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Pakistan TV channels turn to Internet

world Updated: Nov 06, 2007 13:37 IST
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Blocked by the government and facing harsh curbs, Pakistan's private television channels have turned to the Internet to reach viewers starved of news about the state of emergency in the country.



Authorities took cable broadcasters off the air on Saturday evening when they first started to report that military ruler President Pervez Musharraf was about to impose an emergency -- which he did minutes later.



Since then most Pakistanis have faced either blank screens or the sanitised news broadcast by state television -- a black hole that helped fuel rumours on Monday that Musharraf had himself been ousted by the army.



But the independent stations have hit back with Internet streaming and satellite broadcasting.



"News is a contraband item in Pakistan now and it is being sold on the black market," Imran Aslam, the president of Geo Television, the country's most widely watched cable news channel, told AFP.



Geo sent an SMS to cellphone users on Sunday telling them to log onto its website (

www.geo.tv

) to get live transmission. Another channel, ARY One, sent out a similar email (

www.arydigital.tv

).



"Technology has progressed beyond (the government's) imagination and we believe this is the best time to put new media into operation," said Aslam, whose channel is running an on-screen counter showing the time elapsed since the emergency began.



He added that there had been a "rush on Internet log-ons" since Musharraf imposed emergency rule.



There are between three and five million Internet users among Pakistan's 160 million-strong population, service providers say, up from less than one million in 2001.



It is a bitter irony -- for both Musharraf and the private channels -- that it is he who was responsible for the revolution in Pakistan's once staid electronic media.



Musharraf liberalised television regulations in 2003, heralding an explosive growth of channels that now beam talk shows, satirical political skits and soaps to millions of Pakistanis.



But he resented their critical stance after he sacked the country's chief justice earlier this year. Geo's Islamabad bureau was smashed up by police on March 16, although Musharraf called them live on air to apologise.



So it was little surprise when Musharraf issued strict edicts to the print and electronic media on Saturday in the wake of his emergency rule declaration.



It bans anything that defames or ridicules him, state officials or the army, and threatens violators with up to three years in jail or a fine of 10 million rupees (166,700 dollars).



Broadcasters can have their equipment confiscated and their premises shut.



"Professional journalists find ways to tell people the truth," said Azhar Abbas, director of news and current affairs at

Dawn TV

, Pakistan's first English-language news channel.



"We are already live screening on our website, we are trying to establish other ways of keeping Pakistan in the picture," he added.



The channels can also be accessed via satellite, and sales of satellite dishes have jumped since the weekend, traders said.



"I used to sell one or two dishes in a week, but today alone I received orders for 30 dishes," said Mohammad Hadi, who sells satellite equipment in the central city of Multan.



Meanwhile the blackout has given a boost to Pakistan's "old" media. Newspaper hawkers in the southern port city of Karachi said their sales had doubled since the emergency began.



"Dozens of people are coming to my stall on the way to work to see the newspaper headlines. It is like the old days before the television channels came," said newsstand owner Shahid Mehmood.



The ban on the electronic media has particularly perturbed women in conservative Pakistan who are less likely to go outside and rely on the TV channels for information.



"We are really in the dark now. There is nothing on except soaps and movies," said Karachi resident Hameeda Khan.



Dawn TV's

Abbas said that rumours circulating in the information vacuum would only heighten uncertainty in Pakistan.



"The government should lift the ban and let the people know the truth," he said.