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Pakistani Journalists Face Karachi's Wrath

Altaf Hussain, king of Skype
Altaf Hussain, king of Skype
Karachi has always been a major story for the Pakistani media. Its status as a "mini-Pakistan," where a mix of all of the country's ethnic groups live, ensures that this "city of lights" offers an assortment of political and social stories. Karachi is also a key economic hub as a major chunk of the country's industry and business finds its location on the Arabian Sea convenient to commerce. The city's 20 million people provide both an ample workforce and a rich blend of tales of economic success.

But those success stories have been drowned out by two decades of reporting on violence, as Karachi's political parties have fought bloody turf wars that have evoked ethnic identities and ideologies to justify mayhem. Now, Karachi is once again a headline story after a senior politician, Zulfiqar Mirza, leveled serious charges against the Muttahida Qoumi Movement (MQM).

Mirza, a close friend of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and one of the key figures in his Pakistan People's Party (PPP), called the MQM a "terrorist organization," going so far as to accuse its London-based leader, Altaf Hussain, of conspiring against Pakistan.

Mirza held a copy of the Koran in an apparent bid to satisfy critics that he was telling the truth. He also presented intelligence reports, government documents, and alleged letters by Hussain and other MQM leaders to Western leaders and diplomats. One of his key accusations was that the MQM was behind the January 13 murder of reporter Wali Khan Babar.

Pakistani media, the mushrooming number of TV channels in particular, jumped at the story. The MQM denied the allegations, but Mirza continued to add to his charges as he appeared on various news shows analyzing what some even dubbed "Zulfi-leaks." Evening news and current-affairs shows have emerged as a key component of Pakistani TV programming. The quality of these shows varies greatly, but in terms of their focus on news issues, they echo each other. Regardless of the sometimes questionable fairness and balance of the programs, they do contribute to forming public opinion.

The MQM first tried a soft reply, but the story refused to die. It then unleashed one of its firebrands, Mustafa Kamal. But even he failed to silence the critics. His outburst against journalists in general and anchorpersons of some news shows actually angered many and pushed the issue even higher up the news agenda.

Then, on September 9, came the mother of all press conferences. The MQM's Hussain delivered a 3 1/2-hour speech via Skype, during which he lashed out at opponents, calling some political opponents "antistate." He apologized to some anchorpersons but warned the media against biased reporting. He also read passages from the Koran and sang and danced.

WATCH: Altaf Hussain via Skype (courtesy: Express TV)

His press conference -- which some have claimed was the longest in Pakistani media history -- generated a lot of debate and discussion. The overall reaction to the speech was negative because Hussain had criticized most of the political parties, who in turn unleashed criticisms and even made fun of him.

Journalists, particularly hosts of late-night TV news shows, were under great pressure during that time. Many claimed that they felt like they had been caught in the crossfire as they interviewed political rivals on live television.

The political battle even claimed one journalist's job. Nusrat Javed, host of "Bolta Pakistan," offered his own rendition of Hussain's song from the marathon Skype conference, which led to his being sacked. Javed then called another news show claiming that he was fired because of pressure from the MQM. He said that the administration of his station told him that they had to choose between the lives of their 600 workers in Karachi and continuing with his critical show.

Although Aaj TV, which hosts Javed's show, denied that he had been fired, Javed did not return to his show on September 12. Aaj TV instead ran a rerun of an old episode of "Bolta Pakistan."

-- Abubakar Siddique