Muzzling the media in Pakistan

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First, Geo News, the news channel of Pakistan’s largest television network, went dark in early March across Pakistan’s cantonment areas. On March 30, all Geo channels, including sports and entertainment channels, were blocked by cable operators. Everyone knew who was behind the ban. Yet, nobody wanted to talk about it. After failing to get any reprieve from the government or the regulator, the top management of the Geo group last week met a few military officials. In the meeting, total submission of the network was demanded, and offered, according to people aware of the discussions.

Some of Geo’s anchors had tweeted hinting at what was happening. Journalist Talat Hussain claimed that cable operators were forced to block the channels. “The government is powerless. We face most blatant censorship in recent times,” he said. A couple of cable operators requesting anonymity said they received calls from unknown telephone numbers to shut down Geo. Some of them complied with the request and some refused. The next day, those who refused were ordered to come to a safe house and were told in categorical terms that they had to block Geo. “We had no other way but to comply with the order as we were threatened with dire consequences,” one cable operator said.

The government appears to be helpless. “It is a shame and we will take notice. Only PEMRA (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority) has the legal sanction to do so,” said Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal. He said that the Information Ministry did not have any role in the ban, but it has also failed to get the channels back on air. The PEMRA issued a statement clarifying that it has not issued any direction to cable operators to take down Geo. Earlier this month, the regulator also warned the operators that they should reopen the blocked channels in 24 hours to avoid regulatory action. The deadline passed and channels are yet to be restored.

Bad reputation

M. Ziauddin, a former editor, said it’s clear that either the military or some rogue elements within the military were behind the ban. “It is bringing bad name to the institution. Internationally, it is bringing bad name to the country. The New York Times and other international publications are highlighting this issue,” he said.

In the meeting with military officials, the Geo management was told that the blockade will go slowly if the network “behaves” well. Some journalists in the group critical of the military and the judiciary will have to keep mum. The entertainment channels will be opened first and after strict monitoring, the news and sports channels will reappear.

Meanwhile, the PEMRA had a meeting on Friday to discuss the matter, which Information Minister Maryam Aurangzeb also attended. The regulator has decided that the cable operators who refused to comply with its order should appear before the Council of Complaints on April 18. Other media houses have become very cautious. A rally by Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) in Peshawar last Sunday was blacked out by the media. The rally had thousands of Pashtun youth belonging to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which has remained under strict military control since Pakistan joined the U.S.-led war on Taliban and al-Qaeda in 2001. The PTM demanded information on the missing people allegedly picked by the military on suspicion of terrorism. It also demanded removal of landmines from FATA. The military would not like to see their protests getting media publicity. And they didn’t get it.

(Credit: The Hindu )

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