RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
News out of Pakistan this spring and summer spoke of a country at extremes. On one end the bloody siege of a famous Red Mosque where radical Islamists were holed up which left scores dead. At the other extreme a growing democracy movement set off when the president suspended the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and lawyers took to the streets in their suits and ties. In the thick of it was Pakistan's newly emboldened media. And as people read and watched the coverage, they float into the streets to join the demonstrations.
Mr. FASI ZAKA (Journalist): I think media has come of age in Pakistan, especially when it comes to these two events. When the chief justice was actually suspended, the media kept the coverage up. In fact, the government had to back down. And you know, that kind of scrutiny had not existed before.
MONTAGNE: Journalist Fasi Zaka says faced with all that coverage, Pakistan's president struck back, threatening huge fines that would force independent stations off the air.
For our series this week on Pakistan and the 60th anniversary of its independence, we turn to this commentator who is emblematic of Pakistan's vibrant media. Fasi Zaka is a radio personality, a columnist for multiple English language newspapers, and host of a political satire on TV. His targets have included hypocritical political leaders and the hypocritical radical cleric holed up at the Red Mosque. Fasi Zaka says the range of Pakistan's media is extensive.
Mr. ZAKA: In Pakistan - I mean we've got the whole spectrum available. We have Internet newspapers. We have Internet sites. At the same time, we've got a multitude of English language newspapers. We've got an even greater variety in the local languages like Pashto, like Urdu. Radio is one of the most strictly controlled mediums that's least politicized, least editorialized. It is actually a - sort of a form of mundane entertainment in Pakistan. And in terms of TV channels, we've got in excess of 40 now. It's mushrooming. So in terms of the spectrum that's available to the country, it's actually fairly well developed.
MONTAGNE: You write for the English speaking audience. So - what? You're a lot freer to do what you do than the Urdu or Pashto speaking press?
Mr. ZAKA: Yes, definitely, because the censure you get is much less. Now, I've noticed that, for example, on my TV program, which is a satirical program, most of the parts that come under severe criticisms, it's actually a Minglish(ph) program. Some of it's an English, some of it's an Urdu. It depends on the nature of the joke.
The ones that we do in Urdu, we find that, you know, there are a bombardment of threats that come in because - and it's not just from the state, it's like from regular people who are incensed that, you know, somebody would criticize somebody they are actually enamored of, as in terms of a leader who's got a cult following. And when you look at the discourse in the Urdu press, voices which asked for secularism are far in-between, voices that, you know, some of the draconian laws that we do have in the country, they don't really ask for their rejection because so many people are reading them that, you know, riling up a mob is fairly easy. So it's much more a difficult job, actually, doing press work in Pakistan if you're going to do it in the indigenous language, which is Urdu.
MONTAGNE: So it is not likely that an Urdu language newspaper would run a column which would make fun of the sort of radical leader that was holding out in the Red Mosque and call him - as a column of yours has done - a cross-dresser? Because, by the way, he had escaped disguised as a woman in a burka.
Mr. ZAKA: Exactly. I mean the odd thing is that he had urged everyone to stay within the mosque and he did take the first opportunity to run when things got bad. But more than that, it was just, you know, sort of an ideology that seems to want to actually suppress women, where suddenly, you know, the guys - the very thing that cages women was used as his bid for freedom. So there was a lot of irony in that.
I did find that when I wrote that particular column I invited a lot of flack. But I imagine if I wrote it in Urdu - in an Urdu newspaper - I would be in much more dire trouble.
MONTAGNE: Would this potentially the life-threatening for you as a journalist?
Mr. ZAKA: I don't know. One of the things about Pakistan is that life is quite cheap. It's much easier for somebody to say I want to kill you. And I mean I do a comedy show on radio and sometimes when I offend somebody, the first thing that comes in - they're going to kill me. I have received phone calls. I get SMS's - messages regularly. And - but I've learned to brush them off because quite often the violent verbiage has not - at least yet - manifested itself into any kind of violence. But it is something that, you know, keeps us on our toes in the sense that more and more I realize that, you know, you start to self-censor.
But by and large, I mean I do feel safe. Most people, I find it, it's just something that people will say to you that, you know; they've even said they want to kill my cats, which ironically disturbed me more than the fact that they wanted to kill me. I mean take my life, but not my cats.
MONTAGNE: Under President Musharraf, during the time, the eight years he's been running the country, there's been an explosion of media options. How much credit can be given to him for that?
Mr. ZAKA: Here's the irony, is that most of the credit does go to him. He - but it also must be remembered is that when he came to power he was incredibly popular. He was popular because Nawaz Sharif, who he overthrew, was moving towards a civil dictatorship. He had taken on the Supreme Court. He had made almost a coup against Musharraf and replaced him with another army officer to become chief of army staff.
So he was, and by enlarge, very, very popular. But as he slid more into authoritarianism and his attempts to actually manage the process or actually make sure that he continues his rule - and he's misstepped a lot recently - that love affair, so to speak, has become over. And the press is actually doing what it supposed to do, which is question anything that is illegal, question anything that is extra-constitutional.
But if we do look, I mean maybe 10 years down the road, if there's one thing we'll remember Musharraf for, it is that, you know, he has basically an incredible role to play in a media that, you know, he helped spawn, which has unfortunately - well, fortunately, actually bitten him back, which shows that, you know, it's got inherent strength. But I don't think he would have predicted that, but it's done a great job, and he can be credited with this.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. ZAKA: Well, thanks a lot.
MONTAGNE: Fasi Zaka spoke to us from Islamabad, where he writes a column called His Bigness for the English language publication, Instep. And he hosts a political satire show called "News, Views and Confused."
The media has focused a spotlight on President Musharraf's troubles. Tomorrow, what the future holds for the president and Pakistan.
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