COMMENTS: Emergency in Islamabad

Lawyers in suits and ties confronting martial law on the streets of Islamabad provided the riveting visuals that led all three network newscasts. The State of Emergency in Pakistan was Story of the Day as President Pervez Musharraf suspended constitutional rights, imprisoned political opponents, closed down television stations and dismissed the independent judiciary. All three networks had correspondents on the scene. Even though NBC--courtesy of its single sponsor Toyota--had a bigger newshole than its rivals (22 min v ABC 18, CBS 19), CBS (8 min v ABC 5, NBC 4) decided to devote most time to the Pakistani crisis.

NBC's Richard Engel reported that "Musharraf says the crackdown is necessary to fight Islamic militants" and then proceeded to quote the contradictory complaints of the dictator's critics that "he is targeting moderates and liberals." CBS' Sheila MacVicar, too, saw the State of Emergency as a measure against democrats not against radicals. She quoted Musharraf's spokesman as suggesting that "key elections scheduled for January might be postponed for a year." After protests from the diplomatic corps in Islamabad, MacVicar reported that the postponement had been scrapped. "There will be elections on time." So there is hope, mused Engel, that the crackdown "while harsh, could be short."

CBS' MacVicar reported that when rumors spread through Islamabad that Musharraf himself has suffered a coup "ordinary people came up to us genuinely excited, a measure of just how deeply unpopular he is." ABC's Jim Sciutto (at the tail of the Martha Raddatz videostream) called him a "deeply unpopular president," pointing out that $10bn in aid from the United States over the past six years is condemned for "pumping up" his military regime. ABC's Martha Raddatz commented that "Musharraf's biggest threat may come from his own army generals."

ABC's Sciutto examined Musharraf's spin on the crisis--that he was cracking down in the face of radical Islamist opposition. Yes, Sciutto found a guerrilla stronghold in the Swat Valley just 90 miles from Islamabad; he recalled this summer's siege of Islamists in the Red Mosque in the capital; and then there was the slaughter of supporters of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto upon her return to Karachi last month. But then Sciutto consulted the worries of his unnamed "US official" sources and concluded that the State of Emergency was not a consequence of al-Qaeda's strength--but might be its cause instead: "The government is no longer focusing on battling Islamic militants, making the country an even safer haven for terrorists." From Washington, CBS' Bob Orr came to the same conclusion: "al-Qaeda is a reinvigorated enemy that is poised to take advantage of the turmoil."

NBC's State Department correspondent Andrea Mitchell concluded that George Bush's administration "really is stuck." It has "so little leverage because for years it has compromised democratic principles in exchange for having what they hoped would be a critical ally. Now they have neither--not democracy nor an ally." All this in a country with "some 30 nuclear weapons."


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