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Last Updated: Friday, 1 February 2008, 17:05 GMT
Pakistan's missing TV presenters
By Mazhar Zaidi
BBC Urdu service

On his recent tour of Europe, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf argued that "he is a soldier who is committed to principals of democracy".

Talat Hussein of Aaj TV
Every time I go to the studio I am wondering if this programme will go on air or not
Talat Hussein

Many involved in Pakistan's TV news programmes disagree.

By the time Mr Musharraf lifted six weeks of emergency rule last December, most of the TV news channels were back on air after a period of censorship.

But leading personalities on the programmes say they are not enjoying the freedom had before emergency rule was imposed on 3 November.

Embarrassment

The first big trouble between the increasingly influential TV news programmes and the government emerged back in March after President Musharraf made his first moves against the then Supreme Court Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry.

The blanket wall-to-wall coverage of lawyers' protests, including the police beatings of lawyers, was a severe embarrassment to the government.

Broken glass at the offices of Geo TV
Last March riot police attacked the offices of Geo TV

In one notorious incident, riot police smashed up office equipment and fired tear gas into the buildings of the popular private TV channel, Geo News.

More dramatic still were the events of 3 November when TV screens across Pakistan went black with the introduction of the state of emergency.

President Musharraf has repeatedly defended his actions, saying that some restrictions on the media are necessary to uphold national interests.

He has also said that a section of Pakistani media has been responsible for what he calls a "negative impact" on public opinion.

Most observers believe that Pakistan's TV news is not what it was before emergency rule.

"Every channel that has come back on air has made a compromise somewhere," says Talat Hussein of Aaj News TV, whose programme was pulled many times in the recent months.

"All of us have been forced to sign on a code of conduct. I say forced because if you tell the administration of a TV channel that unless you sign on this document we will not allow you to go back on air, they would be forced to do so to save their investments," says Mr Hussein.

Anchors absent

Adnan Rehmat is the country director of Internews Pakistan, part of an international organisation supporting open media worldwide.

Hamid Mir, left
Hamid Mir (left) staged this programme outdoors to protest against censorship

He says that the government has actually specifically asked various channels to stop a number of news anchors from going on air. "Is it government's job to choose which journalists would go on air?" asks Mr Rehmat.

And the current absence from the screen of many leading news anchors is striking.

Six out of eight of the country's top TV presenters working for the three major news channels are currently on 'forced leave'.

'Like state TV'

Many also believe the news coverage of these channels has fundamentally changed.

As far as Pakistani media is concerned we are still under emergency rule
Hamid Mir

"One can clearly see that at a time when there is so much happening in the country, these channels which have come back on air now start their news bulletins with news about President Musharraf, just like the state-run PTV," observes Mr Rehmat.

Geo TV, the country's largest and perhaps most popular news channel, was the last one to be allowed to go back on air.

But the restored Geo News transmissions are without their leading news anchors.

Hamid Mir is one of them. "As far as Pakistani media is concerned we are still under emergency rule," says Mr Mir.

"All the news anchors, including myself, who are still banned from doing their programmes, are those who questioned Gen Musharraf and that is why we are still not being allowed to go on air.

"We have not been banned by the state of Pakistan but just one individual whose name is General Musharraf. If anyone believes media is free here they must be fooling themselves," Mr Mir argues.

Talat Hussein's current affairs programme has recently been allowed back on air. But he says he never knows when it will banned again. "It can happen anytime. Every time I go to the studio I am wondering if this programme will go on air or not."

'Injustice'

All this comes with general elections due on 18 February.

In a country where very few people read newspapers, many people believe that a fully free TV media could have played a vital role in ensuring the fairness of the electoral process.

"At a time when Pakistanis are supposed to make a political choice in the upcoming elections, putting such restrictions on media which... is now being forced to use complete novices in its prime time, is an injustice to both the people who consume the media and the media people who have put in hard work and investment raising the news channels," says Mr Rehmat.



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