Pakistan Suspends License of Leading TV News Channel

GEO transmission suspended (Credit: southasianmedia.net)
GEO transmission suspended
(Credit: southasianmedia.net)

LONDON JUNE 6, 2014  — The Pakistani government on Friday suspended the broadcasting license of Geo News, a popular television news channel, in a major escalation of Geo’s dispute with the country’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency.

The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority said the off-air suspension would last for 15 days. It also imposed a $104,000 fine.

The dispute between the channel and the spy agency began with accusations that the agency was behind a gun attack on a senior Geo journalist on April 19. It has broadened into a wider confrontation that is seen as a threat to press freedom in Pakistan and a sign of growing tensions between the country’s civilian and military leaders.

Even before Friday’s announcement, Geo News and its sister channels for sports and entertainment were effectively off the air in much of Pakistan because cable television operators had pulled the stations from their services, apparently under pressure from the military.

Station managers say advertising revenue has collapsed, four of their vehicles have been burned in different cities, and a journalist in Multan, a large city in central Pakistan, was beaten up by unidentified assailants who called him a traitor.

“It seems that justice has bowed down to forces that are above the law,” said Imran Aslam, the president of Geo.

The station’s chief executive, Mir Ibrahim Rahman, said, “We are left alone, as usual.”

Geo News stopped transmission within an hour of Friday’s suspension. The channel has come to dominate Pakistan’s thriving television news media sector over the past decade, with punchy programming and an often populist tone that has prompted accusations of sensationalism.

The channel’s initial commercial success and editorial heft made it a lucrative asset for its owner, the Jang Group, but also made it a source of worry for powerful institutions like the military.

The current dispute started after the attack, on Hamid Mir, a senior Geo newscaster. The station prominently aired angry accusations from Mr. Mir’s relatives that the ISI was behind the attack. The military rejected the accusations, and days later asked the national media regulator to cancel Geo’s broadcast license.

The Jang Group, a media company headed by Mr. Rahman, appeared to have anticipated Friday’s suspension. Morning editions of The News, an English-language newspaper that it owns, announced that Jang was suing the ISI for defamation over accusations that the company was “anti-state.” Lawsuits of that nature against the feared spy agency are extremely rare in Pakistan, and likely to further increase the stakes in the dispute.

“More than 8,000 journalists, workers and professionals attached to the group and their families are not only being harassed but also attacked and tortured across Pakistan,” the group said in a statement.

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, a political party that has joined the ISI criticism of Geo in recent weeks, said the 15-day suspension was not enough.

“What happens after 15 days?” asked Shireen Mazari, the party’s information secretary. “Will Geo be allowed to go back to its old ways?” Imran Khan, a former cricket star who runs the party, has accused Geo of colluding with the senior judiciary to fix the results of the May 2013 general elections.

For many Pakistani journalists, the dispute is an ominous sign of the military’s intent to influence media coverage of sensitive topics, like the insurgency in Baluchistan Province and relations with India.

Mr. Mir, who is recovering from his injuries, had prominently covered reports of human rights abuses by the military in Baluchistan, while Geo had participated in a peace initiative with Indian news outlets that has come under fierce attack in recent weeks.

The battle is also a product of broader tensions between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government, which is viewed as siding with Geo, and the military, which has clashed with Mr. Sharif over Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the former military ruler charged with treason.

Salman Masood contributed reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan.

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