ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Nov. 26, 2007 -- At the entrance to the Islamabad Press Club, the stage was set with two opposing rows of panelists and, in the middle, a television host. Cameras rolled and a vigorous discussion about current affairs ensued. But the cameras filmed in vain, as this talk show will never air.
Under President Gen.Pervez Musharraf's emergency rule, many of Pakistan's popular talk shows have been banned. As this nation enters its fourth week of what has been described as defacto martial law, all but one of the private television channels are back on the air. But Geo TV has been banned indefinitely for refusing to agree to new regulations regarding media.
Instead, Geo has taken its programming to the sidewalks. Hamid Mir, presenter of "Capital Talk," a political program, has been hosting his show before live audiences on the streets of the capital Islamabad.
Last week, political opposition leader Imran Khan, recently freed from jail, was a guest. Other senators, pundits and activists have also made appearances.
On this day, a few hundred bystanders stopped to listen as Hamid moderated a discussion about the upcoming parliamentary elections and freedom of the press. For the most part, the show was produced as if it were actually on air, complete with short musical interludes to mark where commercial breaks might normally appear. But, of course, there were no commercials.
Geo TV has lost millions of dollars in advertising and programming revenue since transmission was cut, and yet its management refuses to surrender control of editorial content and cancel shows, such as "Capital Talk."
Hamid has offered to resign but said management won't let him.
"They will continue their struggle against the new media laws," he said. "They are starting negotiations with the government, but I am sure they will not compromise the freedom of the media."
Journalists have rallied around Geo TV, and it has become a beacon of defiance in the face of Musharraf's highly unpopular emergency decrees. At times, the live show morphs into a protest, with audience members shouting "Go, Musharraf, Go!"
In a nation with such low rates of literacy, television is a crucial source of information. Newspapers and Web sites have been allowed to continue publishing, but for the majority of the country, they are of little use.
"It's not only media people that think we're the last hope," said Hamid. "A lot of people in Pakistan, the common man, also have a lot of hopes from us. They're also putting pressure on us that we should not compromise."
Even with his job under threat, Hamid appears energized and focused, a man on a mission to keep the political debate in this country going, despite the new restrictions placed on the media. His audience is now a tiny fraction of the millions of Pakistanis who used to watch him on television, but they listen with rapt attention, seemingly starved for information.
"It's a symbolic message," said Hamid. "If you have banned our talk shows on our TVs, if you have locked our studios … you are not able to silence our voice. We are on the streets."