Is media freedom under serious threat in Pakistan?

One of Pakistan’s most viewed TV channels, Geo News, was finally shut down on June 6

Mansoor Jafar

Published: Updated:

One of Pakistan’s most viewed TV channels, Geo News, was finally shut down on June 6, after a six week tussle with the country’s powerful military establishment. The move has given rise to strong fears of a strict clampdown to tame the country’s media.

Geo, Pakistan’s first private news channel which held more than 50 per cent market share of viewers and advertisements, went off air after the country’s media regulatory authority (PEMRA) suspended its license for 15 days along with a fine of 10 million rupees. In case of non-payment of the fine within the suspension period, the license could be permanently suspended, it warned.

Strangely, the establishment expressed dissatisfaction over “negligible” punishment to Geo TV and moved for a tougher and permanent ban on Geo group, generating fears of leaving around 20 thousand journalists and other technical staff, employed in Geo and at least 15 publications of the parent Jang group, unemployed.

Common viewers in Pakistan are utterly confused as the round the clock campaigning by against Geo TV has left them baffled

Mansoor Jafar

PEMRA punished Geo on the plaint of the Ministry of Defense, accusing it of gross misconduct on April 19 in the wake of an attack on the life of country’s leading talk show anchorperson Hamid Mir who works for Geo. Geo TV had flashed portrait of the country’s spy agency ISI’s chief Lt. General Zaheerul Islam for several hours when Hamid’s brother Amir Mir cited a recorded statement of Hamid in which he had proclaimed that the ISI should be held responsible in case of any harm to his life. Hamid was shot by unidentified men but survived despite receiving six bullets in his belly and thigh.

Joining hands against Geo TV

The Defense Ministry and various political and religious parties soon joined hands and voices to label Geo as a “traitor” and as “disloyal to the country’s security,” demanding its permanent closure. Those parties who backed military establishment in this tussle were already known as its stooges, and the list included the PML-Q led by the Chaudhrys of Gujrat who had been the lynchpin of nine-year rule of former military dictator General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan Tehrik Insaf of Imran Khan, Pakistan Awami Tehrik led by a Canadian national Dr. Tahirul Qadri, Jamaat-ud-Dawah of Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, known for its hatred of India, the Sunni Ittehad Council led by Hamid Raza, and a number of smaller parties and non-entities in the political arena.

Amidst this political and public pressure, Geo had been practically shut down in more than 90 per cent of Pakistan since April 22 after the cable operators “voluntarily” removed it from their lists citing pressure from political and religious parties. Off the record, the cable operators cited strong threats from secret agencies, but refused to come up with open allegations. Those operators, who did not remove Geo, pushed it to the last stages of their lists, thus making it impossible for viewers to locate.
All through the tussle, the Geo administration had been expressing regrets on its “blunder” and terming verbal apologies in their attempt to ensure rapprochement with the establishment. But according to government quarters, the military establishment had refused to accept Geo’s apology. According to unconfirmed reports, the Defense Ministry put forward certain tough conditions, including that Geo owner Mir Shakilur Rehman should publicly apologize live on TV, should expel around ten top newsmen, editors and anchors including Hamid Mir, and close certain talk shows and subject certain material to official scrutiny before airing.

Unilateral and unconditional apology

Finally, Geo published a unilateral and unconditional apology in the English and Urdu newspapers of the media group last week, but that too was in vain.

While the Geo administration and other media associations across the world have rejected the Geo license suspension as unjustified, the defense minister and the Geo-rival camp termed the 15-day ban as eyewash and demanded a complete ban on Geo TV. The Geo administration said PEMRA handed down the ban without hearing its side of the case, under strong pressure from the establishment and the ban was biased since rival channels who committed similar, or even graver, misconduct against the military establishment were either allowed to go scot-free or subjected to negligible reprimand.

The defense minister vowed to file an appeal before Supreme Court pleading for complete ban on Geo. Similar statements came from those political groups playing hand in glove with the establishment. It seems that the establishment has serious intentions against the channel and the situation is far from over.

