Everything old appears to be new again in Pakistan. The latest: government bans on independent television news coverage.
On the heels of an emergency crackdown earlier this week, in which the government of President Asif Ali Zardari responded to the "Long March" organized by the lawyers movement by banning public gatherings and reportedly detained hundreds of opposition lawyers and political workers, Zardari has also moved to block transmission of Geo TV throughout the country:
On the direct order of President Asif Ali Zardari, the transmission of the Geo News was blocked by cable operators in various parts of the country on Friday, which drew flak from across the country.
The transmission was blocked in some parts of Karachi, Hyderabad, Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore, Quetta, Multan, Rawalakot, Muzaffarabad, Deepalpur, Sargodha, Nawabshah, Faisalabad, Gujranwala and Dera Murad Jamali. [link]
Geo and other TV news channels were previously blocked -- for much the same reasons as the present ban by Zardari -- by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, first as the lawyers' movement was gaining momentum in the spring of 2007 and later after Musharraf declared a state of "emergency" in November 2007.
The Geo ban has apparently prompted the resignation of Information Minister Sherry Rehman, a leading member of the Pakistan People's Party and close confidante of the late former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto:
Federal Information Minister Sherry Rehman resigned from her ministerial slot on Friday night to protest the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA)’s blocking of a private TV channel without taking her into confidence, sources told Daily Times.
Despite repeated attempts to contact her, Sherry was not available to confirm the news. However, sources close to the former minister insisted she had resigned as the federal minister for information and broadcasting.
Separately, sources and a private news channel claimed that neither President Asif Ali Zardari nor Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani had accepted Sherry’s resignation yet. [link]
Rehman had been outspoken in expressing opposition to Musharraf's earlier bans on television news channels. When she became Information Minister last year, Rehman became the leading public face of the government's efforts to undo some of Musharraf's restrictions on the media:
Pakistan’s government moved to lift harsh restrictions on the media that were imposed by President Pervez Musharraf during his emergency rule in November 2007. The PEMRA (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority) amendment bill, introduced by Information minister Sherry Rahman, proposed “an end to curbs on live broadcasts and punishments for journalists ranging from heavy fines to imprisonment and confiscation of equipment,” reported the AFP. Rahman told reporters outside the National Assembly today, “The amendments will remove the entire apparatus of restrictions imposed on the press.” BBC News quoted the minister further claiming, "We will put our own house in order to allow the press to broadcast not just live telecast but all that they feel to broadcast." [link]
Earlier this week, Rehman defended the Zardari government's crackdown:
Information Minister Sherry Rehman defended the government's actions, saying: "The current political situation in the country is a result of the opposition's irresponsible call for rebellion and the democratically elected government cannot allow the rule of law to be replaced by the law of the jungle.
The situation arose because Nawaz Sharif "chose to publicly incite rebellion and propagate a breakdown of the state of Pakistan's constitutional machinery", she said.
The crackdown is a "temporary situation because no democratically elected government wants to take such measures", she added.
The opposition's continued use of "highly charged public statements inciting revolution and civil disobedience" threatened to propel Pakistan "towards instability, chaos and anarchy, which no democratic force can afford", Rehman said. [link]
Rehman also had a remarkable exchange (partially in Urdu, but mostly in English) with human rights activist Tahira Abdullah on Geo earlier this week (via Action for a Progressive Pakistan):
- Action for a Progressive Pakistan, "Policing the Press: Long March Day 2"
- All Things Pakistan, "Geo Blocked. Sherry Resigns. Hundreds Arrested. Crackdown on Long March. Efforts to Cool Tensions Heat Up. Uncertainty Rules"
- Changing Up Pakistan, "Day 2 of the Long March"
- Chapati Mystery, "The Long March to Justice" and "The Long March to Justice II"