KARACHI, Pakistan—TV executives here, supported by a boom in advertising revenue and feeding off a public taste for conspiracy theories, are using popular news channels to chip away at the standing of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.
News anchors often use populist, antigovernment and anti-U.S. rhetoric in a bid to raise their viewership. Talk-show hosts regularly repeat rumors that Washington and India are acting secretly to take over Pakistan and are fighting Islam.
Among the most notorious is Zaid Hamid, a host and pundit who regularly invokes conspiracy theories about plots against Pakistan by U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies, and has called for an invasion of India.
Last year, a number of channels, as well as some newspapers, published pictures of houses they claimed were rented by Central Intelligence Agency spies, prompting a rebuke from the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan.
Anchors at Geo Television, the country’s largest broadcaster by ad revenue and viewership, regularly attack Mr. Zardari’s government—a U.S. ally prosecuting a war against the Pakistan Taliban.
Almost nightly, Geo’s talk show hosts call for Mr. Zardari’s ouster on corruption charges and urge him to flee the country. They claim Mr. Zardari, a democratically elected leader, is a stooge of the U.S. for allowing CIA drone strikes against the Taliban leadership.
The Zardari administration declined to comment on Geo. A spokesman for Mr. Zardari said television news media in general is discrediting itself by engaging in partisan behavior.
“They gossip and take hearsay from the streets onto the TV screens,” says Owais Tohid, a journalist and former director of English-language news at Geo, which has a 24-hour news channel and three other channels. “I know how desperate they become when owners ask them to improve their ratings.”
Pakistan’s television industry is doing well despite the nation’s shaky economic picture. Foreign investment is in the doldrums and Pakistan is reliant on International Monetary Fund loans due to a weak government fiscal position. But sectors of the economy that sell consumer goods to the nation’s growing middle class have expanded in recent years, and TV is benefiting.
Annual TV ad sales jumped 20% last year to $174 million, after rising 13% in 2008.
There are almost 100 satellite and cable channels in Pakistan today, some in English but most in the local Urdu language, covering news, entertainment, fashion and sports and reaching a third of the country’s 175 million people. Scores of TV channels have been created in recent years, boosting free speech and spurring social debate.
Until a decade ago, Pakistani television consisted of only the state-owned Pakistan Television Network, which broadcast dreary reports on visiting dignitaries. But then-President Pervez Musharraf deregulated the industry, spawning scores of new channels.
New channels have shined a light on social and political subjects that were previously taboo, such as police brutality and forced marriages, said Mohammad Waseem, a professor of political sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. “Television brought up things in society that were never brought up before,” he said.
Imran Aslam, president of Karachi-based International Media Corp., which owns Geo Television and the Jang Group of newspapers, defends going after Mr. Zardari for alleged corruption. Mr. Zardari, the husband of late former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, has spent seven years in jail in Pakistan since the late 1990s on alleged graft charges, but was never formally convicted. “You have to hold these people accountable. The opposition’s not doing it,” Mr. Aslam said.
Geo also had run-ins with Mr. Zardari’s predecessor, Mr. Musharraf. The station and others aired protests by lawyers that led to Mr. Musharraf’s resignation in 2008, but before he stepped down he temporarily pulled TV channels, including Geo, off the air.
Mr. Aslam acknowledges some anchors go too far. He says that those who take extreme Islamist or nationalist stances have seen their ratings drop; but those with antigovernment slants are popular. “We’re still learning,” Mr. Aslam says. “We need to look at ourselves. Responsibility of the media is a huge thing.”
President Zardari’s approval ratings have dropped sharply amid perceptions of his closeness to the U.S., which is unpopular among many Pakistanis.
In a poll published in August, the Washington-based Pew Research Center found 32% of those asked had a favorable view of Mr. Zardari, down from 64% in 2008. Meanwhile, 77% said the growing news media was having a positive effect on the country.
Mr. Zardari is also facing a challenge to his authority from the nation’s Supreme Court. Earlier this year, the nation’s top judge ordered corruption cases involving Mr. Zardari to be reopened following an earlier amnesty. Geo TV is among the most vociferous supporters of the Supreme Court’s push to reopen the cases.
But the channel is facing some of its own bad publicity, too. Geo has faced heightened scrutiny after a popular host, Hamid Mir, was allegedly caught on tape last month talking secretly to an Islamist militant wanted on terrorism charges.
Mr. Mir has said the tapes are fraudulent and were made by intelligence agents who are out to get him. Mr. Mir didn’t respond to requests for an interview.
Mr. Aslam says it is in fact Mr. Mir on the tape and that the channel is conducting an internal inquiry into who the other man is on the line. Meanwhile, Mr. Mir—who is known in Pakistan as the first person to interview Osama bin Laden after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, is still on the air.
Even some anchors with reputations as conspiracy theorists say they have become uncomfortable with the political role television is playing in the war against the government. “We are not players, we are umpires,” says Aamir Liaquat Husain, who anchors a controversial religious talk show on Geo. “We should act like a neutral person.”