with love’.”

This is Pillow Talk, Pakistan’s Urdu-speaking, computer animated answer to Spitting Image. It is one of several satires that have emerged amid this year’s political turmoil, making Pakistanis chuckle into their tea. The feverish atmosphere makes for rich pickings.

The former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s nasal whine, Nawaz Sharif’s dodgy hair transplant, Musharraf’s vainglorious boasts—all are fair game. Other shows push out the social boundaries. Begum Nawazish Ali, a cross-dressing chat show presenter, pokes guests with a flirtatious wink that Dame Edna Everage would be proud of.

“In the past the best jokes would end up in jail,” said Imran Aslam, president of Geo television and author of Pillow Talk. “This is a great departure.”

The funnies are on the frontline of a TV revolution. As Musharraf clings to power and the country swings from one crisis to another, stations offering 24-hour coverage have done more than just report the news, analysts say—they are indirectly making it. “The channels brought the battle into people’s living rooms,” said Adnan Rehmat of Internews, which promotes independent media. “Minute-by-minute coverage exposed Musharraf’s actions in real time, galvanising opinion and forcing people to take sides. It brought everything out into the open.”

For the first time, the country’s epic political dramas have been transmitted live on TV. Journalists first sharpened their teeth with Musharraf’s clumsy attempt to fire the chief justice, Muhammad Iftikhar Chaudhry, in March. Pictures of policemen manhandling the senior judge and of lawyers being baton-charged drew tens of thousands of protesters on to the streets.

New tactics

The Red Mosque siege in July saw the besieged cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi using live television interviews to negotiate a way out. He failed, but the government copied Ghazi’s media tactics. After his brother, Abdul Aziz, was captured while trying to flee under a burqa, intelligence agencies paraded the firebrand preacher on state television—still wearing the woman’s shawl.

The most disastrous moment for Musharraf came on May 12, when live battles in Karachi led by the MQM, a Musharraf-allied party, left 42 people dead, causing national revulsion. The offices of Aaj TV were caught in the crossfire. Bullets zinged through the newsroom; one presenter wept on air as she watched her car being torched outside. Talat Hussain, a well-known anchor, appealed for help. “I said ‘someone please send the security forces. The entire neighbourhood is under attack’,” he recalled. The police arrived six hours later.

Musharraf can only blame himself. After seizing power in 1999 the general realised that Pakistanis had been getting their news via satellite from private Indian stations—including, crucially, during the 1998 Kargil war between the two countries. Pakistan had just one channel—the slow, grey state station. So he opened the floodgates.

Fifty-seven stations have been licensed, of which 26 are operational—a big change from the days of the last military ruler, General Zia ul-Haq, whose censors blacked out newspapers. “To give these guys credit, this has been the most sustained period of semi-freedoms,” said Aslam of Geo.

But this year’s events have sorely tested the limits of Musharraf’s liberalism. Faced with a barrage of criticism, he tried to put the genie back in the bottle with clumsy press control measures. It was too late.

At the height of the chief justice controversy policemen smashed into the Geo office in Islamabad. Viewers watched the destruction live and were outraged, forcing Musharraf into a publicly apology a few days later. A later attempt to introduce draconian media regulations also backfired, prompting the government to put the plans on ice.

Meanwhile, Musharraf’s foes are gleefully taking to the airwaves and building support. “It’s taken everyone by surprise,” said former cricketer Imran Khan, a chatshow regular. “We don’t have the same money as other parties, so television has become the biggest medium to spread our message.”

Now the government exerts influence on the stations with more subtle techniques. According to several sources, ministers threaten to hurt owners’ other business interests, arm-twist cable operators, and issue “advice” to individual journalists. Many in the media admit self-censorship over subjects such as army finances, the war in Waziristan and the nationalist revolt in Baluchistan.

On Monday intelligence officials badly beat up two journalists trying to cover Sharif’s deportation from Islamabad airport. A day later the government ordered stations to tone down criticism of Saudi Arabia, which helped spirit the former prime minister into exile. Most complied.

“The freedom Musharraf used to boast about was the freedom to bark, not to bite. All the pretensions about being liberal-minded with the media are now gone,” said Hussain of Aaj.

But critics of the new stations say they lack balance. “They try to be populist and steer clear of serious debate at times,” said the deputy information minister, Tariq Azim.

Limited access

They also have a limited reach—no more than 70-million of Pakistan’s 165-million people have access to a set, according to the most educated guesses.

And the small screen boom masks a serious threat to press freedom. In the past seven years 24 Pakistani journalists have been killed and 81 injured. Harassment and intimidation by the country’s intelligence agencies are common.

When it comes to parody, some politicians are more lacking in humour than the president. Geo has not aired its spoof of the MQM leader, Altaf Hussain, due to his party’s history of violent intimidation, said Aslam. “Nobody has been willing to play him. They are afraid of being knocked off,” he said.

The most vociferous complaints about the skits come from the liberal Pakistan People’s party. “They were spitting mad” at a portrayal of self-exiled leader Bhutto, he said with a grin.

Bhutto is to announce the date of her return to Pakistan on Friday. If she comes back she may get a shock, said Aslam. “The country has changed, and so has the dictatorial approach to the media,” he said. “Instead of having silver spoons shoved down their throats, they will have microphones.”

Reporters under fire With a phalanx of cameras at every major event, television is Pakistan’s new glamour trade. Politicians preen before the lenses and breathless young reporters chase big stories and high wages. But the risks are great.

Pakistani journalists are kidnapped, harassed, tortured and killed. The authorities care little and are sometimes responsible. Of the 24 journalists killed in the past seven years police have solved one case.

This year the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists put Pakistan in the top 10 “backsliders”—countries where media conditions have rapidly deteriorated—alongside Ethiopia, Russia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cuba.

In June 2006 the body of Hayatullah Khan, a reporter from Waziristan, was found dumped on the roadside. Relatives said state intelligence agencies were involved. The Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was abducted and beheaded in Karachi in 2002.

Journalists are also in the firing line in Afghanistan, where several reporters have been killed this year. A Taliban video released this year showed a teenage boy decapitating an alleged American spy. - Guardian Unlimited Â

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