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The other side

SEVANTI NINAN

"QUESTION Time Pakistan is an effective advertisement for civil society in that country, one of the more positive things to have happened to its image in a long time. We find it difficult to think of Pakistan as a society of something more than General Musharraf , a faceless, long suffering population, and mad mullahs. Television in South Asia is full of channels that allow you to glimpse contemporary Indian society. But the Pakistanis had no way of showing themselves to this part of the world except through Pakistan Television (PTV) which is so bad that it makes Doordarshan look good. The same goes for Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and the people of Nepal.

For the Indian viewer, it is a refreshing change from the usual whirl of home-grown current affairs productions anchored by the same people and featuring the same panellists. Here is a one-hour show effectively anchored by a Pakistani barrister, who keeps the discussion pleasantly and firmly on course. She tends to call on more women than men to ask questions and you have these fresh-faced, usually young, students, business women and teachers asking blunt, and completely unfearing, questions about the quality of polity in Pakistan. Obviously the dictatorship is either benign enough or clever enough to permit frank and free expression of views on the constitutional changes the general is trying to push through. It cannot censor the BBC, but it can create a climate where people would be afraid to voice their views publicly as happened in India during the Emergency.

"Question Time India" often used to become a shouting match with the panellists trying to out shout each other. This has not happened so far here on the episodes I have watched. Last week, participants discussing the proposed constitutional amendments were of opposing views but they were civil, outspoken, and crisply to the point. The anchor, Mahreen Khan, is a very attractive woman with a pronounced British accent, and has no mean credentials. A student of law and public policy at Cambridge and Harvard and a former adviser to the United Nations in Kosovo, she says her training as a barrister helps her to recall facts and figures at the appropriate points during the debate. On BBC World, 10 p.m., Fridays.

This is one face of freedom of expression in Pakistan. The other is not so flattering.

Shaheen Sehbai, the editor of the News published from Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad and London, was forced to resign earlier this year after his paper carried investigations on Daniel Pearl's disappearance and incurred the wrath of the Government. He fled shortly thereafter to the United States, fearing for his life. Based in Washington, he launched a web publication called South Asia Tribune in July, which lost no time at all in becoming vigorously investigative of the Musharraf regime. It published exposes with gusto and its columns went hammer and tongs after corruption and repression in Pakistan. By August, Sehbai's relatives living in Pakistan were feeling the heat, and Sehbai was alerting journalists around the world to attacks upon them.

In the run up to the elections in Pakistan, more and more people in the country are bound to log in and read the scandals that the Tribune is busy unearthing. And those whom he has left behind may have to continue paying the price. www.satribune.com

Just as this column is going to the press comes the news that the federal government of Pakistan has suddenly showered the country with three ordinances relating to journalism in Pakistan without revealing the content of these laws. One is on defamation on which the option of civil suit was already available, but now the offending publisher and journalist could be fined or sent to jail. The second ordinance requires news agencies, newspapers and book publication to be registered. And the third sets up a Press Council with a broad representation, institutionally financed by the State.

* * *

Renuka Narayanan in the Indian Express recently called them the god squad and served them up as Bhakti on Toast.

A well-oiled devotional broadcasting empire has sprung up in keeping with the times and your date with them could begin at the crack of dawn if you wished. They are the local counterpart of the televangelists whom you encounter on cable when you step into a home in the U.S..

On SABe TV, a youngish godman with throw away one-liners, keeps his overflowing audience of middle-aged, sari-clad women in a constant state of happy amusement. The point to note that all these are entertainer-preachers, adept at playing to the gallery. Young or old, professional holy men are all equally savvy, the TV face being the front end of empires that span, books, ashrams, video tapes, health food and good works for the poor, whom as Jesus said, we shall have with us always. Twenty-first Century Hindu descendants of Billy Graham.

Sometimes His Holiness senior retreats to the back of the sets and remains transfixed looking heaven-ward, while an earnest acolyte takes over in the foreground. HG Bhakti Vikas Maharaaj is a white man in saffron and beads, who evidently saw the light in this part of the world and struggles to express his message in Hindi: "Jaise Krishna Arjun ko bolte, Arjun, serious ho!"

The Christian programmes are only on Southern channels, apparently serviced by a Christian Broadcasting Network based in Hyderabad. None of the general entertainment channels including the ones run by Prasar Bharati attempt a multi-faith morning devotional. But business is good, so why bother?

On the religious cable channels such as Aastha and Sanskar, bhakti may be an all-day thing, on the others it is restricted to breakfast programming. The transition from the god squad to the jhatka squad is pretty seamless. On some channels it occurs at 8 a.m., on others at 8.30 a.m.. One minute you are watching Swami what's-his-name with vibhuti all along the bridge of his nose, the next its Shahrukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai dancing as if their life depended on it. Some of the Doordarshan channels do not even waste time on the holy stuff, from 7.30 a.m. on its hip swivelling time on Metro and even on something like DD Telugu.

We Indians have uncomplicated programming needs: pray, then shake a leg in the morning, watch sob stuff in the afternoon, and lap up family intrigue in the evening, with more song and dance on the side. Why do media planners pretend there is so much second guessing to do?

On Fashion TV: India Fashion Week was playing off and on last week, and proved that our clothes are as weird as anybody else's, our models as leggy and anorexic, and our singular sartorial high flyer remains the sari, in various forms.

September 11 anniversary programming: Live comprehensive coverage on CNN will begin at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday. At 1.30 p.m., an hour long special on Pakistan since September 11.

On Discovery Channel, 10 p.m. - 11 p.m. every day, September 11 to 14, "Age of Terror", an investigation into the rise and spread of terrorism across the globe.

Also on Discovery: A programme on the CIA, called "America's Secret Warriors", 10 p.m., September 10.

E-mail the writer at sevantininan@vsnl.com

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