A sinister war against Geo TV

BY NUPUR BASU| IN Media Freedom | 17/06/2014
First GEO TV's top anchor suffered an assassination attempt, now Pakistan's leading private channel fights for its survival against the military establishment.
NUPUR BASU explains why this unprecedented battle is important for media freedom, in Pakistan and beyond. PIX: ISI chief Zahir Ul Islam (L) and Geo TV journalist Hamid Mir

In an interview toWaqt News in Pakistan earlier this year, Hamid Mir, Senior Editor of Geo TV, and one of Pakistan’s best known television anchors, said: “Since 2007 we have been dubbed as pro-Taliban, pro-CIA, pro-India, pro this and pro that…merely to discredit us. These forces attacking us were first attacking the judiciary and are now attacking the media –why don’t they come out in the open and lay bare the proof they have against us? Let the Supreme Court of Pakistan decide what is the truth of these allegations. The entire Pakistani media’s credibility is at stake...let them present their findings in the Supreme Court, phir doodh ka doodh aur paani ka paani ho jayega.” (Then the reality will be revealed).

Shortly afterwards, Mir went a step further on a programme called ‘Crossfire’ on the web portal punjabrang.com: “I never plotted against the army or the ISI -- at the most they will shoot us down…let them…we will not give up our principled reporting!”

In an eerie response to his words, Mir became the victim of an assassination attempt on April 19. He was shot at six times but survived. The developments that followed were nothing short of bizarre. Geo TV charged on air that the ISI was behind the attempt to assassinate Mir, following which the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) suspended the channel’s license for a fortnight and imposed a fine of 10 million Pakistani rupees (USD 100,000) on it for making these allegations. Finding itself under fire, Geo TV apologised for having blamed the ISI, on air, for the assassination bid on Mir. However, in a bold and unprecedented move in defence of its freedom, and in apparent protest against the channel being pulled off the air, it went on to file a 100 million rupee defamation case against the ISI for damaging its reputation by calling it a traitor and accusing it of blasphemy.

Meanwhile, Imran Aslam, the president of Geo TV, stressed the fact that the ISI had not been pleased with his channel’s converage of events. He told a Pakistani news channel: “We had evidence that ISI was unhappy – the way we covered the Musharraf trial was one of the reasons...our coverage of the sacking of the judges was another, also our stance on disappearances– Hamid had a clear position on all this…there was intimidation, threats, attempt to control the mindsets – everyone was operating in fear.”

On another occasion, when the anchor of Today’s World News asked Aslam: “Are you on a collision course?” Geo’s president replied: “We are not interested in any collision. We have respect for the armed forces and the ISI but whenever it encroaches on human rights, then we don’t take it lying down. They say, in Pakistan, there is freedom of expression, but little freedom after. This seems to be the case in terms of Hamid Mir.”

In the weeks that followed, Geo TV, instead of covering the news, continued to be the news. When Pakistan was convulsed earlier this month by the attacks on Karachi airport by unidentified gunmen, Geo TV remained off the air and was left out of the news cycle, thanks to the continuing ban imposed by PEMRA at the instigation of the ISI, and official attempts to have Geo’s license cancelled.

Meanwhile, the post mortem on the unprecedented stand-off between the Geo TV and the government is still going on. Although most other media houses have condemned the government crackdown on Geo, they have not unreservedly supported the channel. 

Zaffar Abbas, Editor of the Dawn newspaper, told The Hoot from Karachi: “Geo TV certainly erred in its coverage of the Hamid Mir affair --- something that the media group also acknowledged when it publicly apologised to the ISI chief and his family --- but to seek the cancellation of the group’s television licence is a hostile move that can have dangerous consequences for the entire media industry, and freedom of expression in the country.”

Abbas, who was for many years the BBC’s special correspondent in Pakistan, added: “In the aftermath of the murderous attack on Hamid Mir, a large section of the Pakistani media has been at war with itself. In fact, it has cannabalised itself in recent weeks. Partly it was due to commercial interests and personal rivalries, and partly because of the absence of professional editors. Whatever the reason, during these few weeks a large section of the media forgot its prime responsibility - of truthfully informing the public and adhering to the rules of ethical journalism.”

When Geo’s President Imran Aslam was once asked if his channel practised activist journalism, his reply was: “We were testing the waters…people looked on media as a saviour…talking truth to power...one of our campaigns had 2500 women come out of prison and resulted in an enabling legislation…we wanted to take up similar cases.” “Did they ever feel that you had gone a little too far with this?” asked the anchor. The Geo President had laughed and replied, “Zardari said that!”

In fact, it was the authorities in Pakistan who went too far by pulling Geo TV off the air, and accusing them of treachery and blasphemy.

This is especially tragic given that Pakistan’s transition from a single state controlled channel, PTV or Pakistan TV, in 2000 to a vibrant media scene with multiple independent channels by 2014, has been such a difficult one. Its media freedoms have been hard won indeed. In the year 2000 when I was directing a documentary on the impact, over ten years, of satellite television on south Asia, titled Michael Jackson Comes to Manikganj, I visited the four Pakistani cities of Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and Islamabad. With no satellite news channels, Pakistan was hooked onto Indian news channels. Dissatisfaction with the state-run media was high. Imran Aslam, the then Editor of The News, an English daily in Karachi, in an interview to me, sarcastically described PTV thus: “Every day at 8 PM there was one PM!” He pointed out that India had won the ‘perception’ war in Kargil, as India had a proactive and nationalistic private television that was more ‘loyal than the Pope’ and Pakistan did not.

