Geo has changed Pak media scene: NYT
KARACHI:Jan.26:When Seema Mustafa, an Indian journalist, challenged Qazi Hussein Ahmed, one of Pakistan’s staunchest Islamists, on television, telling him that his mind-set was harming future generations, she was not expecting the Geo effect.
“It was amazing,” said Ms Mustafa, the New Delhi correspondent for the Indian newspaper The Asian Age, and one of hundreds of Indian journalists who came to Pakistan to cover the summit meeting. “You felt like you turned into a celebrity overnight. I had women walking up and hugging me on the street.”
The vehicle for her sudden fame was Geo TV, an upstart private Pakistani channel that made its debut in the fall of 2002. Geo has changed Pakistan’s media landscape, consistently challenging the monopoly – and monotony – of state-run Pakistan Television, or PTV.
Along with live debates between Indians and Pakistanis, Geo has offered live news coverage unprecedented for Pakistan. It provides a wide variety of political viewpoints, and explores cultural and religious questions rarely discussed publicly here. For the first time, analysts say, television in Pakistan is reflecting this predominantly Muslim country’s diverse society and offering an independent source of news.
“The significance of what is happening cannot be overemphasized,” said Adnan Rehmat, the Pakistan director for Internews, an international non-profit organization that supports open media. “In a very short time, this will be a very different Pakistan. And history will say Geo changed it all.”
Private television channels are changing much of southern Asia, where for decades often dreary state-run television was the only option. India now has at least nine national 24-hour news channels that feature everything from heated political debates to live coverage of encounters between soldiers and militants in Kashmir.
In Nepal, five or six private channels born in the past two years are magnifying the effect of student protests against the monarchy. But the change in Pakistan is perhaps most surprising, since it has occurred under a military ruler who took power in a coup, in a country ruled by the military for much of its existence. Two years ago, Gen Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president, decided to liberalise the broadcast media, creating the first access for millions of Pakistanis to homegrown, independent information.
State-controlled radio and television here have always reflected the ruling power. Features have tended toward bland fare about agricultural production, and news has come late, if at all.
The print media, where private ownership has long been allowed, has been freer, but its reach is limited. Only about three million newspapers are sold daily in a country of 150 million people. The English-language press, with the most open news and debate, sells less than a million.
So the government’s announcement that it would allow private FM radio and private television channels was radical. Mr Rehmat and others say General Musharraf’s media decision was prompted by the popularity of Indian channels, which Pakistanis were watching via satellite or cable. During the fighting between the nations in Kashmir in 1999, many Pakistanis turned to Indian channels for news rather than PTV.
The government has banned Indian channels, but with tens of thousands of cable operators, enforcement is impossible. Mian Muhammad Javed, the chairman of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, said the reason for liberalization was straightforward. “Media creates awareness, ensures transparency and accountability,” he said. “I am a great believer in the benefits of competition.”
That competition is not exactly open yet. The FM radio stations have faced a protracted and bureaucratic application process for licenses and frequencies, so that only four are operating. They are constrained by a Â‘code of ethics’ that prohibits anti-national reporting, and bans playing Indian music.
Source: The News