Washington, D.C., March 13, 2020 — Pakistan authorities should immediately lift restrictions placed on Geo News and allow it to broadcast freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, the country’s broadcast regulator, contacted cable distributers throughout the country today and ordered them to stop transmitting Geo TV, the Urdu TV news channel owned by Jang Media Group, or else switch its broadcasts to a higher channel that is harder for viewers to find, according to news reports and Azhar Abbas, managing director of the broadcaster, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app. The regulator did not give a reason for the changes, according to Abbas and those reports.
Today’s orders were sent immediately after Firdous Ashiq Awan, special assistant to the prime minister on information and broadcasting, concluded a press conference denying that yesterday’s arrest of Shakil-ur-Rehman, Jang’s CEO and editor-in-chief, was tied to the group’s news coverage, according to those reports. Pakistan authorities arrested Rehman over a case involving allegations that he illegally leased land in 1986, as CPJ documented.
“The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority must immediately reverse its orders and allow cable distributors to restore the regular transmission of Geo News,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “Pakistani authorities need to learn that critical coverage by the media is a key and welcome component of democracy, not something to be suppressed.”
Following Rehman’s arrest, the National Accountability Bureau today ordered he be held in custody for 12 days, according to reports. Abbas told CPJ that it was unusual for authorities to jail a suspect at such an early point of an investigation, saying, “At this stage, they never arrest people.”
Abbas also told CPJ that he believed the regulator’s order was illegal, saying that Geo TV had not received any complaint or notice from the authority that would normally precede such punitive measures.
Abbas said Geo has been highly critical of the government over issues such as handling of the economy and its preparations for the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
CPJ emailed the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority for comment, but did not immediately receive a response.