Mir Shakil-Ur-Rahman is no stranger to the news business. When he was a child, he spent every lunch break from school at his father's newspaper office, learning the ropes. He was lucky. Dad had founded and built up a major print media group. When Rahman took over, he extended the group's reach into electronic media. Now, at 47, he's one of Pakistan's biggest media magnates as founder of GEO TV, the country's most-watched satellite news channel.
More important, Rahman has revolutionized the way ordinary Pakistanis perceive the world around them. For more than four decades, the nation's 152 million citizens had access only to state-owned TV, whose "news" offerings were pure propaganda for the government. In the 1980s and '90s, as Karachi erupted in ethnic violence, people would hear bombs exploding around them, but TV news would fail to report what was going on.
Three years ago, President Pervez Musharraf decided to open up the electronic media, and the government auctioned off licenses to set up private TV channels. Dozens of entertainment and news channels have since been set up, and more are in the pipeline. Lead-ing the pack is GEO TV's Rahman, whose Jang Group also publishes 12 newspapers and two magazines.
Rahman never thought the print media had much potential to change the way Pakistanis perceive national and world events, given the low levels of literacy. "State-owned TV had one mind-set, and nothing came into Pakistani minds from another point of view," he says. "I thought national development could only take place through a private television channel in our own language." So he created GEO in October, 2002, adding 2,000 employees to Jang Group's existing 3,000. Some 500 journalists went through a six-month training program with international media consultants. A network of reporters was developed across Pakistan and in 10 major cities throughout the world.
Now, for the first time, Pakistanis can watch exploding bombs, terrorist attacks, and market crashes -- live or on tape. "GEO has broken the monopoly on truth in Pakistan," says Rahman. GEO also covers foreign affairs such as the Iraq war and Pakistan-India peace talks. While 70% of Pakistan's TV viewers are still in the cities, GEO's audience is growing by 30% a year. "The timing has been perfect because it has brought us news of so many important regional issues,"says Jamal Mir, managing director of Prestige Communications, a Karachi advertising agency.
Despite its success, the TV project has taken a financial toll on Rahman's company. On top of $50 million in set-up costs, he forks out $3.5 million a month to keep GEO on the air. That's because when GEO began, it was technically impossible to uplink to satellite from Pakistan, so the channel set up shop in Dubai. Rahman expects a license in Pakistan soon, which will lower costs. Revenues rose 35%, to $25 million, in 2004. Losing so much money isn't crimping Rahman's ambition. Once GEO is in the black, he aims to make it even bigger. Looks like this father of nine is building a media empire for the next generation.
By Naween A. Mangi