Pakistani TV stations remain off the air during floods

New York, August 10, 2010Pakistan’s major news broadcasters ARY TV and GEO TV are off the air in Karachi and Sindh province for a third day since supporters of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) of President Asif Ali Zardari have reportedly severed cable connections of the distributors that carry them. Demonstrations at the offices of the distributors and the stations, sometimes violent, continued today. Originally, the two stations were pulled off the air by the cable companies under pressure from party supporters on Saturday night.

Although the broadcasters were able to get back on air for a few hours today and are being carried in most other parts of the country, staff in both broadcasters’ newsrooms told CPJ they do not expect to be able to broadcast in Karachi or Sindh in the coming days. Protests are widespread on both sides of the issue. 

The shutdown has not been ordered by the government, the stations’ staffers say. According to Mazhar Abbas, ARY’s deputy news director, “This is the president’s party taking the law into its own hands.”

Abbas confirmed local news reports that cable companies that had defied the demonstrations and returned them to the air were hit with another wave of protesters on Sunday, and many of their distribution cables around the city were cut.

The PPP demonstrators have left behind written messages on the stations’ external walls, accusing the owners of being anti-Pakistan and being allied with India and Israel, both considered arch foes by many Pakistanis. The allegations are dangerous accusations to make in politically violent Karachi.

Journalists have waged their own demonstrations in Karachi and elsewhere since Monday.

“This is Pakistani politics at its worst. While the country faces a national calamity and the outside world scrambles to offer its assistance, the Pakistan Peoples Party can find nothing better to do than to try to close down media and stifle criticism of President Zardari,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “We call on the government to take control of this deteriorating situation and ensure the broadcasters return to the air immediately.”

The demonstrations against GEO and ARY started Saturday night in Karachi, with angry crowds demanding cable companies stop carrying the stations. They were angered by reports the two stations carried about a heckler throwing his shoes at Zardari at a meeting in England. Much of the country’s media had been critical of the president’s trip while the country is faced with the worst flooding it has experienced in years, but the heckling and shoe throwing incident–a particularly insulting gesture in Pakistani culture, which the official government news agency The Associated Press of Pakistan denied had occurred–appears to have angered the PPP leadership in what is the party’s heartland.

The United Nations says 1,600 people have been killed and nearly 14 million affected in the disaster. More than a week ago, flooding hit the northwest of the country. Rivers running south have hit many parts of Punjab and Sindh–the center of the PPP’s support.