Under pressure, Pakistani cable carriers drop news channels

New York, March 13, 2009–Amid widespread civil demonstrations and a growing political crisis, Pakistan’s largest independent news broadcaster, Geo TV, was removed today from cable carriers in five major cities, Managing News Editor Azhar Abbas told CPJ. 

Aaj Television, another independent broadcaster, was also taken off cable in major cities today but was restored later in most places, according to Talat Hussain, the station’s executive director for news and current affairs. Hussain said Aaj was still not being carried in several smaller markets.

The stations’ signals started being dropped around 7:30 p.m. local time, Abbas and Hussain said. The stations became aware of the situation when viewers called the newsrooms asking why they could no longer see the channels. Abbas said Geo’s signal had been removed from carriers in Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, Quetta and Rawalpindi.

Where they remained on the air, the two stations were moved to less prominent positions not available to most cable viewers, they each reported.

Cable operators contacted by Geo TV said government officials had ordered them to drop the station, a directive they felt compelled to follow. “This is the same tactic we saw under the Musharraf government. Nothing has changed,” Abbas told CPJ. He was referring to censorship policies pursued by the government near the end of Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s 10-year tenure.

“The promise of open media in Pakistan has been dealt another blow, this time from a civilian government,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “The Musharraf government also tried to shut down critical news coverage–and it simply fueled a backlash. No lesson has apparently been learned from that failed policy.” 

News of the apparent censorship spread quickly online. Users of the social networking site Twitter reported Geo and Aaj outages throughout the country. Internet users in Pakistan and overseas shared links to the online stream of Geo TV; viewership became heavy enough that the site was difficult to access at times.

Hundreds of political activists and lawyers have been detained in recent days, after President Asif Ali Zardari’s refused to reinstate Supreme Court justices ousted by Musharraf. The court also ruled in February that former prime minister and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif could not run for political office.