The Pakistani government’s suspension of licence to Geo TV, the country’s largest private broadcaster, is an assault on media freedom.
It is aimed not only at punishing the news channel for daring to carry exposés of ISI’s illegal activities but also at intimidating Pakistan’s outspoken media. The suspension of license is for 15 days but the Pakistani Electronic Media Regularity Authority (Pemra), which issued the order says that Geo TV will remain off air if it fails to pay up a fine of $100,000 within a fortnight. Geo TV is thus staring at possible closure. Pemra’s decision was hardly its own; it acted on orders from the Ministry of Defence, read the ISI. The intelligence agency’s long-running feud with Geo TV is well-known. Senior journalist Hamid Mir’s reportage on the ISI’s role in scores of abductions in Baluchistan raised hackles in the intelligence agency. An attempt on Mir’s life in April saw Geo TV blame the ISI. While Pemra says that Geo TV’s carrying of blasphemous content forced it to suspend its licence, it is obvious that it was Geo TV’s damning disclosures of the ISI that underlines the decision to silence the channel.
The suspension of Geo TV’s license is part of a larger strategy to silence voices that are critical of Pakistan’s all-powerful military. Sadly, political parties have endorsed the action against Geo TV. The Tehreek-e-Insaaf party, for instance, has said the punishment isn’t enough. More worrying is the failure of Pakistan’s media to close ranks with Geo TV. Media houses that are pro-military or have an authoritarian mindset, and business rivals of Geo TV have come out in support of Pemra’s order. In their rush to display loyalty to the military, perhaps to avoid the ISI’s sword themselves, they are hastening their own demise. They have forgotten that the media has a role to play in holding the state to account for its deeds and misdeeds. As for Pakistan’s civilian government, initially it signalled support to Geo TV when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited Mir in hospital. But with the ISI-Geo TV face-off deepening, the Sharif government retreated into silence. It has not castigated the muzzling of the media. This is reason for concern as Pakistan’s pro-democracy forces need a strong and outspoken media to help democracy take firm root in Pakistan. But in its anxiety to avoid antagonising the military authorities, the Sharif government’s silence is empowering the ISI.