Top Pakistani News Channel Is Forced Off Air, and Eyes Are on the Military
source: the New York Times, by Salman Masood
April 6, 2018
ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s largest television network says it has been forced off the air by cable operators in most parts of the country, in a move widely seen as being forced by the military as it flexes its authority over civilian institutions.
“We are off the air in 80 percent of the country,” Mir Ibrahim Rahman, the chief executive of the network, Geo, said in an interview Thursday.
In the first week of March, Geo News was shut down in cantonment areas across the country and residential neighborhoods that are administered by the military. Then, this month, all Geo channels — including news, entertainment and sports channels — started being blocked across the country by cable operators. The network’s channel assignment on the cable distribution network has also been lowered.
The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority has insisted that it is not behind the move, and put out a notice for cable operators not to disrupt Geo’s transmissions.
Geo officials took pains not to publicly blame the military, and the military did not respond to requests for comment about whether it was punishing the network. Nonetheless, the action against Geo is being seen as an unmistakable message from the country’s generals that they would accept no negative reporting.
The Committee to Protect Journalists this week expressed concerns over the censorship of Geo network.
“The arbitrary suspension of Geo TV on cable TV is a direct assault on Pakistan’s constitutionally guaranteed right to access information,” Steven Butler, the committee’s Asia program coordinator, said in a statement. “It’s outrageous that the authorities are either unable to find or too frightened to name those powerful enough to orchestrate the blocking of the news distribution.”
The censorship has sent a chill through the country’s news media networks, most of which have given scant coverage to Geo’s suspension.
A senior official of another television news network based in Karachi said his channel was backing off from any coverage of Geo’s blockage. “The channels are falling in line to avoid a similar fate,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.
In Karachi, the country’s commercial hub and center of the media industry, attempts to tune into Geo are met with a screen warning reading “You are not authorized to watch this channel,” even though the network is not a premium offering.
The action against Geo is coming at a time of increased tension between the military and the civilian government, led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s political party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz.
Mr. Sharif was ousted from power last year in a controversial verdict by the Supreme Court, and he and his children are on trial over corruption charges in a special court.
Mr. Sharif denies any financial wrongdoing and has led a forceful public campaign against his ouster, accusing the military and the judiciary of being in cahoots to have him removed from office. Both the military and judiciary deny the accusations.
A verdict in the case is expected in the next few weeks, and a conviction — which is also expected — would surely lead to more political chaos, and to more public accusations that the military is pressing to have the Sharifs jailed.
Geo News, which is owned by Jang Group and considered to be the most influential and watched news network, has been sympathetic to Mr. Sharif and critical of his chief political rival, Imran Khan.
Geo has also upset the military with its critical coverage of Pakistan’s placement on a terrorism financing watch list this year. More recently, news reports and articles critical of the army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, and his domestic and foreign policy preferences, known here now as the Bajwa Doctrine, have also drawn the ire of senior military officials.
The military has been uneasy with Geo’s editorial line in the past, as well. In 2014, the channel’s license was temporarily suspended after unknown gunmen attacked one of its popular talk show hosts, Hamid Mir, and his relatives accused the military’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI, of being behind the assault. The military has also spurned the channel’s campaign to have friendlier ties with India some years ago.
Saqib Nisar, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, expressed disapproval of the blockage of Geo’s transmission during a court hearing Wednesday in a separate case dealing with media’s code of conduct. “Except God, no one on Earth can block transmission of Geo channels unlawfully,” the chief justice was quoted as saying after being informed that most of Geo’s transmission was suspended.
But the chief justice has also questioned the high placement of Geo on the distribution lists and objected to Geo getting the highest number of government advertisements from the governing political party.
Mr. Rahman, the network’s chief executive, said that hopes of any legal reprieve seem dim.
“We are going to the Supreme Court,” he said, “but we have been told not to expect justice.”