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Pakistani army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa in Munich on February 17, 2018

Pakistani media outlets and journalists often face consequences for refusing to toe the line of the country’s all-powerful military.

The Pakistani military and its notorious intelligence services have long been accused of stifling the independent media and silencing opposition through intimidation, censorship, and even assassination.

Now observers say Pakistan’s popular Geo TV is being punished for its tug-of-war with the military. Geo TV, part of Pakistan's largest commercial media group, Jang, was taken off the air in many parts of the country on April 1, with media watchdogs and journalists claiming foul play.

The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PERMA) and the Islamabad government have insisted they were not behind the suspension of the channel. Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal said he launched an investigation on April 3, but the perpetrators have still not been found or named.

With no claim of responsibility, many suspect the military, which has an oversized role in domestic and foreign affairs in the South Asian country.

"There’s no doubt that the military is behind the blackout," says Ayesha Siddiqa, a Pakistani military analyst and author.

Last month, Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa held an off-the-record briefing with a group of journalists in Rawalpindi that was widely reported. Bajwa described Geo TV as "subversive" and warned the channel that it would face consequences for crossing "red lines" by challenging the military, several reporters with knowledge about what was discussed during the briefing told RFE/RL. The military has rejected this account of events.

"The military doesn’t want any channel to report about anything that is against [its] interests, certainly not in its ongoing political battle," says Siddiqa. "Geo TV is one of the few Pakistani media outlets that are ready to provide an alternative perspective."

The Pakistani military did not respond to a request for comment.

Tug-Of-War

Geo TV and the military have been at odds since 2014, when Geo TV anchor and journalist Hamid Mir was shot in the port city of Karachi. Mir accused the military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency of ordering the assassination attempt. Geo TV publicly backed Mir’s claims, while the military denied any involvement.

Recently, Geo TV has refused to follow the military's line on the corruption case against ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is embroiled in an ongoing war of words with the military. The Supreme Court in July 2017 disqualified Sharif from office due to corruption charges, which he has refuted. Sharif blamed "hidden hands" for his ousting, an apparent reference to the military.

Allies of the three-time prime minister, who was toppled in a military coup in 1999, have called the case a political vendetta and suggested the military might be behind it.

Pakistani journalists say Geo TV has been of the few outlets in Pakistan that has reported independently on the corruption case and given the side of the Sharif family.

"The establishment wants to scuttle any dissent covered by the media, especially to prevent the voice of Nawaz Sharif from reaching the public," says Marvi Sirmed, an Islamabad-based journalist and human rights activist. "It is important ahead of elections in order to get the public opinion manipulated through other, more obedient media outlets."

Geo TV anchors and senior journalists have also taken a stance against the rolling back of the 18th amendment, which in 2010 decentralized power in Pakistan and brought about a parliamentary system, reversing many changes made by military rulers to the constitution over the last few decades.

"This is not just about Nawaz Sharif, but also about dissent over rolling back the 18th amendment, too," says Sirmed, who claims the military wants to roll back the constitutional amendment "because it is affecting the establishment’s ability to manipulate policy" and its "control on resources."

Bajwa, in his off-the-record briefing with journalists, was quoted widely as saying that the 18th amendment was "more dangerous than Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s six points."

Rehman was the founding father of Bangladesh, which gained independence from Pakistan after a devastating war in 1971. His six points were a demand for greater autonomy five years before the Bengali war of independence erupted.

The Pakistani military has said Bajwa's comments were taken out of context and that the military was not opposed to the 18th amendment.

‘Too Frightened’

Geo TV’s suspension has outraged many Pakistani journalists and media activists who have called it a blatant suppression of press freedom.

Pakistani columnist and analyst Imtiaz Alam has called the suspension of Geo TV an example of "blatant suppression of freedom of press and freedom of expression and people’s right to know."

"Time and again it has been proven that a ban is counterproductive, whether it [is] on a party, person, or on media," Pakistani journalist Mazhar Abbas tweeted on April 1. "Yet we have a habit of repeating the same mistakes time and again..."

A statement on Geo TV's website says that "Pakistan's constitution and law[s] guarantee the fundamental right of access to information to the citizens of Pakistan."

"The arbitrary suspension of Geo TV on cable TV is a direct assault on Pakistan's constitutionally guaranteed right to access information," says Steven Butler, the Asia program coordinator at the Committee To Protect Journalists. "It's outrageous that authorities are either unable to find or too frightened to name those powerful enough to orchestrate the blocking of news distribution."

Marat Asipov, chief editor at Ratel.kz, was questioned again and his "witness" status was changed to "suspect."

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged the Kazakh government to decriminalize defamation and to stop using libel laws "to harass journalists who are doing their jobs."

In an April 6 statement, HRW said that Kazakh authorities launched an investigation on March 30 targeting two popular independent media outlets, the news site Ratel.kz and the local edition of Forbes magazine, on suspicion of disseminating knowingly false information."

"Kazakh authorities have been quick to carry out searches and confiscate material from Ratel.kz and Forbes Kazakhstan while details of the alleged criminal conduct remain a mystery," HRW Central Asia researcher Mihra Rittmann said. "The ease with which the criminal-defamation case was brought against Forbes Kazakhstan and Ratel.kz underscores the fragility of media freedom in Kazakhstan."

On April 2, Almaty police raided the editorial offices of Ratel.kz and Forbes, confiscating computers and documents from both. The homes of several journalists working for the outlets, including deceased Ratel.kz journalist Gennady Benditsky, were searched.

Police later said the raids were part of a criminal investigation based on a suit filed on March 30 by Zeinulla Kakimzhanov, a businessman and former finance minister, who claimed that the outlets published false information that damaged his reputation and that of his son.

Four journalists -- Aleksandr Vorotilov, deputy editor in chief of Forbes Kazakhstan; Marat Asipov, chief editor at Ratel.kz; Sapa Mekebaev, his deputy; and Anna Kalashnikova, an Ratel.kz reporter -- were questioned on April 2 and told that they were "witnesses with the right to defense."

On April 4, Asipov was questioned again and his "witness" status was changed to "suspect."

The HRW statement said that journalists in Kazakhstan frequently face criminal-defamation lawsuits and heavy fines even though the Central Asian state is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and high-level government officials assert that the country has a free press.

Kakimzhanov had previously lodged a successful defamation complaint against the same outlets in December 2016.

In April 2017, a court in Almaty ruled in favor of the Kakimzhanovs and awarded total damages of 5.2 million tenges ($16,200). The court required the outlets to remove the articles from their sites and issue a retraction.

Forbes and Ratel.kz paid the damages after their appeals were rejected, but Ratel.kz did not delete the articles or issue a retraction, saying there was no clear order about which of its articles had to be deleted.

Kakimzhanov wrote on Facebook on April 2 that he decided to file a new lawsuit because "despite court rulings, select media outlets and their authors do not comply with the court rulings and continue to publish similar articles."

On March 30, a court in Almaty issued a ruling ordering the blockage of Ratel.kz and Balbosyk.kz, an alternative site on which Ratel.kz publishes its content, and forbidding Asipov to publish any material under the Ratel.kz name. Ratel.kz and its affiliate sites have not been accessible since the ruling.

A preliminary hearing was held behind closed doors on April 5 and the next hearing is expected on April 10.

"This latest action against Forbes Kazakhstan and Ratel.kz smacks of yet another attempt to silence independent media in Kazakhstan," Rittmann said.

Opponents and rights groups say that President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who has held power in Kazakhstan since before the 1991 Soviet breakup, has taken systematic steps to suppress dissent and sideline potential opponents.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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