ISLAMABAD // The assassination of the liberal governor of Punjab province earlier this month has ignited a debate over whether Pakistan's boisterous television news networks are helping foment social and religious intolerance.
The networks heatedly debated the controversial blasphemy law that Salman Taseer opposed before he was shot dead by one of his own security guards.
Critics say popular conservative and religious talk show hosts who vehemently oppose any changes in the law took extreme positions that allowed little room for dialogue with progressive voices.
On Tuesday, the watchdog Electronic Media Regulatory Authority imposed fines of one million rupees (Dh43,000) each on Samaa TV and WAQT TV for "projecting terrorists, showing blood and gore" after the networks broadcast an interview with Malik Mumtaz Qadri, the confessed and apparently unrepentant assassin.
"What was once considered to be the lunatic fringe has now become the new mainstream - and the electronic media reflects this new mainstream," said Nadeem Farooq Paracha, a culture critic and columnist for the Dawn newspaper.
Mr Paracha traces the roots of the growing influence of the right-wing on mainstream news networks to the Urdu media, especially newspapers, which have traditionally been conservative and anti-western.
As the news networks mushroomed, many journalists from small, right-wing Urdu newspapers joined television stations as anchors and analysts and have hijacked the discourse, he said.
Intense competition in the electronic media is also a major factor for the shifting tone, liberals say.
Pakistan has more than 60 television networks that operate on 24-hour news cycles. Extreme views bring in more viewers, the critics say.
They cite the example of Meher Bokhari, a popular talk show host on Samaa TV, who surprised many when she interviewed Taseer in December and alleged - much to the governor's bafflement and chagrin - that he was kowtowing to a "pro-western agenda" for having vigorously taken up the cause of a poor Christian farm worker who had been sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy.
Ms Bokhari, who often appears in her shows wearing western suits and shouts down guests who disagree with her, had previously been known for her moderate views.
"It is really inexplicable what has happened to her," said Fasi Zaka, a columnist for the Express Tribune daily. "She editorialises before the conversation begins and then goes into the programme.
"The only explanation can be that it is the ratings game," he continued. "TV channels and talk show hosts think that unless you raise your voice and generate a conflict, you won't get an audience. Even the new entrants, like Meher Bokhari, now know that to make it big on TV, they have to follow the same right-wing narrative."
Some critics suggest there may also be another reason for Ms Bokhari's newfound conservatism - she was recently savagely denounced by Islamists over pictures that surfaced on the internet of her drinking alcohol with American officials at a party in Islamabad.
Mr Zaka also worries that the talk show hosts are feeding off each other.
In a comment piece in the Express Tribune earlier this month, he noted that if "Meher Bokhari nods her head in approval when someone describes Malik Mumtaz Qadri on the just side of morality, if Hamid Mir and Javed Chaudhry suggest that Salmaan Taseer brought it upon himself, it feeds the monster further", referring to two other popular talk show hosts.
Until recently, the news networks were being hailed as the driving force for reform in Pakistan.
In 2007, as the then-president Pervez Musharraf became hugely unpopular, they joined forces with opposition political parties and lawyers to defy the regime.
As protesting lawyers took on the regime on the streets and in the corridors of the Supreme Court, political talk shows and their hosts drew millions of viewers.
Analysts say the media inculcated a new political awareness in the public, reflected in the 2008 elections when politicians allied with Mr Musharraf were routed.
Now the same television networks are being criticized for their coverage of the blasphemy law. Anchors are being accused of bias and distorting or misrepresenting the stance of the slain governor and the few others who dared to speak against it.
Not everyone agrees that the news networks have capitulated, however.
Talat Hussain, a journalist and himself a host of a popular talk show, said liberals were refusing to appear on shows to discuss the blasphemy law.
"I try to do a fairly balanced show. But the problem we faced was the complete absence of thoughtful liberal voices. Obviously, this led to a vacuum, which was filled by inane analysis and right-wing opinion makers."
He added: "The majority of the people is neither left or right."
On the blasphemy issue, however, Pakistanis were "in favour of the Islamists."
Mr Hussain noted that the public widely supported the military action against Islamic militants in Swat.
He blamed the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party for dithering over whether to amend or repeal the blasphemy law.
"If the government is seen on the retreat, then obviously the mullah on the street would have a field day. If the state asserts itself, people would swing its way."