Meanwhile, television sets were being burnt as ‘un-Islamic’ in the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP). In Peshawar, the provincial capital, my crew and I were stopped on the road one morning as we were heading for a meeting with Fazlur Rahman, leader of the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-i-Islam (JUI), who was spearheading the ‘burn TV sets’ campaign. Although I had a valid visa to Peshawar, was accompanied by a well-known journalist from NWFP, Rahmatullah Yousufzai, and was filming with a Pakistani crew, our car was waylaid by safari suited men and my passport impounded for about an hour. The officers later returned my passport but told me I could not proceed to meet Fazlur Rahman as I had to pass the Cantonment area and was not technically permitted there!

We turned back, not wishing to take any chances with the authorities. But in a last ditch effort to meet Rahman, I called him to the hotel to give us the interview before I boarded my flight to Islamabad. The yellow-turbaned-self-appointed-moral-police-of-culture came within the next half an hour and gave me an amazing interview explaining why TV sets should indeed be burnt. It was documentary gold for me as I was the first Indian television journalist to come face to face with the Jamat-e-Islami chief. He said we, India and the West, were spreading the wrong messages through satellite television and warned against pushing such evil influences into Pakistan.

Fast forward to 2014

As the chart below (source) shows, News Pakistan today has a bouquet of private news channels, and the leading ones have overtaken PTV in attracting eyeballs.

     PTV News



In a study titled ‘Pakistan: A Study in Socio-Economic Differences’, Gayatri Murthy points out thatthe state-run PTV News has been displaced by the private Geo News in the list of top 5 channels and many other private news stations such as Express News, ARY, One World and Aaj are growing in popularity. “It was less than a decade ago that Pakistanis had just one network on their televisions, until the government of President Pervez Musharraf finally deregulated the licensing process which issues cable and satellite channels. Today, there are close to a hundred private cable and satellite channels that are available to those who have access to a cable or satellite connection. These regulatory changes have had significant implications for how news and information is disseminated, particularly in a country where television is the overall most accessed medium”, says Murthy.

These private channels have all been consistently challenging the political class and the state and non state agencies that have turned the country and its neighbourhood into killing fields. The Geo group even dared to talk the language of peace in the neighbourhood by organising a campaign titled ‘Aman ki Asha’ (Hope for Peace) between Indian and Pakistani civil society and journalists. This was like waving a red flag before the military and ISI, whose agenda in the neighbourhood is anything but peace.

In 2010 alone, a total of 1224 people were killed and 2157 more were injured in 52 suicide attacks across Pakistan since January, making 2010 one of the bloodiest years since the turn of the century according to an index preceding an article titled ‘Pakistan : in the grip of terrorism’ by Khaled Ahmed in the South Asian Journal quoting from the source.

The media too has paid a heavy price with Pakistan billed as one the most dangerous countries to report out of, according to the Committee of Protection of Journalists (CPJ). CPJ statistics show that between 1992 to 2014, 54 journalists have been killed in Pakistan. Significantly, 61 per cent of those killed were reporting on politics, not war.

Shirajuddin Siddiqui of the BBC in Afghanistan, who is well-known for pioneering a very successful television programme titled Open Jirga, told The Hoot from Kabul: “Journalist and media organisations have fought hard and have taken risks to win some freedoms in Pakistan. These freedoms have transformed the public space in the country in a relatively short period of time. But the heavy-handed decision taken by PEMRA - which is widely seen as instigated by the ISI - to suspend Geo TV's license shows how fragile of these gains are and how quickly they can be reversed.”

Earlier, Wajahat Khan, a senior journalist from Pakistan, speaking on Indian television, likened what was happening to Geo TV as a watershed moment in the face-off between the state and the Pakistani media. He pointed out that earlier, the main tension in Pakistan was between the civilian and the military powers. But in the last decade, two more significant players- the judiciary and the media- had also become part of it.

Hamid Mir himself had always been candid on Indian channels like NDTV, Times Now, CNN-IBN and others. On a talk show on Times Now, Mir had said on one occasion: “Military dictators in Pakistan have always tried to blackmail their neighbours through non-political, half baked means. Whereas the civilian governments try and talk.” On another talk show, while speaking of an interview the former President Parvez Musharraf had given to a German paper, Mir told the Indian anchor: “Musharraf was your darling! He must have been drunk when he gave this interview saying right to train terrorists to bring the Kashmir issue on the international agenda.”(sic) Musharraf’s spokesman, Fawhad Chaudhury, retaliated instantly by calling Hamid Mir a “Taliban supporter”.

It is at one level an issue about media freedom, and about the ability of the government to take the country's leading TV channel off the air if it wishes to do so but it also raises issues about how the media operates and about the effectiveness of the media regulator,” Dr David Page, a former journalist with BBC World Service and author of Satellites over South Asia told The Hoot from London.

Meanwhile, following the crackdown on Geo TV, Facebook allegedly blocked users in Pakistan from accessing the popular Pakistani rock band, Laal, which had campaigned against the Taliban, and also some Left wing political websites. However, an outcry on social media resulted in access being restored.

The coming days will show who blinks first and what role Pakistan’s media will be allowed to play in ensuring accountability and strengthening democracy in the country. But clearly there are lessons in the Geo TV episode for the Indian media too, particularly India’s prolific privately owned channels. In a very timely article on the website, Kafila, M Amer Morgahiastutely noted the parallels: “What the corporate interests have done to the Indian media, the military is doing in Pakistan.”

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