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Pakistan’s Most Popular TV Station Forced Off Air Amid Crackdown On Free Media

Geo News's broadcasts were blocked just hours before Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and senior military officers landed in Washington for talks with U.S. officials. (file photo)
Geo News's broadcasts were blocked just hours before Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and senior military officers landed in Washington for talks with U.S. officials. (file photo)

Pakistan's most popular TV station, Geo News, was abruptly forced off the air in many parts of the country as independent media come under unprecedented pressure from authorities.

Geo News’s broadcasts were blocked starting July 21, just hours before Prime Minister Imran Khan, Pakistani Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, the head of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the military's notorious spy wing, landed in Washington for talks with U.S. officials.

Geo TV was still blocked in some parts of the country on July 22.

The move was condemned by international media watchdog, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which in a September report said that the climate for press freedom in Pakistan was deteriorating as the country's powerful army "quietly, but effectively" restricts reporting through "intimidation" and other means.

The Pakistani Army and ISI play a major role in domestic and foreign affairs in the South Asian country of some 212 million people.

"The blockage of Geo News just as Prime Minister Imran Khan visits Washington is an unfortunate illustration of how widespread censorship has become in Pakistan," Steven Butler, CPJ's Asia program coordinator, said in a statement after the station went off air.

"U.S. officials who meet with Khan should make clear that these blatant attacks on press freedom are unacceptable."

The U.S. government has yet to comment on the blockage.

Azhar Abbas, Geo News's managing director, told CPJ that the channel was blocked without any notice or explanation from the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), the powerful broadcast media regulator.

PERMA has not commented on the blockage.

"Geo has bled enormously in [the] last five and half year[s] due to repeated illegal closure of the channel," Abbas said, adding that Geo staffers have not been paid in three months, and that this latest move could "potentially be fatal" for the broadcaster.

"It is punished for its editorial policy," Abbas said.

The incident came as Pakistan's free press finds itself under unprecedented pressure from the military.

Spate Of Blows

Criticism of the army has long been seen as a red line for the media, with journalists and bloggers complaining of intimidation tactics including kidnappings, beatings, and even killings if they cross that line.

The independent media has suffered a spate of blows in recent years.

Several veteran reporters in Pakistan have left journalism after being threatened; authorities have disrupted the distribution of Dawn, Pakistan's oldest English-language newspaper; and leading columnists have complained that stories deemed to be critical of the army are being rejected by outlets under pressure from the military.

On July 16, journalists staged demonstrations across the country to denounce censorship by the military and security services, layoffs due to budget cuts, and months-long delays in the payment of wages.

The July 16 protests were spearheaded by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists to call attention to what it described as “unprecedented censorship.”

Last week, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) criticized a decision by Pakistani authorities to suspend three TV news channels from a cable network after they had broadcast a news conference by an opposition politician.

Pakistan is ranked 142nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index, three places lower than it was in 2018.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the regional desk editor for Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2012, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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