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Independent media feel Pakistan clamps

Kim Barker

By Kim Barker

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Abdul Qayyum Khan flipped through the TV stations, past music videos, a bike race, an Indian soap opera and a cooking show. "The same old thing," he muttered.

Khan, who sells TV and video equipment, missed his news programs and his talk shows, the major form of entertainment in Pakistan.

When besieged President Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency Nov. 3, suspending civil liberties and the constitution in Pakistan, one of his first targets was the newly independent media, which he helped create and gave unprecedented freedom. Immediately, the government knocked about 40 independent Pakistani TV stations off the air, which has added to concerns that parliamentary elections set for January may not be free and fair.

"It used to be, we'd stay up until late at night, until 3 a.m., watching talk shows and the news," Khan said. "Now we go to sleep at 10 p.m."

The only news channel Khan could find was government-run Pakistan Television, or PTV, and it featured a bland documentary on India and a news ticker saying that Musharraf had explained to President Bush why an emergency was necessary and that Bush praised Musharraf and Pakistan for helping in the war on terrorism.

Since the emergency was declared, the Pakistani government has grown increasingly thin-skinned about any criticism. TV stations were barred from broadcasting anything that ridiculed Musharraf, who also is the country's army chief. Cable operators were banned from relaying international TV stations. Internet services were restricted.

At times last week it was almost impossible to find out what was really happening in Pakistan as rumors flew that Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless military coup in 1999, himself had been overthrown in a bloodless military coup.

Pakistani newspapers have largely been left alone, although they have been warned, just as everyone else has, that any criticism of Musharraf or the Pakistani government can lead to charges of treason or a military court-martial.

Newspaper sales have skyrocketed since the emergency, newspaper companies said, but many Pakistanis are illiterate and depend on television for news. Many are at a loss without TV.

"It's really a pity," said Zahid Muhammad Khan, 18, who works in an electronics store in Islamabad. "I'm completely and totally unaware of what's going on in the world, even in Pakistan."

After the emergency was declared, some Pakistanis bought satellite dishes -- so many that the government banned sales, imposed jail terms and fines, and created an instant underground market in the dishes.

Aslam, 40, a satellite dish seller who did not want to give his last name because he is fearful, said he sold 50 dishes in the first three days of the emergency at almost twice the usual price. Normally he sells about 10 dishes in a week. As he set up a satellite dish on the roof of a Western news agency, Aslam said satellite dish shops have been ransacked and sealed by police. He said he hid dishes in the back of a van, under a sheet.

"I'm not a rebel, but I have to make a living," Aslam said. "That's all I'm trying to do."

On Saturday, the government also showed that foreign news outlets are not immune from the crackdown. Three British reporters -- two from the Daily Telegraph and one from the Sunday Telegraph -- were given 72 hours to leave Pakistan. An editorial in the paper the day before had called Musharraf a crude name.

At his news conference Sunday afternoon, Musharraf announced that the media would have a new code of conduct. He seemed almost wounded that the free press he helped to create had turned against him. He lectured journalists to read the new code and act responsibly. He said he expected an apology from the Telegraph.

"Do please criticize the government," he said. "Do please criticize me. But there has to be checks on defamation by design, distortion of facts, projecting non-truths, humiliation."

In many ways, it's surprising that Musharraf is the leader who has cracked down on the media. His predecessors arrested aggressive journalists and threatened independent newspapers with high tax bills or a loss of government advertising. For decades there was only one TV news station -- the state-run one.

But Musharraf seemed to embrace a free media, loosening restrictions and granting new licenses. For a time, he was a media darling.

Since March, when he attempted to fire Pakistan's chief justice, plunging the country into turmoil and ultimately a state of emergency, the media have become more critical. TV channels broadcast rallies in which he was called a dog. Satirical TV cartoons depicted Musharraf as lying in a bed with camouflage sheets, talking to President Bush. Satirical TV shows modeled on "The Daily Show" have been developed. And for the ever-multiplying talk shows, Musharraf turned into a convenient punching bag.

The Pakistani media, so aggressive that fistfights between reporters at demonstrations are not uncommon, have not accepted the new rules quietly, even if their revolution will not be televised.

At least two private TV stations have started broadcasting on the Internet, advertising their new service by sending out text messages to cell phones. Others are smuggling out news to Dubai, where the channels are broadcast to anyone in Pakistan with a satellite dish and the expatriate Pakistani community.

Journalists have started boycotting minor official events, such as news conferences or military ceremonies. They have held protest rallies. And most think the restrictions can't continue.

"The government is so mad at the media," said Asim Awan, a TV reporter for Dawn News, an English station, who has continued to work even though most people cannot see his reports.

"But I think this is the only country in the world where political talk shows are more popular than soap operas. People miss them very much. I think they're more upset that they're missing their talk shows than they are about the emergency."

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