Pakistan’s Media Crackdown: Country’s Most Popular News Channel Temporarily Shut Down

In early March, Geo-TV (“Live-TV” in Urdu), Pakistan’s most popular broadcast news station, was taken off air in more than 80 percent of the country according to the company’s chief executive Mir Ibrahim Rahman.

According to the New York Times, the removal of the channel from the country’s airwaves was gradual–people living in areas administered by the Pakistani military first lost access to Geo-TV, with a national shutdown initiated only a few weeks later.

The ban remained in place over a month before Geo-TV began broadcasting early this week with no prior notice or comment from the channel’s executives or The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority.

Contrary to recent media crackdowns observed in countries like Turkey and Myanmar, no direct responsibility was taken for the move nor have any comments been made by government institutions.

However, brief statements acknowledging the issue have been obtained by Pakistani journalist Marvi Sirmed, special correspondent for the Daily Times, in off-the-record conversations with national cable providers.

Sirmed told Al Jazeera’s “The Listening Post” that after she turned off her tape recorder during an interview with employees working for the cable providers, she was told that entities who had ordered the channel’s shutdown were “much bigger than any government.”

This statement, along with similar comments obtained by Reuters from Geo-TV insiders, has led to speculation regarding whether this power is Pakistan’s influential military.

It is well known that in previous years, the country’s armed forces, also called “the establishment,” have had contentious relationships with the press. In recent times, this has shown itself to be that case with Geo-TV, as its antagonistic and so-called “pro-civilian government” reporting has been criticized by top military officials.

Geo-TV’s critical reporting

The military’s disdain for Geo-TV can be traced back to 2007 when the network was accused of encouraging protests that led to the overthrow of the then military dictatorship. The continued coverage of the mass demonstrations and critical tone taken towards the country’s armed forces caused tensions to rise between military officials and the channel’s owners.

This contentious relationship reached a breaking point in 2014 with the attempted murder of one of Geo-TV’s key personalities, Hamid Mir. The network accused the country’s intelligence services, also known as the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI), of carrying out the attack in order to silence its journalists and their reporting on the military.

However, these claims were not well met by national and international observers, as they claimed that such direct accusations, made without proof, were part of Geo-TV’s sensationalist reporting.

Geo-TV accusations of ISI’s involvement in the attack on Mir were met with a temporary shutdown of the channel in the country’s main cities. The military, who then claimed direct responsibility for ordering Geo-TV to be taken off Pakistan’s airwaves, justified their actions by stating that the network had violated media laws due to their destructive campaign against the intelligence services.

However, despite the shutdown, Geo-TV had remained critical of the country’s armed forces. In an interview with The New York Times, an employee working for the network claimed this was because the owners had extensive control over Geo-TV’s coverage and “no editor or journalist can take a stand against them.”

Given that elections in Pakistan are due to be held in July 2018, the military’s tolerance of Geo-TV’s critical journalism has significantly diminished.

According to Reuters, the channel had extensively covered the rallies held across Pakistan in support of the ousted Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, who was accused of corruption earlier this month.

Sharif and the military had been at odds during his term, as he sought to assert civilian control over the country’s army. As a result, Pakistan’s armed forces have been allegedly attempting to prevent Sharif’s party from retaining its parliamentary majority.

The shutdown of Geo-TV, whom many accuse of being a mouthpiece for the civilian government, was speculated to be part of the military’s plan to regain control of the country.

Geo-TV negotiations with Pakistani military

According to Reuters, on April 17, over a month after the shutdown of Geo-TV began, the channel was restored on some main cable operators in Pakistan.

In an interview with the news source, two employees working for Geo-TV stated that the channel was able to negotiate a deal with the Pakistani military that would allow them to return to the air. However, no official comments have been made by the military’s press office or Geo-TV’s executives confirming that the negotiations took place.

In an email sent last week by Geo-TV’s management to its staff, they explained that significant changes were going to be made to the channel’s editorial policy. Journalists would now have to refrain from including negative portrayals of the military and Supreme Court in their reports. Coverage of the former prime minister’s corruption trial that imply he is innocent was also to be avoided.

As a result of these events, organizations around the world have voiced their concerns, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, who see this temporary shutdown as a threat to freedom of speech in the country.

This sentiment is shared amongst Pakistan’s journalistic bodies who state that the media landscape has never been so limited. However, what seems to be most worrying to them is that fact that this could finally give the Pakistani military the means necessary to consolidate power.

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