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

Share

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.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour leader Ed Miliband unveils Labour's pledges carved into a stone plinth in Hastings  

Election 2015: Smash the two-party system! Smash the voting system!

Armando Iannucci
Tactical voting is a necessary evil of the current first-past-the-post system, where voters vote against what they do not want rather than in favour of what they do  

Election 2015: Voting tactically has become more fraught in new political order

Michael Ashcroft
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power