When Pakistan’s largest news channel becomes the news

Today, Pakistan’s most watched news channel, Geo News, was ordered off the air and fined by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA). Earlier this week, CPJ documented an attack on Zafar Aheer, an editor of the Urdu-language Daily Jang, by six masked men–the latest in a series of attacks, threats, and acts of intimidation reported by staff working for the Jang/Geo group. 

In recent weeks, Geo has gone from a provider of news to millions of people, to a major subject of the news, to a blank screen. As well as depriving those millions of people of a major source of information, the saga underscores an urgent need to address the safety of the thousands of staffers at Geo and its affiliates.  

Geo’s most recent troubles began with the attempted murder of its outspoken anchor, Hamid Mir, in April. An outpouring of concern quickly turned into condemnation when the channel aired allegations that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the country’s powerful intelligence agency, was behind the attack. Critics say Geo’s reporting of the allegations was irresponsible. Mir was labeled a traitor and an Indian agent by many in the country, including some members of the journalism community.

In the following days, Pakistan’s Defense Ministry brought a complaint against Geo for “undermining the integrity and tarnishing the image” of the ISI. Staffers at The News–including Umar Cheema, who wrote critically about the attack on Mir–began receiving e-mailed threats. This was just the beginning.

On May 20, some members of PEMRA tried to take Geo off the air, announcing that licenses for Geo News, Geo Entertainment, and Geo Tez, channels under the Geo TV Network, had been suspended. But later that day, PEMRA issued a press release saying the meeting had only been attended by 5 of its 12 members and had “no legal standing.”

Regardless, Geo News had already been virtually blacked out across 90 percent of Pakistan, according to Ibrahim Rahman, CEO of Geo TV Network. Cable operators were pressured to bump Geo down their channel listings, and then to remove it altogether, he told CPJ.

On May 26, the Geo and Jang groups issued a front page apology to the ISI chief for its coverage immediately after the attack on Mir, but this did not diffuse the tensions.

To add to the pressure, Geo recently was labeled blasphemous by religious conservatives for airing a morning show that reenacted a celebrity wedding accompanied by a Sufi song, according to news reports, which said thousands of public complaints poured in against the network.

At stake is not only the group’s ability to operate freely, but the lives of 7,500 people that are directly employed by Geo, according to Muaaz Ahsan, Geo’s director of programming and branding. “Each one of their livelihoods and safety remains vulnerable,” he told CPJ.

Vans carrying Jang’s newspapers have been torched in Lahore, Lodhran, and Rawalpindi. I was told that some advertisers have also come under threat recently. “It seems their strategy is to bleed us financially to death,” Ahsan said.

Taking up the offensive, Geo News today brought a defamation suit against the ISI, the media regulator, and the defense ministry for “defaming and maligning” the channel, giving them 14 days to publicly apologize and pay damages of 50 billion Pakistani rupees (US $507 million) or go to court, according to a report published in one of the group’s papers. “We have been left with no other option but to turn to the courts,” Ahsan said. “We had to pursue such options or else we will never be safe in Pakistan.”