There is no doubt that Geo clearly overstepped the limits when it became a party to Amir Mir’s unsubstantiated allegations against the ISI chief while his brother Hamid was in critical condition. The Military establishment had always remained a sacred cow in Pakistan and directly ruled for more than half of the country’s 67-year history through four martial laws. Criticizing the military or the ISI has always been a clear courting of disaster. Several journalists known for criticizing the army were either thrashed or killed by “unknown persons” in the past. Media has always been regarded as front runner and victim in every political movement’s apparent restoration of democracy in the country.

In the past, media organizations had remained united against dictatorships. But the Geo-ISI tussle has been a unique incident in country’s history since it divided media for the first time; several rival channels of Geo have been the front runners in the campaign, accusing it of being a “traitor” and an “Indian agent,” and demanding its ban. This anti-Geo campaign is being spearheaded by rival ARY, Express News and Dunya TV, while other channels followed them with a lighter intensity. The majority of Geo-rival channels are owned by former businessmen who are believed to have launched them to cover up their ill-gotten wealth.

Utterly confused

Common viewers in Pakistan are utterly confused as the round the clock campaigning by against Geo has left them baffled and unable to differentiate truth from falsehood. Saner elements in society believe the Geo-rivals are playing the role of Brutus, or “enemies within,” and have seriously endangered media freedom by giving a clear walkover to the powerful military establishment. There are strong fears that if the ban on Geo were to be extended, it would lead to a larger restrictions on the entire Pakistani media.

Appeal against the license suspension before Supreme Court looks difficult for Geo since the judges of the apex court already hearing its plea against an earlier indefinite license suspension imposed a fortnight ago by non-government members of PEMRA have been targeted by a vicious and malicious vilification campaign by the rival TV channels.

It is widely believed that the establishment’s stubborn attitude towards Geo is aimed at removing the biggest hurdle in enforcement of a draconian law titled the “Protection of Pakistan Ordinance,” or PPO. The law featuring blanket suppression of civil liberties and basic human rights is akin to the U.S. Patriot Act, imposed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The PPO is aimed at suppressing the growing opposition to Pakistan’s role in the U.S. war on terror, particularly the military operation in the tribal region killing thousands of innocent civilians.

The PPO’s salient features included allowing secret agencies to pick up and detain anyone believed to be linked with terrorism for a period of 120 days without access to a lawyer, their family or a court. Such accused will have to prove their innocence for securing bail or release. Besides, the law allows for secret monitoring of phone calls, emails and bank accounts of all those suspected of terrorism.

War on terror

Interestingly, Geo TV had been a close ally of the military establishment in the war on terror inside Pakistan for the last 12 years. Geo was accused of making false propaganda for paving the way for launching military operations against suspected Taliban in tribal region. It was Geo which showed a fake video of a teenage abaya-clad girl being flogged by suspected Taliban members in Swat for the alleged adultery. Later, the video was proved fake, filmed by a European funded NGO by making a boy pose as a girl in abaya.

This video proved a key element in mobilizing public opinion in favor of military operation in Swat that left hundreds of people dead and thousands wounded. No action was taken against the filmmakers despite the fact that Peshawar High Court took serious notice of the fake video and ordered strict action against the culprits.

Spokesmen of banned Taliban group claimed responsibility for hosts of suicidal attacks on various vital targets in front of Geo camera for the first time. This footage was used as a strong argument by the opponents of dialogue with Taliban.

The ban on Geo is being strongly condemned by human rights groups and those working for civil liberties like Amnesty International, Reporters without Borders, South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA), and Committee to Protect Journalists. They have termed it a conspiracy to suppress media freedoms in Pakistan and express concerns that if protracted, the ban on Geo could lead to a wider ban on freedom of expression.


Mansoor Jafar is Editor of Al Arabiya Urdu based in Islamabad. He can be reached via Twitter: @mansoorjafar

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.