Sun, Nov 11, 2007 - Page 5 News List

Tech-savvy news teams circumvent Pakistani blocks

ALL IN A DAY'S WORK Despite a government-imposed media blackout, journalists in Pakistan are taking more extreme measures to make sure the news gets out


TV journalist Asma Chaudhry runs from baton-wielding police, shields her face as they fire tear gas and then describes to viewers how yet another protest against Pakistan's military ruler has been brutally crushed.

A tape of her broadcast is rushed to one of Geo TV's secret transmission sites, fed to the United Arab Emirates and is, within minutes, being watched by millions of Pakistanis via satellite or Internet -- thanks to newly created online video streams.

When Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf announced a media blackout following his imposition of emergency rule last Saturday, he underestimated the determination of independent television networks and the desire of the country's 160 million people to get news.

"The media didn't cow down, they struck back," said Adnan Rehmat, who heads Internews Pakistan, a Washington-based press watchdog. "As soon as channels were taken off the air, they quickly created and found new ways to ensure that the flow of information did not stop."

The television news landscape has changed dramatically since Musharraf seized power in a 1999 coup, when the only option for viewers was state-run Pakistan TV. Twenty independent stations have sprung up since then and there are at least 5 million Internet users, nurturing a huge dependence on real-time information.

The government's response was to cut access to cable, the source of the news.

"They thought, somehow, if we turn off TV sets, no one will get any information," said Rehmat, recalling the local expression "close your eyes and the mountain goes away."

"Well that's not really a sophisticated take on things, especially when you look at how the country has progressed on the IT front."

Geo TV -- the most popular of the independent TV stations that hit the airwaves in 2002 -- has always transmitted news to Dubai via satellite and maintained facilities there.

"We realized there would be a time when, eventually, we would face a situation like this," owner Imran Aslam said.

There have been numerous attempts to muzzle the press throughout Pakistan's 60-year history, much of which has been under military rule.

Immediately after Musharraf imposed his state of emergency, authorities installed a nearby satellite system and matched frequencies with Geo TV, jamming the signal and forcing the station to change their transmission tactics, said Hamid Mir, the company's executive editor in the capital, Islamabad.

"Not even the producer knows where we're feeding from now," he said. "We change the site every few days."

The Geo TV office, which runs on a bustling street across from parliament, is now ringed by dozens of police, many clutching bamboo sticks.

"They're not here for our protection," quipped Mir, a 20-year news veteran, who for the first time in his career has guards at his office door and at home. "We're trying to survive on an hourly basis, not day-to-day or weekly, because we don't know when they will storm in and arrest me."

He speaks from experience -- Geo TV was raided by police in March after it aired live coverage of clashes between police and lawyers supporting Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, the same independent-minded chief justice who was removed from his post following Musharraf's state of emergency.

Equipment was broken and journalists beaten.

Keeping the news coming has also been difficult, with reporters saying even close sources within the government are no longer answering their phones. They have also been barred from covering some events, like parliament's rubber-stamping earlier this week of Musharraf's emergency decree.

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