CPJ decries government pressure on Pakistani television station

New York, January 22, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned that the government of President Pervez Musharraf unfairly pressured GEO TV, Pakistan’s largest and most popular independent broadcaster, to modify its editorial policies before the station was allowed to resume domestic cable distribution on Monday. The station has been off domestic cable since November 3, when President Musharraf suspended the operation of all private cable channels, declared a state of emergency, and suspended the country’s constitution.

The announcement about GEO, made on Sunday, came as Musharraf began a four-nation trip to Europe, which will culminate in London after a stop at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He is in Paris today.

“We call on the heads of state and government who will be meeting with President Musharraf in Europe this week to pressure him to reverse his antimedia policies and allow Pakistani broadcasters and all other media to operate freely in Pakistan,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director.

“Media freedom is vitally important in this critical period before the general election on February 18. Having permitted GEO to return to air under restricted conditions, President Musharraf should not be allowed to claim that he has taken a meaningful step toward restoring press freedom in Pakistan,” Simon said.

After Musharraf’s declaration of a state of emergency, the only broadcasters allowed to present news were the official Pakistan Television (PTV) and Radio Pakistan. Other channels’ news broadcasts were allowed to return to the air only after they agreed to a code of conduct for broadcasters. The code bans live coverage of demonstrations and programs that “defame or ridicule” the head of state or the military. It also puts heavy restrictions on anchors’ and talk show hosts’ criticism of the government.

Although almost all the other stations eventually reappeared, GEO had held out the longest. It continued satellite broadcasts through the international media center in Dubai, but it was not available to the vast majority of television viewers in Pakistan who use cable distribution. GEO’s satellite transmission from Dubai was shut down on November 16, and restored on November 29 after a wave of international criticism directed at the Dubai government. 

Nisar Memon, the government’s interim information minister, announced on Sunday that GEO would be allowed back on air because it had signed a government-mandated code of conduct. A GEO executive, who asked not to be identified by name because he is not a designated GEO spokesman, told CPJ the code had been signed in December, but the government kept the station off air as it pushed for the dismissal of political talk show hosts Shahid Masood and Hamid Mir, both of whom had been critical of the Musharraf government. The GEO source said the station has kept them on the payroll, while pulling them off the air. GEO management issued a guarded statement on Monday, saying that the station and the government had worked out an agreement, and “many issues have been resolved between us, but some are still left and it is hoped that they would be resolved very soon.” 

The GEO executive estimated that the broadcaster had lost between $25 million to $35 million in revenue during the shutdown, but said the company and continued to pay all staff during that time.