Geo concedes to military pressure after going off air for two weeks and agrees to self-censor
When Pakistan’s largest and by far its most popular television network, Geo, was pushed off the airwaves in at least 80% of the country last month, many suspected the work of the military, though few would say it.
“First we used to have missing persons, now we have missing TV channels,” said Babar Sattar, a lawyer who regularly appears as an analyst on Geo, referring to the hundreds of Pakistanis whose disappearance has been linked to security services over the years. “Just like with missing persons, everyone knows who the culprit is but saying it out loud would get you into even more trouble.”
Earlier this month, Sattar announced that The News, a daily newspaper owned by Jang Group, the same media house that owns Geo, would not be publishing his column because it was “ordered not to touch sensitive topics”. A few days later, another popular columnist, Mosharraf Zaidi wrote that for the first time in over a decade, The News had refused to publish him too.
Both had written about a protest movement led by thousands of ethnic Pashtuns from the tribal areas against decades of military operations and abductions by security forces. Pakistan’s all-powerful army chief has called the movement, now in its third month, “engineered” – a veiled reference to the country’s arch rivals India and Afghanistan – while a majority of local media have not covered its rallies.
Many TV channels and newspapers are choosing to self-censor content critical of the military in what journalists, rights activists and analysts see as the army’s most powerful and sophisticated push in decades, in an attempt to suppress freedom of expression and manipulate public opinion before July’s general election.
“Given that the military retains a tight grip over cable networks in most districts, all fingers point unambiguously to its shady involvement,” said Dr Farzana Shaikh, an Asia-Pacific fellow at Chatham House. “The latest moves suggest that the military intends to act decisively to regain the initiative and control the narrative in the run-up to general elections.”
The “narrative” the army ostensibly wants to block involves a vitriolic and very public campaign by ousted Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif accusing the military and the judiciary of jointly working against him.
Sharif was removed from office in July 2017 in a unanimous supreme court verdict over corruption allegations, and has for decades had a tense relationship with the country’s powerful military. In recent days, he has travelled around Pakistan addressing rallies and criticising the military and the judiciary for micromanaging politics to keep his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), from retaining a parliamentary majority.
Geo did not shy from covering Sharif’s accusations in its daily bulletins and primetime talk shows. And in mid-February, it was quietly taken off the air in army-administered residential areas and cantonments.
However, the big blow came on 30 March, when all Geo news, entertainment and sports channels were blocked by cable operators in most of the country.
The channels remained off air for over two weeks and only slowly began to reappear on screens last week after what Geo executives describe as “marathon meetings” with top military officials, including the head of the military’s media wing, in which Geo agreed to cease favourable coverage of Sharif and censor any criticism of the army.
“We won’t completely toe the army line but we will have to self-censor in order to survive,” one executive told the Guardian, requesting anonymity as he did not want to jeopardise the negotiations. “Our coverage of Nawaz Sharif will have to be tweaked.”
The army’s media wing did not respond to calls for comment about the meetings.
“We are being blacked out perhaps because we push a narrative of free and fair elections, of bolstering democratically elected governments, of pointing out the mistakes and transgressions of various institutions, and that doesn’t go down well,” Geo president Imran Aslam said in an interview.
He declined to comment on the negotiations with the military but added that the channels had remained off air for weeks despite the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority repeatedly instructing cable operators to restore it and the chief justice calling the blockade a constitutional violation.
“So who has the power?” Aslam asked.
In Pakistan, the military establishment has for decades exerted great influence over courts, media, and politics. It has also been accused of acting with impunity against suspected militants, dissidents and journalists, using intimidation, torture and even extrajudicial killings. The military denies these accusations.
The army has a particularly tense history with Geo. The network was first ordered to shut by former president Pervez Musharraf in 2007, when it refused to abide by a new media code. In 2014, cable television providers were ordered by the defence ministry and military to drop Geo from their lineup after it aired allegations that the head of the army’s intelligence wing was behind the assassination attempt against its star anchor, Hamid Mir.
Academic and columnist Umair Javed said it did not portend well for media freedom or democracy that Pakistan was “heading into an election where the largest political party in the country believes it is being systematically targeted, and the biggest media house is facing a suppression campaign.”
“Pakistan is being pushed into another season of silence and we will all wake up to dangerous consequences,” Aslam said. “If people don’t like Geo, they can change the channel; but once you take the remote away, next you’ll take their vote away.”