Private TV channels pushing new boundaries -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

Private TV channels pushing new boundaries

ISLAMABAD – The scars around her eyes were visible even before the young Pakistani woman lifted her veil, showing television viewers the burns she suffered when her husband doused her with kerosene and set her on fire. Such a spectacle until recently would have been too shocking for Pakistani television.

But two private cable-television charmels, one beamed into Pakistan from nearby United Arab Emirates and the other broadcasting in Pakistan, have been pushing the boundaries of television programming since they went on air in 2002.

Violence against women, government corruption and the flash-point issue of Kashmir have been debated openly, while entertainment shows have begun to poke, more fun at politicians and the ruling elite.

Such material would never have been shown on state run Pakistani television (PTV) according to Muhammad Hafeez, a sociology professor at Punjab University. “Minds are being broadened,” he said.

The relatively liberal programming is an important trend in this deeply conservative Islamic country, a key ally in the US-led war on terrorism but also a suspected hideout for Al Qaeda terrorists and dozens of indigenous extremist groups.

Hamna Zahid, a teacher in Islamabad, said the new shows are a revelation. “Most of us were unaware that these problems existed,” she said, referring to the prevalence of domestic violence in a nation where hundreds of women are killed each year in the name of family honour.

Geo TV debuted as a news channel in August 2002, a few months after Pakistan passed a law allowing private broadcasters into the market. ARY, another new private channel, listed briefly as an entertainment channel before it began news programming along with Geo, last year.

Both channels feature edgy comedies, hard-hitting newsmagazines and reality TV shows, even a Pakistani ‘dating’ show called Marriage Online in which participants describe themselves and ask prospective suitors to contact their parents.

“Private channels came in and broke down quite a lot of taboos,” said Talat Hussain, host of an ARY news-talk show. More may be coming, as according to Information Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed, the government approved plans for 22 new broadcasting licenses earlier this month. Some Pakistanis say the content they are seeing has changed their minds about issues facing the country, including relations with India. University student Adnan Asghar said he is more open to peace since he saw a show that highlighted the similarities between Islam and other faiths. Now he thinks of citizens of predominantly Hindu India as “our brothers with different beliefs” and is optimistic there will be lasting peace.

The new charmels are not shying away from controversy. Geo exposed Internet cafes as hubs for pornography and meeting spots for young lovers. The show caused a panic among parents, and many of the cafes lost business.

A political satire whose title translates loosely as ‘That’s what you’d expect’ pokes fun at politicians; including (although mildly) President Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup. Sheikh Rasheed, whose duties include running PTV, acknowledged the limits of state media, saying authorities must vet political and social content. However, competition from the new channels has forced PTV to liberalise.

Even ultraconservative Islamic groups, which organised violent marches against cableoperators carrying Western
channels, have sounded positive about the new Pakistani channels.

“Sometimes the Programme presenters are influenced by Western culture or the Western media,” said Ammer ul-
Azeem, a spokesman for the hard-line Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal religious coaliation, “but when we measure their efforts on large scale we come to the opinion that they are more beneficial to society because they have replaced the international media, like BBC, CNN and Fox News.” Talat Hussain said the new stations would continue fighting against an undercurrent of conservatism that has emerged in recent years, while staying true to the nation’s basic values. “We have a responsibility to nudge it (the nation) towards the middle, bringing it out of the dark dungeons of PTV programs, but we must also protect it from “Sex and the City,” he said.

Source: Daily Times