Geo TV off air in most of Pakistan, fingers point to military

Geo TV, Pakistan’s largest television network, has once again fallen prey to the tug of war between the powerful military and civilian government, having virtually disappeared from television sets in most of the country.

Cable TV operators, particularly those with a nationwide network, are playing hide and seek with The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), as they start and stop transmission of the channel for short periods. Reports say the network’s news and entertainment channels have disappeared from 80% of the country, and it has been downgraded in cable TV channel number system.

While the civilian government wants Geo back on air, the military wants it shut down. And the country’s chief justice, seen to be supported by the military, has decided to sit on the fence. On the one hand, justice Mian Saqib Nisar said, “if the law allows a channel to operate, then no one can get it off air except the Almighty.” At the same time, he has ordered the channel to pay its employees their salaries before it can be allowed to return.

“We are off the air in 80% of the country,” Mir Ibrahim Rahman, the chief executive of the network told The New York Times. “We are going to the Supreme Court,” he said, “but we have been told not to expect justice.”

Geo News, which is owned by Jang Group and considered the most influential and watched news network, is accused by rivals of favouring former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and critical of his chief political rival, Imran Khan. It has taken a critical line on the ouster of Sharif and blamed it on the military.

The military high command has also been at odds with Geo over the manner in which the channel covered Pakistan’s inclusion on a global anti-terror financing watch list over the government’s inaction against terror groups. More recently, The News, the English language daily of the Jang Group, published articles critical of the army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa’s domestic and foreign policy preferences, known as the Bajwa Doctrine.

The Pakistan Broadcasters Association has lent its support to Geo TV network, calling any unlawful closure of licensed TV channels a violation of the basic rights enshrined in the Constitution of Pakistan. But most members of the association do not highlight Geo’s plight on their own channels, for fear of earning the ire of the military.

So far, PEMRA has failed to have its order implemented despite passing of the 24-hour deadline. The regulatory authority has now asked the provincial governments to direct their police to help it enforce its directive in different parts of the country. But on their part, the police say they have been asked by military officers to stay put.

“The arbitrary suspension of Geo TV on cable TV is a direct assault on Pakistan’s constitutionally guaranteed right to access information,” said Steven Butler, the Asia programme coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “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.”

This is not the first time that the network is encountering the long arm of the establishment. In 2014, its license was temporarily suspended after unknown gunmen attacked one of its popular talk show hosts, Hamid Mir.

Mir’s relatives blamed the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate for the attack.

The military was also angry at the channel’s editorial campaign some years ago in favour of better India-Pakistan relations.

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