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Media in Pakistan Emboldened Against Leader

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Media in Pakistan Emboldened Against Leader

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Media in Pakistan Emboldened Against Leader

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

President Musharraf's authority in Pakistan has been challenged on a number of fronts. The country's supreme court has yet to decide if it's legal for him to run for a new term. The court seems to have become genuinely independent.

And as NPR's Philip Reeves reports, so has another institution - the Pakistani media.

(Soundbite of protesters)

PHILIP REEVES: White-clad Islamic religious students protest outside Islamabad's Red Mosque. They're surrounded by TV cameras. This is the hard-line mosque where more than 100 people died in July when it was stormed by government troops. That operation triggered a wave of suicide bombings. The students want the mosque reopened. The Red Mosque's an extremely delicate issue for Musharraf. But this doesn't deter Pakistan's TV news channels from covering the story.

Opposition political leaders these days can face the same bold treatment.

(Soundbite of Dawn TV interview)

Unidentified Woman: Okay, Ms. Bhutto, but you've made yourself the life-long chairman of the PPP, who else is going to be able to step in and create fresh blood and democracy within your party?

Ms. BENAZIR BHUTTO (Former Prime Minister, Pakistan): I beg your pardon, ma'am.

REEVES: That's Benazir Bhutto, being grilled by a young anchor on Pakistan's recently opened Dawn TV. A few years ago, you wouldn't have heard an interview like that on Pakistani television. It was censored and state-run. Now, there are more than two dozen private channels with more on the way.

Former cricket superstar Imran Khan, who's one of Musharraf's most vocal political opponents, believes the rise of the electronic media has fundamentally changed the country.

Mr. IMRAN KHAN (Former Cricket Player; Founder, Movement for Justice Party): The television channels have revolutionized political awareness in Pakistan like never before in our history. This is a different Pakistani public, and they all know what they want.

REEVES: Pakistan's public may approve of this change, but there are those who do not. This summer, Musharraf tried to introduce rigid media controls, only to be forced to withdraw them after an outcry. Some within government are still trying to meddle with free speech using more subtle methods.

Newspaper columnist Kamran Shafi is an outspoken critic of Musharraf.

Dr. KAMRAN SHAFI (Freelance Columnist): There is heavy beating now in the young. It happens about twice, three times a week. I just got a phone call that says number not known or something like that.

REEVES: The techniques are not always as subtle as that. Take for instance the strange case of a young man called Hassan Sharjil. Hassan says, one morning he was dropped off by his driver at school in Islamabad. It was just a few weeks ago, the 14th of September, his 15th birthday. The car drove off, a man walked up.

Mr. HASSAN SHARJIL (Son of Newspaper Editor Shakil Ahmad Turabi): He started abusing me and he kicked me on my back and the head. He was just saying that we have warned your father, but he could not understand what we said to him. Now, he'll understand.

Mr. SHAKIL AHMAD TURABI (Editor-in-chief, South Asian News Agency): I was very shocked.

REEVES: That's Hassan's father, journalist Shakil Ahmad Turabi.

Mr. TURABI: Because I did not expect that they will go to my family.

REEVES: He says Hassan was bruised and badly shaken. Turabi's convinced the attack on his son was because of his work as chief editor of the South Asian News Agency. He's also convinced it was carried out by Pakistani intelligence agents.

Mr. TURABI: If some people are - spy agencies they want to give me some lesson, I am there. Why to my family and my sons? They don't have any fault or anything.

REEVES: Turabi says government agents have tried to intimidate him before. He says this began earlier this year, after Musharraf ignited a political crisis by trying to sack Pakistan's chief justice. Turabi insists his agency's reporting of the crisis was unbiased. But the state's intelligence agencies objected and retaliated. The state denies using force against journalists.

Mr. TARIQ AZEEM (Deputy Information Minister, Pakistan): Nobody gets any backlash because of what they say and what they write. People are critical, openly critical, shout abuse at the president and the prime minister.

REEVES: Pakistan's deputy information minister, Tariq Azeem, points out that it was Musharraf's government that liberalized the media.

Mr. AZEEM: If we wanted to put pressure and have to rely on, you know, strong-arm tactics, you know, like beating up a young kid because the father happens to write a nasty article, then we would not have given their freedom in the first place.

REEVES: The journalist Turabi believes Pakistan's government may continue to try to gag the press. But ultimately, he says, this will fail. He says strong-arm tactics are no longer effective because of the power of Pakistan's new media.

Mr. AZEEM: I think that now it's out of their control. They can't control media out because it's a global phenomenon, all over the word. Media is very free, and they can't stop media.

REEVES: Yet it is impossible to be sure.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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