Pakistan took the country’s most popular television channel off air Friday, the latest twist in a bitter row between Geo News and Islamabad’s top spy agency over the shooting of a leading journalist.
The government’s media regulatory body said in a statement the station’s licence was being suspended for 15 days and it would have to pay a fine of 10 million rupees ($100,000).
Observers will view the decision, which the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) said was “unanimous”, as a blow to freedom of expression as the all powerful army clamps down on critical coverage.
Geo News has locked horns with the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) ever since a prominent anchor of the television channel was attacked in the volatile port city of Karachi in April.
Hamid Mir was shot three times but survived, with his family blaming the chief of the ISI, General Zaheer-ul-Islam, for the attempted murder.
Mir’s brother, Amir Mir, said Hamid had told him before the attack that he felt threatened and if anything happened to him the ISI chief “would be responsible”.
Geo News broadcast images of Islam along with the Mir family allegations for eight hours, infuriating the military which filed a complaint to PEMRA seeking the channel’s closure.
Mir has criticised the country’s powerful intelligence agencies and military for their alleged role in the abduction of thousands of people in the restive southwestern province of Baluchistan.
Many journalists from the Jang Media Group, which owns Geo News, have reported receiving threats and being harassed following the row.
A regional editor of Jang newspaper, the group’s Urdu daily, was severely beaten in Multan on Monday after leaving his office.
– ‘Extreme’ decision –
Geo News is also facing the wrath of the religious community for airing a song-and-dance routine on a breakfast show aired in May which clerics said was blasphemous and defamed Islam.
The media group subsequently apologised over both issues, a move that was apparently enough to save it from closure but not suspension.
Former information minister Javed Jabbar described the decision as “extreme”.
“It was an unfair outburst on a major institution of the country, however, the reaction was very extreme,” he said.
“I hope that the Jang/Geo group appeal to the higher courts and Supreme Court and ask for a fair process.
Pakistan began awarding licences to private channels in 2002, leading to a media boom and a sharp rise in critical reporting.
But while the media has been relatively free to report on the country’s political parties, the all-powerful army, which has ruled Pakistan for half its existence, remains a sensitive topic.
Mir’s case has been compared to the case of Saleem Shahzad, who was found dead near the capital Islamabad in 2011 after writing about links between the Pakistani military and Al-Qaeda.
Rights groups have called Pakistan one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists.
Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders says seven reporters lost their lives in Pakistan last year.