In Pakistan, broadcasters toe the gov’t line

PTV b'casts unaffected by tragedy

KARACHI, Pakistan — When U.S.-led forces launched a series of aerial attacks on Afghanistan Oct. 7, Pakistan Television declined to interrupt the regular broadcast with special bulletins; instead, news of these attacks was aired only during scheduled news briefs.

Pakistan Television toes the government line in touchy matters. In the month since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S., the key thrust of PTV has been President Pervez Musharraf’s cooperation with the U.S. against terrorism.

Pakistan has two state-run stations; aside from PTV, there is the Shalimar Television Network. On Sept. 11, they hooked their transmission to Western news outlets — CNN and BBC, respectively — to keep viewers informed of what was happening. However, PTV edited out any comments about Pakistan and Afghanistan that execs felt might make viewers upset. PTV treated the incident as if it were an isolated act of terrorism that required only casual coverage.

In the weeks since then, PTV has aired comments by independent analysts and Pakistani journalists, whose thrust was that the government should review its policy toward Taliban and Afghanistan. The PTV also started a program to update the situation from time to time and keep viewers informed on the latest developments.

However, its regular programs — dramas, musical shows and sports — remained as they were before Sept. 11.

The Pakistani people, however, kept tuning their television sets into CNN and BBC; no other private television channel is available here. Those two outlets have a strong presence in almost all urban areas and, to a lesser extent, in rural regions of Pakistan.

Though the majority of people are not conversant with English, they get almost the full picture of what’s going on in Afghanistan through strong footage on these two channels.

Al-Jazeera was not a household name in Pakistan until recently. People learned about the channel only when CNN displayed the latest footage of Osama bin Laden courtesy of Al-Jazeera.

The live footage of missile and aircraft attacks of Afghanistan moved the general public: Proof of that could be seen in intensified demonstrations in major cities where peaceful protests turned violent. On Oct. 9 at least four people were shot dead by law enforcement agencies in Quetta, capital of Baluchistan province, which neighbors Afghanistan.

Pakistan Broadcast Corp., which runs the state-owned radio, long ago lost its audience. Urdu Service of the BBC is perhaps the most popular voice amid all segments of society, especially in rural areas where satellite TVs have not made inroads.

But that’s not surprising; entertainment is not necessarily a high priority of the people or the government. While Pakistan is working to improve the social and economic lives of its people, there’s still a long way to go. The government still cannot provide potable water to almost 50% of its population, and only 60% of the people have electricity.

Cinemagoing has declined drastically in the past three decades, since local films could not attract the crowds as much as Indian movies, which now are watched everywhere in the country via videocassette players or satellite channels.

The government keeps the public away from U.S. pop culture by prohibiting Western-style songs and dramas on PTV. Nevertheless, thanks to piracy, few Hollywood movies or albums take more than a week to reach here after their U.S. release on DVD and CD. Madonna, Michael Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and many others are well known to the educated youth of urban Pakistan.