Letter from Asia: A TV channel and its star anchor are paying a heavy price for challenging Pakistan’s army

Hamid Mir has survived several attempts on his life, but is determined to keep on broadcasting

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For staff at Pakistan’s largest television news channel, these are days of anxiety. Anxiety and thumb-twiddling.

Six days ago, the government of Pakistan suspended the licence of Geo News for 15 days, finally forcing the channel off the air and adding another twist to a story that raises questions about the freedom of the media and which goes to the very heart of the country’s establishment.

The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) acted following a rare public complaint by the military after Geo News, ubiquitously known simply as Geo, broadcast claims that an assassination attack on its most famous anchor – indeed, probably the most famous journalist in the country – had been carried out by by the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI).

Anchor Hamid Mir, who has interviewed everyone from Tony Blair to Osama Bin Laden and who has survived several previous attempts on his life, was lucky to emerge alive from the attack in Karachi on April 19, when he was struck by bullets in the stomach, leg and pelvis. Reports said unknown gunmen on a motorbike opened fire on his car as he made his way from the airport to his city centre office.

In the aftermath of the attack, Mr Mir’s brother claimed the anchor had recently been threatened by “both state and non-state actors”. He named the head of the ISI, Lt Gen Zaheerul Islam, and said the agency had visited his brother and told him he was on a hit-list.

Reading a statement from the anchor, the brother said: “I will fight until my last drop of blood and last breath to continue the fight to strengthen Pakistan, to ensure the freedom of the press, bring a voice to the smaller provinces of the country and uphold democracy.”

There have been previous instances when Pakistan’s powerful military, which operates the country’s various intelligence services, including the ISI, has been in the spotlight for such attacks.

In the summer of 2011, for instance, when investigative journalist Saleem Shahzad disappeared in Islamabad and his battered body was subsequently discovered 100 miles to south, the agency dismissed claims that it had threatened him and carried out the attack.

Yet, high-profile, repeated public criticism of the military is rare and the army does not like it. In the days after the claim, even as the 47-year-old Mr Mir recovered in hospital, the military demanded Geo be pulled off the air for what it said was “false, malicious and irresponsible reporting”.

Pakistan’s media is lively and courageous, if sometimes a little ahead of itself with the facts. During the years of military leader Pervez Musharraf, a host of new television channels became another lever for those pushing for greater democracy and accountability.

But when the military threatened Geo, rather than supporting the channel and the rights of all journalists within Pakistan, Geo’s rivals seemingly backed the army’s demands for it to be silenced.

The controversy took another dangerous twist when Geo was accused of blasphemy after it broadcast a programme about a celebrity wedding and carried a clip of a traditional singer narrating a song about the wedding of the prophet Muhammad.

The furore added to the calls for Geo to be terminated and its executives to be charged with blasphemy, a charge which carries the death penalty. Across Pakistan, religious groups held protests while cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan held a press conference to denounce the channel.

The staff at Geo were told to remain silent, but a senior source within the company told me last month that its employees had been threatened and attacked. He said rather than supporting Geo, rival channels were trying to seize on their discomfort and win over new viewers. “Every day, people are very scared,” said the source.

Geo is part of the Jang Group, which employs more than 8,000 staff and publishes the Urdu-language Daily Jang and the English-language The News International. The company first issued a detailed rebuttal of the various allegations. It then issued an apology to the army.

Nothing seemed to work. Apparently under pressure from the military, cable television operators in many parts of Pakistan stopped offering the channel. According to Geo’s own estimate, it has been unavailable in 90 per cent of the country for the last 45 days.

As with many if not most things in Pakistan, there are stories within stories surrounding the tribulations of Geo. Many believe that while the ministry of defence formally issued a complaint, the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif – who visited Mr Mir in hospital - is tacitly supporting Geo against the military. The military is angry with Mr Sharif, it is said, for allowing the trial of its former chief, Mr Musharraf, to proceed.

Last week, in what may have been a last-ditch attempt to try and defend itself, Geo issued a legal notice claiming it had been defamed by the ministry of defence, the ISI and the regulators, who, it said, had accused it of “anti-Pakistani” activities.

The day after the lawsuit was filed, PEMRA held its meeting to decide what fate should befall Geo. There was speculation the channel might be banned entirely.

In such circumstances, some will think that with a 15-day ban and an attendant fine of R10m (about £62,000), Geo has got off rather lightly.

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