Imran Aslam is the president of Geo TV, which had its Islamabad staff and offices attacked last week when the channel continued to broadcast pictures of police clashes with protesters. Aslam spoke to Mint’s Rahul Bhatia on the last day of Ficci-Frames 2007 about what happened afterwards.
Shortly after the attack on your office, President Musharraf appeared on your channel, that too on a show he’d ordered off air...
Yeah, it almost seems as if it was engineered by us and that we’ve made up. It sounds really machiavellian, and I wish we’d done it. But what actually happened was that once the administration saw the damage to an image it had very carefully fostered about media freedom and freedom of expression for a long period of time, I think it quickly realized that damage control was necessary.
Within an hour of the attack on the offices, he was on the phone and he apologized then and there to our host. Then they decided to make sure nothing else of the sort happened, and he was reminded, in no uncertain terms, that he had banned a particular show, called Aaj Kamran Khan Ke Saath. He came on the show and apologized to Kamran, who was the anchor of the day, as luck would have it. Kamran said, “All this is very nice, but how about giving me back my show, and how about appearing on it?” He agreed, and within a day, the programme was back. He [Musharraf] was squirming a bit.
When he called to apologize, did you sense that it was a shift in his policy towards the media, or was it just an isolated incident?
To be fair, I think we’ve never had this kind of freedom for such a long period of time. But as you’ve said, there have always been these little hurdles. One example is, we’ve been on the air for four and a half years, and we still don’t have a licence to operate in Pakistan. We’re actually offshore. We’re a 24-hour news channel where our anchors are away from the country they’re reporting on.
It’s an amazing operation in that sense. There are certain no-go areas—the whole Baluchistan thing, for instance. I wouldn’t really call it pressure, but in no uncertain terms we’re told that this is not in the national interest.
Similarly, the dangers, like what’s happening in Waziristan. The reportage coming out of there is limited. So, some are no-go areas because of the physical threat, and some are no-go because we’re suddenly seized by patriotism [smiles]. So I always make this statement that there’s a lot of freedom of expression in Pakistan, there’s very little freedom after expression.
How has this relative freedom come about?
Look, one thing is technology. That’s pretty obvious. And there are a fair number of people there who want to be part of a free press. So, I don’t think the government can control it any more. This incident at our offices was, within hours, all over the place.