Press censorship in Pakistan has struck a new emotional chord as Geo TV and ARY, two popular independent news and opinion channels have been forced to end their Dubai-based satellite broadcasts by the United Arab Emirates Information Ministry. Shortly before midnight Pakistan time, Geo’s anchors choked up as they said the channel would be going dark. Because cable and terrestrial broadcasting in Pakistan is controlled by the government, satellite was the last opportunity to watch the channels, which have been unavailable domestically for about two weeks.
Geo’s website, www.geo.tv, is currently running a single story: “Musharraf Shuts Down Geo TV” (The text of the statement is also available from the Hindu.) It says that “informed sources” have stated that Gen. Pervez Musharraf himself had a role in shutting down Geo’s satellite broadcast and claims that "Geo News was shut down because it had refused to budge." According the statement, the government stopped advertising on Geo and pressured other advertisers to do the same, leading to 1 billion rupees (around 16 million US dollars) in losses for the channel. Despite the tremendous pressure, Geo never compromised its principles, it claims, and so the government had to act by taking it off the air entirely. The Pakistani government apparently asked authorities in Dubai to intervene, which they did.
Just before Gen. Musharraf declared emergency rule on November 3, the government moved quickly to force local cable operators to cease broadcasting news channels. According to Dawn, the channels affected included the Pakistani channels Dawn News, AAJ, Geo and ARY One World, and the international channels BBC World, CNN and Al-Jazeera. Dawn has called it the “perhaps the biggest news blackout in the history of Pakistan” because for two weeks there has been no television news, except from the state-run channel PTV. However, it is still possible to receive broadcasts of satellite TV, which made the two Pakistani channels beamed from Dubai, Geo and ARY, threatening to the government.
As of Friday, AAJ and Dawn News were back on television but with reduced programming. AAJ had to agree to temporarily suspend some of its popular talkshows. According Geo’s statement, before Geo was taken off the air, the government also asked it to axe its talk shows. The pattern is clear: Gen. Musharraf’s government feels especially threatened by televised discussion.
It goes without saying that Gen. Musharraf is not the first Pakistani leader to intimidate the press. In early 1999, when Nawaz Sharif was Prime Minister, the government terrorized the Jang Group, which publishes the most widely read Urdu paper in Pakistan, the Daily Jang, and several other newspapers. (Gen. Musharraf’s coup, which ousted Mr. Sharif, took place in October 1999.) The group’s publications had run stories alleging government corruption. The fallout from the government’s intervention led to hunger strikes by journalists and a great deal of soul searching about the role of media in public life. What is new under present circumstances, is the growth of independent television news. Geo is only six years old.
There is a comments board run by the Jang Group with over a thousand posts showing solidarity with Geo. On the site, there is a video message from the Geo mascot, a cartoon character called “Mister Jeem” (in Urdu script “jeem” is the first letter in “Geo”), who asks for our support with ominous music playing in the background. It is a little hokey, but I found myself moved by Mister Jeem and even less hopeful about the situation in Pakistan than I had been before.
- The Committee to Protect Journalists on the shutdown
- Reporters Without Borders: Joint statement by journalists worldwide, condemning the Pakistan government's broadcast ban
- The Times of India: UAE considers resuming transmission of Geo TV